PRINT October 1998


Most of us think of light as a positive force—benevolent, beatific, illuminating—even a symbol of goodness. As Belgian painter Luc Tuymans reminds us, it can also be harsh and corrosive. In his figurative canvases, an artificial, unflattering radiance, like the glare from a TV screen, seems to flood the imagery from behind. Sometimes, when the light is so bright that it virtually obliterates his subject matter, Tuymans’ work makes me think of that incredible scene in the film Terminator 2 in which a shock wave wipes out an entire metropolis, turning it into white dust. Tuymans showed me one such work on canvas (from his most recent series, “Security”) when I recently met up with him in his modest Antwerp studio. It depicts a drum kit lit so brightly from behind that the image is reduced to a skeletal abstraction.

If the title “Security” seems to bear little relation to the images in the series, Tuymans, determined and articulate, made clear during our conversation that his titles are meant as a desired counterpoint to what is visibly given, in fact another way of introducing tension into the work. Polishing off a second pack of cigarettes, the artist—who has appeared in innumerable solo and group exhibitions in the US and Europe since Jan Hoet selected his work for the 1992 edition of Documenta—described his painterly practice as one of increasing violence. If his palette of muted tertiaries and pale pastels might seem to belie the claim, to paint, Tuymans insists, is essentially an act of aggression. In another work from the “Security” series, an image of a toxic green orchid, the violence is more conspicuous. The flower’s fleshy body has been violated, mutilated. Pleasant or not, the unapologetic brutality of his work is—if Tuymans is correct—exactly what one would expect from a Belgian artist.

Daniel Birnbaum


Before I begin painting I’m in an extremely agitated state. During the actual execution I experience enormous pleasure, but before that it’s sheer agony. The act of painting really involves a kind of aggression or violence. I’ve thought a lot about my work in relation to the cinema and techniques of cutting and montage. The violence in question is fierce, but also distant and abstract. The green orchid is a violent painting. The flower is fleshy and has a sort of poisonous atmosphere about it. And there’s something sexual about the cut.

All my works are executed in a single day. It’s the only way I can work. I’m too eager to see the image finished to let it develop over longer periods. It’s more like a take in filmmaking—I can always try one more time and start all over again, but I never return to a painting. I always go all the way. Speed is not the issue, though. My work is analytical, not gestural.

It took me about twelve years to achieve the detachment that you see in my paintings today. The “Diagnostische Blick” series from 1992 was a crucial step. This harshness and detachment is something I’ve always desired in my work, and my shows are getting cooler and cooler. The work is becoming very foreign. I’ve never intended to create an aesthetic, but paradoxically that’s what happens in the end. I think the work has also gotten clearer, and probably even more aggressive. Perhaps I won’t be able to go on like this forever, but I’ve been able to create a steady stream of images for some time now. I probably had my time off when I stopped painting many years ago and produced films. Since then I’ve had the feeling that the more imagery I produce, the more images I need.

Of course, as a Belgian painter I’m traumatized by the legacy of the Flemish primitives. One look at Van Eyck’s paintings, and you’ll realize that his realism is still effective today. If you updated his subjects’ clothes, they’d be right here in the world now. His realism is so profound that it hurts. It’s a cold and ungenerous gaze on reality, with an enormous analytical backbone. Actually, it’s similar to what you get with Andy Warhol. I think this directness is what’s most important in Belgian art, including Magritte, who was no painter but a great artist nonetheless.

My recent project consists of five images that address the notion of security, a concept I believe will be key in the next century. The paintings all create some sort of interior space—a sharply lit drum set, the inner structure of a human lung, a section of a swimming pool bathed in sunlight. Then there’s a couple whose faces will be washed out, and finally this green orchid. Of course, the title’s partly ironic; these images aren’t likely to put one at ease.

Sarcasm is the backbone of Belgian art. There’s an immediately recognizable kind of Belgian imagery one finds nowhere else. If I go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for instance, in the Middle Ages section, their only truly interesting paintings are the ones by Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Or at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, a large canvas showing a hunter by Fernand Khnopff has a similar focus and brutality. It’s a cruel and destructive game, typical of Belgian art. Even Belgian collectors display this attitude. They never talk or ask questions, the way German collectors do, about content or subject matter. They grasp the imagery immediately, in a physical way.

My paintings don’t offer much solace. One collector sent back a painting with the explanation that he couldn’t live with the work. There’s often something harsh about the light in my paintings that, little by little, eradicates the image. When I began painting I was technically very skilled, but soon afterward I started to work against my talent, since talent alone is not enough.

Green is both a highly natural and highly artificial color. It seems to signify both organic growth and disintegration. The green color in the orchid painting is taken from a see-through-plastic notebook cover, so the flower is seen through an artificial filter. I’ve read that it is statistically proven that the semen of men is getting weaker and less fertile and that at the same time some plants’ stamens have changed sex in order to survive. I see this flower as feminine.