Luc Tuymans, Der Diagnostiche Blick IV, 1992, oil on canvas, 22¾ x 15¼ inches.
Arguably—and often labeled—the greatest painter of his generation, Luc Tuymans signals in every canvas the necessary limits of the medium, even the coda to its drawn-out death: his reliance on fleeting photographic and filmic imagery, his refusal to spend more than one day on a canvas, and perhaps most of all, his indifference to craft bring the Belgian artist into head-on confrontation with painting, and endow his subjects—from the untouchable (the Holocaust) to the pedestrian (flowers, pigeons)—with an unmistakable air of violence inflicted. By foregrounding the impossibility of adequate representation, the disconnection and fragmentation of memory and experience, doubting the relevance of contemporary painting while looking back at the traumatic perfection of the work of the Flemish primitives, Tuymans indexes a simultaneously rich and clouded present for the medium.
Working thousands of miles away, in Chicago, Kerry James Marshall infuses high art-historical narratives with the bald realities of everyday existence in grittier locales in Chicago and Los Angeles. His rendition of a “black aesthetic” (to borrow from the title of his 2003–4 retrospective at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art) freely disintegrates the very notion of such a thing, involving instead a myriad of styles and subjects, from personal narrative to cultural history, intertwining the legacies of Western painting and the civil rights movement.
Despite their very different cultural backgrounds, Tuymans and Marshall find common ground in their views of making and viewing art: its capacity to convey meaning, its frozen moment captured, its physicality, its value and effect. When it comes to the possibility of an insurgency to make a dent in the status quo, however, their outlooks really begin to resonate. Tuymans and Marshall are currently collaborating on an animation project to be produced by the Antwerp-based nonprofit organization objectif_exhibitions. BOMB asked the two artists to continue their ongoing conversation on tape, by phone.
Luc Tuymans, The Worshipper, 2004, oil on canvas, 76 × 58”. Tuymans images courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner Gallery, New York, and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.
Kerry James Marshall I think people reading interviews with artists are always looking for some bit of secret information. They look at themselves professionally, critically, aesthetically, in relation to the artists who have a voice and are represented in the magazines and museums: “What do they know that I don’t?”
Luc Tuymans It does have this element of identifying or disidentifying with it. It’s also a form of voyeurism. We both make visuals that are muted: they don’t speak. Or, let’s say they don’t speak back. I think the fear of this dehumanized positioning of the image, which is immobilized and in that way virtually stunned, elicits an interest in what the signifier would be. How would the image maker himself talk about it?
KJM I actually think it has more to do with people trying to figure out how they can play the game at the same level. If you accept the idea that the image doesn’t speak back, then most artists infer that they will have to speak for their work to some degree.
LT Lately I’ve been severely criticized by the German press for giving away too much about the signifiers. Some people now find it impossible to look at the work without having my comments in the back of their heads.
KJM But part of that is a function of the fact that the work ends up being a kind of palimpsest. People recognize it as an image that has the capacity to convey meaning, but aren’t necessarily interested in which meaning you may intend.
LT No, but they shouldn’t be. You can’t force meaning on people.
KJM The mystery of the work isn’t what it means or how it speaks, but why it is. How come it’s made that way, as opposed to another way? What are the implications of the existence of that work within the much larger lexicon or image bank that people have access to? Those are the questions that people want the work to answer for them.
Kerry James Marshall, Heirloom and Accessories (Triptych), 2002, inkjet print, 51 × 46 inches each.
LT Art creates its own time span and in that sense also creates its own time lapse: you are looking at something that accords time to an image, as it is made and as it shows itself. Therefore a disconnection could arise. On the other hand, there’s always a huge underestimation of the viewer in the re-evaluation of the document, which we both use. Most contemporary artists tend to contextualize their work by revitalizing or inserting certain source material as a reference. Whereas other generations of artists had a completely different assessment of how one should position oneself. Context can be a mode of protecting yourself, something to hide behind or fall back on, but it’s also a foundation to work out of, from which you can talk or react beforehand.
KJM People tend to be suspicious because they assume that artists create a self-serving narrative. You’re weaving your own mythology every time you try to contextualize your work, every time you convey to somebody a meaningful reason for having produced the object.
LT When I saw your first show at Jack Shainman’s old gallery in New York, in 1995, my reaction was intrigue with how direct the visuals were: the people in the pictures were very black, coal black; the element of shadow either did not exist or was impenetrable and contained, solid; most of the compositions were made as if looked upon from above. But at the same time there was this element of simultaneity, where a moment propels itself within an immobilized world. That was the first time I appreciated that frozenness of the image.
Kerry James Marshall, Heirloom and Accessories (Triptych), 2002, inkjet print, 51 × 46 inches each.
KJM This goes back to the idea of the context as a time frame of sorts. But would you say that with painting in particular, images exist almost completely outside of time? That’s what allows them to remain useful over time, I think.
LT Yeah, because the images are embedded in a symbolic capital, so to speak, that returns and that’s referred back to. The woman in Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of St. Flavian, with her dead son in her lap, eventually appears to be the Madonna, a classical image. These elements are so integrated in people’s minds. The symbolic capital has to do with the archaicness of the imagery itself, and that’s what painting time has to do with. As does aboriginal dreamtime. The aborigines believe that possession is an unreal possibility, so for them, their dreamtime is the real world and the real world is the dream.
KJM That dovetails with the idea of the world being created by the individual in the moment it is experienced.
LT We both grew up with televisions, so for us, experience has already been diluted. When the first man went to the moon, my parents woke me up. I was a little kid, and the initial sense I got was one of fear: I became very aware that I was living on something extremely small. Iconic imagery makes you feel that way as well.
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2003, mixed media on paper, 30 × 44¼”. From the Rythm Mastr Series. Marshall images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
KJM What always seems to bring you back to a more concrete and pragmatic view of the thing is the “object-ness” of it. The image may have the capacity to transport, but thethingness of the thing, the materiality of the painting, has a profound impact on the way you relate to the object. This for me punctures the idea of a dream creation. I meditate on the consequences of the image for a moment, but then I start doing an inventory of the object and how it was made. What are the functional elements of that work that make that moment in which you escape into a dream consciousness possible? How come that happens, and how come it doesn’t happen with every picture you see? As a painter I’m interested in the configuration of parts because I want to be able to use that at will. I don’t want that to be something that only happens by chance. I want it to be something that I can construct, control, and calibrate.
LT Same here. As a technician you will always figure out how it’s made. The first blink of an image, especially a painting, should never give that away; it should always be this blank into which you stare and then you finally recognize not only how things are made, but how things are focused upon.
KJM That requires a certain awareness.
LT But also choice. I look at some paintings but not at others. For example, I am not that amazed by how a Morandi is made, because I can completely understand it. I’m amazed by how Velázquez is actually an economical painter, how precise he is. I am amazed by El Greco. I was shocked, after seeing it in a book and not liking it, by the physical appearance of the thing once I was in front of it, seeing something I thought would be Mannerism that turned on me as a deconstruction of the imagery itself. Also the temperature of the color, an elementary blue-white that foamed out throughout the whole spectrum of colors. It was virtually impossible later to remember the size of the image or to remember the image correctly. And at the same time the image was perfectly still, perfectly immobilized.
KJM Yeah. When I saw that white in the El Greco paintings, I was surprised at how much of a glare it appeared to be, like there was a burnout of colors in those light areas, especially in the draperies on those figures. If we go back to surprise and mystery in works, especially in works that you think you know from reproductions in books, the work that surprised me the most upon seeing it in person were those of the Flemish painters, van der Weyden and van Eyck. In the reproductions, everything seems so grand, yet they were so small. Part of what appeals to me about that work is its crystal clarity.
LT Also the draftsmanship, which seems to be very important in secularizing zones; also treating everything in a specific way and trying to understand the idea of what is going on through the materials.
Luc Tuymans, Christ, 1998, oil on canvas, 122½ x 58 inches.
KJM It’s so different from the romanticizing of the Italian painters. That clarity is actually what I strive for in my own work. Where the work becomes so clear, so precise that it becomes almost unbelievable as an image. And if there’s anything that points to a kind of magic and mystery in painting to me, it’s that part where the work does two things at the same time. On the one hand, I’m perfectly aware when I look at that work that it’s handmade, because there’s evidence in there that shows that it is, but at the same time—
LT It’s like God made it.
KJM Yeah. It seems so impossible to have been handmade. That kind of precision is very cool, it’s very direct, it’s not shaded by any kind of romantic mysticism. That’s something I work toward in my own work, to try to have everything on the surface—revealing everything but revealing nothing at the same time. This is where the whole question of the sign, the signifier and meaning comes into play, because all these works are available to be read, and the way the image operates as a text should be clear enough so that people can engage in a textual reading of the work, but at the same time the work should resist the need to be interpreted. That’s not where the value of a work resides.
LT For me this type of work is highly traumatic, having experienced it as a kid; the element of perfection was a kind of burden.
Luc Tuymans, Mardi Gras, 2004, oil on canvas, 22½ x 32 inches. Photo by Felix Tirry.
KJM Does that have anything to do with the way you use photography now in the production of your paintings? Photography is already saddled with this responsibility of reproducing things perfectly and accurately. It was supposed to have relieved the artist of the burden of depicting the world. But the photographs you choose seem to be photographs that already have, embedded in them, a kind of imperfection. They seem like a sort of bad photography.
LT The element of the imperfection leads to a different kind of perfection. Using a medium like Polaroid already dilutes the imagery. I like to find the hole in the picture, the weak point through which you can enter it. This was a disturbing point with the paintings of van Eyck, which are so perfect that they block you out. I try to destabilize the imagery and virtually disrupt it from the start.
KJM In a way that hole you’re talking about is the space that’s opened up so that you can make a painting, so that you can make another picture. I’m thinking of the paintings that you make from a photograph now as achieving another sort of perfection. On my first encounter with your paintings, at the Renaissance Society in 1995, the thing that I left there feeling was that they were perfect pictures. Like Gerhard Richter’s best work, it declares to the viewer, I am a picture. What I had the most trouble coming to terms with was the range of ways in which that picture could be configured. Some works in the show had what I would call a really naive, childlike quality, and some seemed to be absolutely of the most sophisticated kind of construction, and the work went from a very delicate touch to one that was careless and offhand. Through that whole show I was trying to figure out a way to come to terms with work that went to two extremes and occupied a lot of the space in the middle too. What governed the choices of how each of those particular images was treated? Does the image determine in some way how it should be handled?
LT I started out as a virtuoso painter with a great deal of gesturality and color. That came to a crisis because it became a flaccid way of working—I found out that when one tries to cultivate a style, one misses the point and the necessities. So I tried to go to the other side, to bedeliberately clumsy to research what kind of immediacy there is to that. At a certain stage the work has a heightened graphic quality, and then later on it has more painterly qualities; now I allow myself many more painterly elements than I used to a couple of years ago, because that’s the typical evolution of the knowledge of how you produce things and how you grow in producing them. But of course the innocence is lost.
KJM In some ways the innocence gets lost the moment you enter the academy.
Kerry James Marshall, Study for Vignette #4, ink on board. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.
LT Exactly, the moment you show things. That’s where the paintings pervert themselves and you pervert yourself by looking at them. But that’s normal. What you saw is correct, this attempt to investigate different modes. The first step was mostly a representation of painting. After lots and lots of preparation, there has to be a sort of conclusion to the image, and then the image is, in a sense, made. The image has been analyzed and then by being painted it becomes a different physicality. So yes, the image, in a large way, determines how it is painted. The minute I know what I am going to paint, I also know how I am going to paint it. The strange thing is, looking back at them, with one glance I can see the mistakes I’ve left. That’s why I hate having my own work in my house.
KJM I agree. When I’m looking at my own work, I’m most interested in what’s wrong with it.
LT But the most important thing in painting is when it works out. When you’re doing it you can feel the moment when something is correct. There’s also a particular joy of doing it; it’s very physical, and it’s fairly conscious. But you could do things to a painting that would not be that visible but determine the entire picture. And so the element of the detail is what’s important, and will remain important, even if you leave out a great deal of the painting. The detail is the predominant element in the painting that makes it worthwhile to make, and also to look at.
KJM So is the detail a feature of the image or is it an aspect of the picture overall?
LT The picture overall. I tried very ardently to make the images look fragmentary as a whole. That was the aim. What was fascinating to me was the idea of approaching a painting as one would approach a film. The big difference is that you do not create a narrative as such, with one image after the other evolving into a moving image with a picture. In a painting of yours, the elements are highly de-contextualized, so that you have the feeling that something is complete, but by looking at it you see the inconsistency of the image. That’s the most interesting thing and the most irritating thing to do and is also, I think, what holds the attention.
Kerry James Marshall, Drawing (Two Heads) (Study for Vingette), 2005, ink on board, 20 × 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
KJM That plus the way in which the elements within the frame of that picture use the space, the way they react to each other. You can probably produce some similar sensations without having the representational image there at all.
LT But then again there is this obsessive tendency to want to gather imagery. It’s something you cannot give up. You want to understand the imagery, and in order to understand it you have to, if not create it, re-create it. Which I find a very strange thing to do. But it has become a habit, as I also see the painting activity as a habit, with an extreme element of timing and precision. Most of the time it is a very conscious, concentrated thing.
KJM Even those moments feel like an out-of-body experience; I tend to feel it more as a heightened sense of awareness of what I am doing than any kind of mystical experience.
LT And then there’s this long gap between having done something and looking at it, re-perceiving it, constantly adjusting it, to the point where it becomes inevitable. I think this is what makes painting special.
KJM When you say inevitable —
LT Inevitable in the sense that if you went one step further, you would destroy the entire scheme that you have put up and the thing will become untraceable, and at that point arbitrary. This was the specific mode of working that I established: I had to have that immediacy. I think the borders within which you actually start the work, the things you set out to do, all make it into the visual, and then the visual starts to function because it, as you say, is made in a very pragmatic way. It is also a conceptualized image. These things are not that extraordinary: they have a meaning but they are also accordingly conceptualized. And then they are actually made, in the sense that they create the visible.
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2003, mixed media on paper, 30 × 42¼ inches. From the Rythm Mastr Series.
KJM Given all that we’ve talked about so far, when you think about yourself as a painter, as an artist, somebody who is in some ways driven to gather images and then to make pictures, do you see yourself engaged in any kind of discursive practice aimed at determining a value for painting in this moment in history?
LT Actually, Kerry, I see it much more as an element of resistance. It’s not so much to go into the discourse of how and why and in which way we should validate or re-validate painting, because I don’t think that’s an interesting discourse and I think it’s invalid. Why should I answer that question, if it’s something that I just do and many others did before me? The whole discourse about whether painting is dead or alive is born of a huge misunderstanding. There are—and I’ve been part of most of them—a lot of shows about painting and only about painting, that have piled up paintings and reduced them, in a sense, to wallpaper, but also ghettoize the medium, which is a strange thing. And then of course there is the fact that to this day, a painting is the most expensive artifact, because it demonstrates uniqueness: it ends and begins; it has a middle and a stop somewhere. It’s something that somebody wants to have. It’s a very strange thing to acquire a taste to have those things. Part of it goes back to the fetishistic character of the object itself and a certain idea of animism, because it has to do with nature. It has to be made by somebody who is part of nature. That character carries this ultimate immediacy and prolongs it, because it’s frozen onto a surface.
KJM If we agree that making paintings and the compulsion to depict things is not unique, not particularly special, and you’re describing some exhibitions that get made about painting, that then reduce the pictures to something like wallpaper, and if we go back to the original point I was trying to make when we started the conversation, about what people want to hear when they hear artists talk about what they do, the question persists: When you’re looking at paintings, what are you looking for? Where does the value get assigned to the painting?
LT I validate something I look at, specifically a painting—it has to capture my attention, which happens in different ways, visually and physically. And whenever I’m convinced about it, and that’s something that happens within seconds, I will investigate the imagery, look at it again and again and even come back to look at it again, to see if the experience is correct, if it stays the same. A convincing picture carries that load and it carries it across—
KJM That suggests that whatever the value is is intrinsic to the object itself or to the image itself.
LT Both. It has made a transgression. The object and the image function as transmitters; they have a special quality that is outside of language, which mutes the thing to the point where silence becomes like a weight. And you can feel that. Those elements are really fascinating because they are in a sense not there; after all, they are depicted. Like Magritte said, “This is not a pipe”—it is a depiction of a pipe. Which is true, but then again, that painting he made doesn’t really function for me as a painting. It functions as a work of art. That is the reason I don’t think that the discourse about painting as such is a real discourse, because you can do the test. You can put somebody who is completely unprepared in front of a painting and see how they respond, and it will have nothing to do with the discourse of which they are knowledgeable or not. It will have an immediate effect.
Luc Tuymans, Portrait, 2000, oil on canvas, 67 × 39 inches.
KJM I talk to a lot of younger artists who would like to participate in the art world but find themselves on the outside, producing work that never comes into consideration in terms of the history of painting and wondering what it is about the work they do that prevents it from having the kind of effect on the viewer that you just described. I believe it’s true that the capacity for a work to have that effect, to be a great painting or a great drawing, has little to do with whether the person who made it has the proper academic training. But even people who have that training are wondering if the things that make it possible for those works to really engage a viewer can be known, can be understood.
LT I think that is the real beauty of it. All the layers of meaning, all the possibilities, the entire proposition of making an image makes it virtually impossible to make it. The cognitive state has primarily to do with timing and precision. Once those things are learned—it’s like seeing people trying to mimic ballroom dancing, trying to dance the right way but never getting there. And not to go back to the idea of the gifted or the gift, but I go back to the most underestimated element, the self-evident: when things fall into place and just make sense.
KJM But if we continue down that line, it does bring us back to the idea of the gifted, because there’s some capacity that’s available to some people but not to others.
LT Let’s put it this way, there are a lot of things that are overlooked, and some people are able to see what is overlooked. That’s what I mean by self-evident: most of the material is already there, so it is a question of picking it up.
Kerry James Marshall, Souvenir II, 1997, acrylic, collage, and glitter on canvas, 9 × 13’.
KJM In this whole discussion, where does the function of culture and context make itself felt? What might be self-evident in one space might be completely inconsequential in another. But is that awareness of the self-evident a part of cultural conditioning that fits squarely within a Western idea of what an art object is, what a painting is? If we look at the tradition of painting as it’s come down to us historically, there arguably isn’t an equivalent tradition anywhere as in the West, where there’s a premium placed on stylistic innovation, individuality, and the relationship of the object and its variants.
LT Kerry, it’s the idea of looking out of the window, which is also a frame. There are factors of protection, overpopulation, power, dependency of power, imprisonment. Look at people who are in jail who will either write or make drawings. It’s an important element to think of in the validation process.
KJM I’m interested in that legitimation process. Take the artist you describe as being in prison: his work rarely enters the system of validation that leads to the display of work like yours or mine.
LT The problem is that these works will be seen as outsider art.
KJM And now the question becomes: Is there anything that can be done to that work that would transform it into work that can operate within this art world system and context? Is there anything anybody can know about that work that would change it? That’s the critical element. Or is it inevitable that it remain within that very limited context?
LT This is where the idea of the sublime within the way things show themselves comes into the game; this is where power becomes immanent. Power works as a filter. What is expected from the so-called real artists is to filter, and however interesting the other imagery may be and however valid it may be, it will never have that filter. This is a way of purposely making imagery. That’s why being an artist is also a profession. And it’s a big risk. You and I decidedto become artists. I don’t know what social layer you come from, but I certainly don’t come out of the upper class. So it was a very difficult decision to make. I wanted to be a graphic designer because I thought I could never live as an artist. So that decision has been a very conscious one, driven toward what I am now. It is something that occurs over time, not something that immediately comes. Some of this art that is perceived as outsider art lacks not the obsession, but professional perspective.
Luc Tuymans, storyboard panels from a forthcoming collaborative animation project with Kerry James Marshall, initiated and produced by objectif_exhibitions, Antwerp.
KJM Professional in that it addresses its relationship to the larger historical phenomenon of painting.
LT It means that it has the audacity to oppose what is already there and to alter it.
KJM Right, and that has something to do with the way you construct your ambition, how you want to differentiate yourself, how you want to be seen.
LT Through time you will find that realizing those ambitions is very stupid. And eventually, I think, in the best case scenario, that ambition will enable you to—eventually, eventually—come to what you really want to do.
KJM Which is, in your case, to make more paintings.
LT To delve even deeper and actually create a zone to be able to look at what you have made as anybody else would look at it.
Luc Tuymans, The Nose, 2002, oil on canvas, 12 × 13½ inches.
KJM We operate with a very similar consciousness of what we’re doing, and I think our aims are very close together.
LT This is important, because we come out of two different countries, even continents, and there could actually be a huge cultural difference, but in fact there is not.
KJM There is. I would say there’s a huge cultural difference. It has less to do with the character of the things we make and our approach to the object, and a lot to do with my goals in the performance and the function of paintings. I’d say the cultural difference comes in my case with feeling apart from what is called the mainstream, subject to it but not entirely an agent of it. I also have another mission, which is to find some kind of mechanism for African American artists to gain greater status in the historical narratives of important contributors. That’s the reason I keep asking you questions about what it is people can know about the function, the performance of paintings that might allow them to transform a work that’s made by an outsider into something that can function within the critical and discursive art world.
LT We are talking about access. I don’t see it that much as a cultural difference.
KJM Lack of access creates a certain kind of expectation about your ability to participate or perform. But can you create avenues of access?
Luc Tuymans, Gaskamer, 1986, oil on canvas, 20 × 27½ inches. Photo by Ronald Stoops.
LT Yes, but you cannot regulate them. That’s the problem. Culture, of course, is localized; so is an art market.
KJM But what I want to try to do is to make it at least more likely that people who have not played a significant role will someday do so. I think we know that people gain access only partly by chance.
LT I don’t think so. Even the birth of modernism, or let’s say Picasso and Braque in the Belle Epoque, was highly orchestrated; nothing was left to chance. The entire avant-garde came from a very specific social layer in society. It was a small, closely knit group who believed in their own importance and had the means to propel it. And that’s how culture is made. The opening has become bigger and there’s also a bigger audience than ever before for contemporary art.
Luc Tuymans, Himmler, 1998, oil on canvas, 20 × 15 inches. Photo by Felix Tirry.
KJM I’m trying to imagine the possibility of some sort of insurgency, where motivated individuals can break through.
LT I think those attempts have been made. To my knowledge, so far they have never really worked: there has not been a genuine coexistence. That’s purely out of fear on both sides. The last Documenta was a perfect example of that nonexistence in terms of coexistence because of fear. It went too far in the direction of testimonial, into the factuality of things without juxtaposing them. We need a juxtaposition in order to talk. We need to generalize, sometimes to talk too, or to be specific in order to then differentiate. These things have to be done. But it scares the hell out of people.
KJM I think you can also argue that people don’t feel like they’re equipped.
LT That’s the same thing as the fear. What they don’t know, they are afraid of. Reassurance and the confirmation that goes alongside it are regulating, in terms of keeping things together. We no longer live in a ritual reality, so it becomes even more and more difficult to have these expressions of culture validate themselves. And they are taken out of communities, they are isolated—especially in Western society, where the individual is valorized and has become the most important element.
KJM So at the level of small groups of individuals or individuals working singly, it’s possible for a kind of insurgent activity to make a real dent in the status quo.
LT That is one of the challenges. But the status quo has to be taken on where everything is equally positioned.
KJM But it’s not likely that things will be equally positioned.
LT Yeah, but making that assumption is one of the larger functions of culture in the best possible framework. It has to do with generosity, because when culture is validated in the art market it is, of course, business. But the idea of how culture is only validated as symbolic capital is something completely different. And that’s where the generosity is key—without it, self interest will enter in, and the competition will become dreadful. Then also, the idea of communication is lost.
KJM But that presumes that whatever this effort is would be disorganized. Furthermore, the generosity you speak of is highly problematic. It allows the existing power dynamic to remain intact. I cannot take it for granted that my efforts will be fairly evaluated.
LT I think it will be disorganized. But it will also be genuine. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be the possibility of dialogue. There must be a mutual and a sane curiosity, one that is fairly open-ended and fairly ignorant. The foundation to create a sound element of opposition, but a very conscious one, takes time, and that’s a pretty hard dialogue, but that’s where a dialogue should take place. A lot of discourse within the arts is about the environment of the artwork, not so much about the artwork itself. And that’s very strange, because it’s primarily the artwork that we should be talking about.
Kerry James Marshall, Study for Vignette #5, 2003, ink on canvas.
KJM If at this moment the art market seems to be more focused on the environment in which the artwork takes place, we can be fairly certain that that’s not going to continue in perpetuity. At some point there’s going to be a shift back to the focus on the object itself. But when that shift takes place, I’m concerned with who is positioned to participate in this dialogue. As I see it right now, the contributors to the dialogue that attempts to define what has value in painting or sculpture or film or video are too narrowly chosen. Taking the logic of how we understand the art world to operate now, and projecting something that’s different into that field, not so different that it’s disregarded, but something that actually attempts to build on what’s already understood, could be essential to the way people previously on the outside experience, value, and understand how paintings and artwork can continue to be made.
LT It’s also an element of breaching. Distinctions have been made between high and low art. There is no attempt to actually ask, What does the folkloric mean? What does popular art actually mean? These things, once embedded in the society, were always kept in their place. This is an important question mark, because it also has to do with the element of validation. There’ve been attempts to break through the categorized social layers, but they never actually succeed, because the work has been individualized or altogether taken out of that loop.
KJM There have been a series of cultural shifts, in which new forms have been introduced into the mainstream. The model that we always use is the way in which the blues as a musical form engendered jazz and then became the foundation for rock ’n’ roll.
LT But music is so abstract that it has the ability to touch this universal chord immediately.
KJM But it also comes packaged with a set of cultural assumptions about its origins, its functions, and its meaning. So people graft their own needs onto a set of forms that come from someplace else.
LT There is more sublimation in the visual. A visual translates differently. I was included in this colloquium on memory and oblivion because my work at times includes the idea of memory. I asked the public, If we are all so full of our own contemporaneity, do we still need memory? I think so. Memories of images help us keep track of certain visuals, and not of others.
KJM In some ways, the primary questions of what art is still revolve around questions of representation: to represent or not to represent. If you look at the shift from an archaic or symbolic to abstract to concrete realism, those methods of transformation have set the parameters for how questions of representation might be addressed. So that the subject of representation itself seems to be less of an issue than the means by which that representation is made. Do you still see that as the primary question, surrounding either what you do or in the larger sense what artists do or can do?
LT First of all, in terms of the idea of representation, we also have to include the idea of the already represented imagery, which is the image of an image, thus creating a distance between the image and how it is appropriated and reproduced or reworked. Most of this has to do with the idea of reconstructing the image, and therefore it is hard for me to make a distinction between abstraction and representation. Once the iconography is lost, an image can appear to be abstract. The main problem now is that together with the so-called openness toward imagery, where everything goes, there is the urge to simply create imagery just for the sake of participating in an artistic discourse. I think that the making of an artwork should be intentional, and however the elements are appropriated, every move toward constructing an image should have some meaning.
KJM Does that create a new kind of crisis for you?
LT I don’t believe in crises. I think in terms of necessities.
Luc Tuymans, Still Life, 2002, oil on canvas, 136½ x 197 inches. Photo by Felix Tirry.