Luc Tuymans is not shy about admitting that he is easily one of the most influential figurative painters working today. His work - which often deals with heavy historical subjects like the Holocaust and postcolonial guilt - resists easy interpretation. So fans and the creatively curious alike will be delighted by the Whitechapel Gallery's launch of On & By Luc Tuymans, a collection of Tuyman's writings (one of them is appropriately entitled, "I Still Don't Get It") on not only his own ideas and images, but those of El Greco, Giorgio Morandi, and Neo Rauch, to name a few. Edited by historian-publisher Peter Ruyffelaere, it also includes critical essays, dialogues and interviews by art historians, critics, and artists like Ai Wei Wei and Takashi Murakami.
I actually managed to catch Tuymans after his recent Whitechapel Gallery talk in London with art critic Adrian Searle (who also wrote On & By Luc Tuymans's introduction) about his work across painting, film, and exhibition making. The feted Belgian artist discussed the continued relevance of painting today - even in an age of Instagram selfies - as well as his personal reading recommendations, and why he really is not flattered by imitators.
Many describe your work as "beyond language." So why is it important to talk, and even to write, about painting?
Luc Tuymans: My book is much more about a way of thinking, a way of approaching. I think its important to look at art. We are living in a society that is predominated by an enormous amount of visuals, but they're not really looked at. What painting does is slow that mechanism, which is necessary, so you can also say something about it.
In your talk, you mentioned Instagram selfies. Do you want to further explore the effect of social media in painting?
LT: I already created an entire show called Against the Day that deals with developing digitised imagery. Why? Because instead of fighting it, its better to take it, and make it part of the toolbox.
Do you think the digital age makes painting an irrelevant genre?
LT: No, just the opposite. Because as I mentioned before, its about the necessity of slowing down. And painting does exactly that. For a spectator, looking at a painting is always a little bit more of a physical experience than looking at a reproduced image.
Has discussing your work changed the way you approach it - or made you more of a critic than a painter?
LT: Not at all. The're just two different things. What remains important is the fact that when someone makes the choice to be an artist, it is a choice of conviction. When you are not convinced that you will be an artist - you will never be one.
Do you agree that you are one of the most influential painters of the 21st century?
LT: I cannot deny that I've had a massive influence, but that's only regarding the topical element, the surface. Its just an aesthetic that people can monkey. I'm not really flattered when other artists imitate me actually; its annoying. I'd rather that they do something different.
Which writings from On & By Luc Tuymans would you personally recommend?
LT: First of all, you should read "Curating the Library," a lecture I gave. And the conversation with Kerry James Marshall, which I think is among the better ones. And the last one. They give an insight into the way I think, which is more than just the work.
How do you maintain a fresh perspective as an artist?
LT: By staying sharp. By not enjoying success.
All photos courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery.