With a selection of his recent paintings and a new animated film soon showing at Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp (Seconds, 12 May–26 June 2021), Luc Tuymans discusses some of his latest concerns, including finding universal subject matter in a time of crisis and the influence of new media on his work.
Could you tell me about the paintings in your new exhibition at Zeno X Gallery titled Seconds?
There will be about seven paintings spread across two spaces, some of which are monumental works based on numbers. I used these as filmed segments in the late 70s or early 80s, shot with Super-8.
The numbers in the paintings look as if they are lit up from their surrounding dark space, which is not black—it's a combination of indigo, violet, and red, because I never use black. It gives the impression of being black, but it's much darker; much more profound and spacious. It's very sculptural.
Numbers are really important at the moment, and I was interested in finding something that on the one hand is universal, and on the other is very specific.
There are also two paintings of theatre stages without performers, referencing the closing of performance venues over the last year. The empty space and abstractness in the work titled Intermission is unsettling and poignant, marking this gap in our life at the moment. Could you tell me more about this emptiness?
Intermission has this blinding light, but there is also a complete void. I made sure I had the exact same colour for the darkness in this painting as with the numbers, so you could make the connection and they play off each other.
In a way it gives off this sense of being closed in. This element of the void portrayed by these dark spaces had to be monumental—not life-size, but they had to be large. The numbers are also quite large—they are the size of a small person really, so even bigger.
You mention the use of light and dark. Often this seems to pull viewers in or push them away from your paintings. Did you develop that from working in film in the 1980s?
Actually, there are different types of light. First of all, I never put up a fight against new media, because I think it is a fight you can never win.
The first change in light came about when I used a Polaroid, for example, because the photographs contain another emulsion of colours. Many colours tend to contain an element of violet. And then later on with my iPhone, or even taking things from websites, you get digital light.
In 2007, I was awarded the Max Beckmann Foundation Professorship at the Städelschule, for which they invited me to hang two works of my own in a separate room of the museum with works from the collection.
I picked a diptych of mine titled Against the Day, which portrays a guy who is shovelling away in my garden, and I hung this in the 19th-century room with Fernand Khnopff's The Game Warden (1883), which is a great painting that depicts a guy overseeing a hunt.
Once I put them in the space together, I was completely flabbergasted to see that the contrast and light was so completely different, despite the similarity of this lone figure standing next to a tree. In a sense, you cannot get away from your contemporaneity. You've got to be influenced by it, even in terms of life.
You have said that 'there is an underlying tone of violence in your work, not so much the action of violence itself, but the trace of it or something that is left over.' Can we attribute that trace to paintings like Intermission? What is the importance of this trace?
Well, there is a kind of uncanniness and uneasiness, which is probably my own, in a sense, and which has also been a suspicion towards every type of imagery, where every image becomes untrustworthy, even my own.
If we are talking about violence, it's actually not one that is portrayed, but something could have just happened or is going to happen imminently.
The title Intermission references this, which is of course pretty much in tune with living now, and the constant uncertainty around survival that people are facing at the moment on a very personal level.
This is counteracted by these oversized number paintings, which is important because you could perceive that, not as a sort of violence, but as a confrontation. —[O]
Main image: Luc Tuymans, The Stage (2020) (detail). Oil on canvas. 250.4 x 268.2 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Photo: © Studio Luc Tuymans.