Luc Coeckelberghs’ exploring space — sensing boundaries between disciplines and visual possibilities

Isabelle De Baets


The relation to the art historical context

“After a wave of Lyrical Abstractionists, the Geometric Abstractionists evolved in the sixties—beside Pop Art and New Figuration—to an extreme austerity which resulted in Minimal Art, with both Hard-Edge and Soft-Edge variants. The Belgian artists Jo Delahaut, Luc Peire, Maurits Van Saene and the younger generation such as Guy Vandenbranden, Gilbert Swimberghe, Gilbert Decock, Amedée Cortier and Marc Verstockt made the climate stricter by choosing a concrete visual language. Both at home and abroad, the personal touch and expressive elements were moderate. Sometimes they were even banished by an almost mechanical application of paint, with the Hard-Edge at the extreme end of the scale.” 1

Some artists followed a unique course within the Geometric Abstraction, for example, Marthe Wéry and Dan Van Severen. Their art continued to have connections with Abstract Expressionism as they did not presuppose a detached objectivity, but rather fully permitted personal gesture.

Visual artist Luc Coeckelberghs, who in his student days got to know the works of Dan Van Severen and Minimal Art, continued with the Fundamental Painting of the sixties, but just like Van Severen, retained connections to American Abstract Expressionism. Specifically, Colour Field Painting of the fifties, with Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko as principal representatives. His abstract paintings refer therefore not merely to painting itself (i.e. to form, line, colour, texture and matter) such as is the case with the adherents of Fundamental Painting, but want to transcend it.

The Relation of Painting with reference to Other Media

Through the analysis of the painting practice, Luc Coeckelberghs creates images—which can also be sculptures, drawings and installations—that are about more than mere matter. This is reflected in images in which all materiality disappears and in which the silence and emptiness of absolute space becomes palpable. For Coeckelberghs, the act of creating images and their meanings is critically linked to the shaping of this (inner) space. His visual research is also a personal journey into what the concept of space in the visual arts can mean: two-dimensionally, three-dimensionally, four-dimensionally, physically and mentally. In his works—no matter how varied in their forms of expression—he continuously assesses what the essence of space could well be. For the artist, the making of art is paired with the organizing of the space and the structuring of materials/visual elements in the space. The final work is created by the spatial experience of the viewer.

By moving away from traditional painting (the use of paint on a stretched canvas) and by employing other materials, techniques and shapes, Coeckelberghs allows for new visual possibilities to arise, those which he finds interesting to examine and to experiment with.
His successive works, which coexist of equal value, articulate a great sense of possibility. There is no hierarchy between his works in different media, nor is it about working towards a climax or a synthesis of a purified visual language. Throughout his oeuvre, we therefore do not really notice a chronological evolution towards a certain endpoint. Rather, we can speak of a focus on varying visual aspects over the course of time.

Creating space

The artist statement that Coeckelberghs wrote about space during his study trip in Rome, 1978, is still applicable.

“Absolute space only exists as an idea. An idea you can give a concrete form to materializing. It obtains its own identity if realized in a work of art. While creating the object the physical reality is mentally concretized. That object will intensify an experience of space. This physical experience is accompanied by a mental experience, a mental space.

My research is directed to the relation of the mental and virtual space of the object, and the actual space in which it is situated. In this way a confrontation actual space—virtual space comes into existence. Here I give my attention to a relation between the subject and the plastic object, to a relation between that object and the concrete space it is placed in, and to a relation between the same subject and the space in which it is present.”

The statement indicates how much his research is aimed at the understanding of the possible interactions between the mental space (of the spectator/artist), the virtual space of the art object and the actual/architectural space. The position which the spectator occupies, with respect to the work in the space, plays a crucial role therein.

In this focus, the influence of Minimal Art becomes apparent. Just as the adepts of Minimal Art, Coeckelberghs approaches a work in dialogue with the architectural space, paying as much attention to the positive space (volume) as to the negative space (empty space). He is increasingly focused on the interplay of objects and volumes in space. Comparable to Donald Judd who, influenced by the teachings of proportion in Renaissance architecture, strove for balance, harmony and unity in actual space. After Judd had stopped painting because, among other reasons, he wanted to be freed from the problematic relationship between actual space and the illusion thereof on the surface, he devoted all of his energy to designing the architectural space.2 While Judd took a radical step into purely installational work, the painting practise has remained of paramount importance for Coeckelberghs. Everything visual that he creates stems from, and is fuelled by, his analysis of the painting practice. Hence, throughout his whole oeuvre paintings, drawings and the more sculptural/installational works develop side by side.

Works on canvas, paper or sculptural works are made up of, whether or not identical, parts which repeat themselves. They are tightly arranged and therefore enter into a certain dialogue with the surrounding space. The visual elements are not hierarchically structured on the canvas or paper, but have an all-over composition, manipulated with lines or shading. Yet still the artist’s personal touch comes to the fore, even in the repetitive patterns. They bring subtle nuances and variations to the surface, giving the work a certain fragility and vulnerability.

In this, the work of Coeckelberghs differs from the rigidity of Minimal Art (cf. Donald Judd, Carl André, Richard Serra) and is more in keeping with the softer variant (cf. Eva Hesse, Robert Ryman). In contrast to the industrial and anonymous, manufactured art of the strict Minimal Art movement, Coeckelberghs continued to pursue a consequent craftsmanship, which gives his work a strong human/lively character. He does not employ dogmatic, systematic principles, but instead allows chance and intuition to exert an impact on the material. By confronting repetitive, slightly differing visual elements with emptiness, nothingness, he questions existential themes such as transience, impermanence and change, order and chaos.

Coeckelberghs’ fascination for architecture is also something he shares with Minimal Art adepts. He sees a parallel between the ‘space’ that is created in religious or spiritual architecture (think of Middle Eastern temple architecture, or of the religious Romanesque and Cistercian architecture in Western Europe) and that which he creates in his work. In an austere spiritual space, which is stripped of all unnecessary ornamentation, there is only the interplay of balanced volumes and the repetitive play of light on the walls which give peace and direct the gaze. With a harmonious game of geometric volumes and rhythmic elements in his work, the artist also wants to summon a subdued, serene, peaceful atmosphere which invites contemplation.

The relation to the current art context

Generally considered, I notice that Luc Coeckelberghs — his attitude and method of working — plays a key role with the younger generations of artists, who too explore space and the perception of time in the visual arts, in an interdisciplinary and open way. I think in particular also of the younger generation of artists who recently graduated from the Sint-Lukas College of Arts Brussels.3 Those who in a virtuosic manner wield a technique for making subtle images, in which endless nuances and shades of colour, shape, and lines are to be discovered, revealing the personal touch and the creator’s mind.

It is work that slowly affects the viewer, subtly attracts attention and reveals its essence little by little. It is rather modest work which stays clear of superficiality, cynicism, commerce or sensation and that, by contrast, calls for stillness, elaboration and contemplation. There are no spectacular stories or major social issues involved. Nevertheless, this work teaches us a lot about ‘what it means to be human’. It takes on an extremely powerful position, with respect to today’s society—and the related art scene—where the main focus is on speed, rapid communication, hypes and fads.

In that sense, I see the work of Luc Coeckelberghs, and of the younger generations who are working in a similar manner, as a sort of healing art practice. This kind of work offers sustenance to body and mind and is able to bring us closer to our true nature, if we are estranged from it. In this regard, it would make a positive and fruitful contribution to a world which is out of balance. For those who can identify with this work, it may enable them to overcome the issues of the day.

The exploration of space over time.

1976–1979: reduction, grayscale, cotton threads

Coeckelberghs studied painting at the Sint-Lukas College of Arts Brussels, where he began to paint abstractly, in the studio of former teacher Maurits Van Saene. His searching attitude, which included exploring the visual tension between two- and three-dimensionality in painting, led him quickly to exploring that very tension in other media. Thus, the need arose to work in a more interdisciplinary manner.

Regular trips to exhibitions of contemporary art in European cities opened his eyes to the international art scene. He was a regular visitor to the Brussels avant-garde gallery MTL, founded by Ferdinand Spillemaeckers (which in the mid 70’s was located a few hundred meters from the Sint-Lukas College of Arts). It was then one of the rare places in Belgium where American Minimal Art and Conceptual art were displayed.

Luc Coeckelberghs consciously opted for a minimalistic, abstract visual language to explore the depth of the flat surface. The earliest works are composed of simple sequences of repetitive visual elements on paper and canvas. They reveal the strict regime that he imposed upon himself as a painter. He initially decided to work only with three variable painterly parameters, namely the line (horizontals, verticals and diagonals), diluted black acrylic paint (with various grey tones from white to black) and a varying format. Other colours were excluded. In his first works, he created depth on the surface by building up a visual tension between closed and open forms and between basic geometric shapes on a blank background.

Size will continue to play an important role in his work. He experimented with all kinds of formats and originally used the Modulor of Le Corbusier as a size guideline. The research over the impact of size on the viewer has always concerned him greatly. Because the works exhibit an all-over treatment, the formats themselves, and the combination of different surfaces when creating one whole, are important as compositional specifications.

His graduation project (1976/3) (acrylic paint on canvas) consists of nine medium sized canvases, which are suspended in a block of 3 × 3. Here, the artist plays with shades of grey. The paintings are in a mutual relationship with each other and can be read horizontally, vertically and diagonally. The series (1978/5) consists of ten works on paper, in small format. Each work on paper contains shading and flecks with grey acrylic paint over the surface, in different shades of grey. The artist carried out each selected grey tone twice, so that the series consists of five almost identical pairs of works. With every new exhibition, he changed the sequence of the individual images. There are 3.628.680 possible combinations.

In the twelve-part series (1978/7) the artist applied each hatch, again and again to the same rectangular shape, on paper with grey acrylic paint. The repetitive nature of the work lays bare small nuances created by the personal touch.

During his residency at the Academia di Belle Arti and the Academia Belgica in Rome in 1979, Coeckelberghs showed Ziggurat (1979/1) in the Studio Arco d’Alibert. It is a work which is made up of 21 sheets of paper; coloured with graphite in varying shades of grey. The work occupied the gallery wall from floor to ceiling. Diamond (1979/2) and Window (1979/4) — which refer strongly to religious architecture — were also created at that time. Both works were shown at the Galerie Charles Kriwin in Brussels. The interplay of repetitive patterns and basic shapes leads to a modest, but at the same time performative visual language, that transcends the day-to-day experiences in exchange for the more spiritual ones.

This kind of minimalistic two-dimensional work is typical of his early period. It also emerged that the line is an important element in his visual language. It is the trace of an action which is carried out with a certain force. ‘If you draw a line, you will experience in the ‘timing’ of that line a lot of adventure …’ said Dan Van Severen.4 Rudi Laermans wrote about the tendency in the work of Van Severen towards formal austerity; the fact that a single line may be sufficient to create an energy field. Even if Van Severen puts more lines on paper, it remains for him to do with the densification of energy loads, the combination of micro-forces and their mutual tension ratios.5

This association with the line, as a variable in time and as a means to building up an energetic force field, can also be seen in the work of Coeckelberghs. The difference between them may be that Van Severen, with a minimum number of lines, is able to build up a strong intensity on the surface. While with Coeckelberghs, that density and intensity is created by putting many lines/characters on the surface, or later by laying several layers with lines/characters over each other, creating a microcosm.

Van Severen took the time to build up a certain mental concentration before drawing a line, while the concentration of Luc Coeckelberghs is more physical in nature. His works are charged by the countless actions and gestures that are reflected in characters/lines, making an energy field that is gradually and physically built up, and undergoes compression.

First Sculptural explorations of space

In the early years, next to serial drawings and paintings, Coeckelberghs also already made serial sculptural work which succinctly and subtly explores the actual space. The rectangular (1976/7) and the circle (1976/8) consist of a set of similar steel plates, which are folded slightly to the welds. From the latter sculpture, a cone-shaped variant (1981/2) made of Corten-Steel arose. It was installed at the 16th Biennial of the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp. After a few small-scale interventions with repetitious pictorial elements, Coeckelberghs quickly moved on to more monumental changes in space. A key work in this evolution is the Installation in the central hall of the Provinciale Normaalschool Tienen (PNT) (1978/4). He occupied the colossal space with 140 painted ‘papier-maché’ balls. In that central hall, opposite of the wall with the entrance, there was a glass wall through which the light gradually poured into the space. Coeckelberghs translated this fragile shift in light gradation into an image. He made this intangible given physically tangible by painting the balls in gradual tones from white to saturated yellow and hanging them in two parallel ascending rows, from the glass wall to the opposite wall with the entrance. There was a kind of space between/an imaginary space in the room in which the viewer could move freely. This intervention changed the atmosphere and strengthened the spatial experience.6

The installation gave a major boost to the making of other in situ works. Within the privacy of his studio, the artist was mainly active with painting, but as soon as he got the opportunity to step outside and to work in space, he seized it. With each in situ installation in an architectural context, Coeckelberghs always departed from the characteristics of the available space. He applied (to geometry-based basic shapes in the space) brittle, transparent and nearly invisible materials like gauze, wire, wooden sticks hung on cotton threads, hand-woven grid patterns in cotton thread. The modest interventions defined and rearranged the space, accentuating its characteristics.7

In 1980, Coeckelberghs was laureate of the The Young Belgian Painter Prize in the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. Following this award, he built the installation Start (1980/6). It was mainly comprised of hand-woven fabric, gauze and cotton thread with wooden rods, and was heavily influenced by the structure of the space. As in Tienen, here again, Coeckelberghs made a mental connection between two opposite walls. This time, by applying two dark blue polyhedra symmetrically on the one wall and their residual forms in light yellow, on the other one. In front of the blue surfaces, there were also two transparent, hand-woven cotton thread triangles placed in the space. An intermediate space was created between the two walls—which was further emphasized by applying two transparent surfaces in front of the other walls. These consisted of two consecutive rows of cotton threads, which ran tightly down from the ceiling to the floor, and wooden sticks hung upon them. Through these interventions, Coeckelberghs managed to make the exhibition space, itself, exceptionally present. He gave it a new dimension.

Coeckelberghs adapted this type of transparent thread installation to fit multiple areas, such as the Association for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent (1982/9), the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona (1983/6A), Galerie Drieghe in Wetteren (1980/9) and Espace N251 in Liège (1984/2). In Ghent and Barcelona, he clad the upper corners of the exhibition space with transparent triangles of gauze. They were attached to the wall with sugar cubes. From there, cotton threads departed—which were held down tightly by leaden balls. ‘These barely visible signs symbolized Luc Coeckelberghs’ desire to transform the space into a mental structure.’8 The surfaces of the walls became almost immaterial and that gave the work a more intense spatial effect.

The use of sugar cubes in installations first emerged in the work Sugar Installation, for the group exhibition BRU’81 (1981/1). This installation was conceived in a passage zone on a bridge in the Flagey building. It consisted of two fully built walls and a floor completely made of sugar cubes (at least 450 kilos of sugar cubes were involved in the making of it). The crystal sugar walls prevented passage to the other side. However, the barrier was not radical. A silver painted hollow tube connected the crystal sugar walls and suggested a different sort of passage.

This Sugar Installation was a temporary intervention which was extremely labour intensive in its construction. Coeckelberghs worked on it continuously for several weeks, aided by a small team. As the installation was temporary, Coeckelberghs chose to use such a fragile and ephemeral material as sugar. Furthermore, the refraction of daylight through the translucent surface of the sugar crystals created a unique spatial experience. ‘Coeckelberghs has rarely defined the space so precisely and fragilely. More so, he creates an optimum balance between the components (the sugar cube, with its geometric, size-determining shape) and the total structure.’9

1983–1985: Turning Point

In the period when the symmetrical thread installations arose, Coeckelberghs continued working in his studio on rigid works on canvas and paper, which were strictly geometrically and symmetrically composed. They were works that still sat in the atmosphere of reduction, which he had imposed on himself in his early work: namely, within the limits of only three variable parameters and self-imposed geometric or mathematical formulas. One of the last refined series, with basic geometric shapes, which was created in that atmosphere is 1m2 diamond, triangle, hexagon, oval, trapezium and circle, which was shown at Galerie Albert Baronian in Brussels (1983/9). The geometric forms, whose manipulated surfaces were each of 1m2, were applied onto the paper support with transparent paper, and afterwards painted with transparent paint.

This persistent self-restrictive work method brought on that in the long run, the artist got completely entangled in his own methods of abatement, so much so that at one point he was almost unable to do or dare anything. That’s when he started to break away from that manner of working. He began to make drawings which at once contained many organic and playful elements. Sometimes, they evolved into plans for installations.

The installation (1983/5) Speelhoven in Aarschot, flagged that turning point. It was an outdoor installation which in three parts, stretched out over a large dry grass landscape. In the centre, there was a lightly dug out circle. Amid it, an unexpected, cone-like shape made of wire (with a mirror on top, which was facing to the other side of the valley in order to create a spatial relationship). On one side of it, stones or earth were stacked; on the other side, there were wooden branches, between which he had stretched red cotton threads that played in the wind. He had recovered most of the materials on the spot, from the nature.

In Montevideo in Antwerp, Coeckelberghs built a fragile installation (1984/1) in which he used a bundle of orange-red sticks to create a dynamic track through the space. Sometimes he would leave the sticks to open and close in the space like a fan. Sometimes they touched a coloured surface, only to go out in a different direction again. The play with coloured threads and planes intensified the surrounding space in a very subtle way.

From 1985: Paintings as Sculptural Installations

Luc Coeckelberghs drove his investigation into the functioning of depth in the pictorial plane (in painting) steadily further. At one point this went hand in hand with the exploration of the impact of the two-dimensional surface in actual space. In the previous installations with their intangible walls of cotton threads, we saw how Coeckelberghs managed to build up a visual tension between the immaterial (two-dimensional) walls and the actual space, intensifying the perception of space. In this phase, he examined how two-dimensional surfaces/paintings could be inserted into the actual space and to what extent he was able to work sculpturally, with paintings.

To find that out, he began to combine canvases together to create bas-reliefs. They are a sort of wall sculptures, to which initially other materials were also added. The first bas-reliefs he made are derived from drawings, just as the installation in Montevideo. They are colourful, playful and cheerful. The cut out panels are partially covered with torn paper and painted with several layers of transparent paint. Other additions are painted wooden blocks or a series of wooden sticks, around which cotton thread is wound. In (1985/1), he applied dots or lines to the painted panel with acrylic paint mixed with marble flour, to which he then added a colour accent.

In a subsequent work, Coeckelberghs made constellations of painted canvases or panels, which did hang on the wall, yet invaded the physical space. These Objects (1987/1) were composed of wooden panels coated with torn, overlapping pieces of paper that were then painted transparent blue.

In a next step, the canvases were literally taken off of the wall and fastened together to form a sculpture which you could walk around. Inside – Outside (1987/2), shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA), is such an accessible (monumental) architectural space in which twelve trapezoidal-shaped paintings were mounted together into a truncated cone shape. From the outside, the room functioned as a sculpture. On the inside, it was a painting. If you entered the work, you were completely surrounded and overwhelmed by the intense blue-purple colour.

In the work (1989/8), he applied the painted canvases to the outside of the cone, which he split into two halves. He called this work Sculpture because the sculptural quality of the assembled paintings was emphasized.

One intriguing work which is based on a Vladimir Tatlin set design—for the reciting of poetry- is the brightly coloured bas-relief to VT (1988/1). It is a wooden structure, covered with torn paper that is then painted in bright and vibrant colours, with a pronounced texture.

Since 1990, Coeckelberghs began experimenting with a series of monumental bas-reliefs in which painted panels were mounted above one another. For example, there is the purple (inverted) U-shaped painting (1990/3) (acrylic paint on paper on panel), in which a purple panel, with cut-outs in the middle, is mounted on an off-white panel. This painting laid the foundations for a number of outdoor sculptures, including the two-part sculptural installation (1990/6), which he produced for an exhibition in Galmaarden. The shallow depth of the asphalt-covered wooden panels refers to the two-dimensionality of the painting that preceded it. He made versions of this work in Corten-Steel, shown at an exhibition by the Museum of Contemporary Art (IKOB) in the park of Eupen (1993/5), and another version (2006/15) for a private garden. A kind of architectural installation which you can walk around came into being. He always adjusted the distance between the plates and examined what affect that had on the spatial experience of the viewer, in the given landscape. In part, the changing light determined the perception of the sculpture.

In the twofold T-shaped painting (1989/2) (acrylic paint on paper on panel) the rear dark-blue panel comes partially to the foreground through the T-shaped cut-out of the front royal-blue panel. The loaded T-shape gets, partly due to the blue colour, a strong intangible and sacred character. On a square at the University of Tilburg (KUB), Coeckelberghs developed that form in (1989/10), as a temporary sculpture. In the cut-out of the thin, bitumen-coated panel you can see part of the building behind.

The experience Coeckelberghs gained during the realization of the paintings, he always took with him to the sculptural installations. The preparation of the pictorial planes in the space not only led to the evocation of spaciousness—he always came to an architectural installation—but also to the conclusion that the front and back of the pictorial planes were equally important.

The unlimited arrangements of canvases in space

In 1992, Coeckelberghs assembled small paintings above one another. The elements could act separately as autonomous works, but in combination, with certain colours that stand out more than others, the new colour composition dominates. This led in that year to an experiment in space, with large free standing painted canvases. Presenting paintings in a different way relates to the blurring of boundaries between the media and expanding the possibilities of painting. A compilation of paintings becomes a sculpture or installation, in the most diverse way.

In Galerie Guy Ledune in Brussels, canvases of different colours and sizes, separate from one another, leaned against the wall (1992/5). This action manifested itself as a temporary statement about presenting paintings, rather than as a real work. It made another perspective possible. What was on the canvases was subordinate to the way that they related to each other, to the architectural space, and thus to the viewer. Afterwards, the six canvases formed part of Toner (1998/7), an installation composed of fifteen detached, large canvases (with different sizes). The canvases were presented facing in various directions in the exhibition area, which was adjoining the studio of Gert Robijns in Charleroi. There were spatial relationships between the interdependent paintings, and between the paintings, the architecture, and the visitor. Depending on the position that the visitor took, he would be sucked in by the colour of a painted canvas, or he would see a spatial composition of painted canvases and the bare backs of other canvases. What is striking with this work is how the painted canvases and the backsides of canvases receive here equal significance. In (1998/9) Coeckelberghs also made a statement about presenting paintings at a group exhibition in Curo in Brussels. This time, he made a ring shape with white canvases. These canvases entered into a strong relationship with the surrounding exhibition space. The white base coat of the canvases was applied to the inside of the ring. The white canvases referred to paintings, but were in fact not paintings, because they were not painted.

1994–2014: Further exploration of depth in the plane

In the canvases which Coeckelberghs arranges as sculptures in the actual space, the surfaces are often less intensively treated with colour than the paintings hung individually on the wall or attached to each other in a series to form a triptych, quadriptych or polyptych. Every single painting has its full individuality, paint handling and image composition, which is usually all-over. The structure of the overall image is determined by the shape and size of the individual canvases and by the way in which the artist has put them in relation to one other.

From ’94 to ’97 Coeckelberghs continues with his intensive research into the illusory depth of the painting’s flat surface by experimenting with different shades of colour, materials and patterns.

Coeckelberghs applies the glaze technique to obtain the desired colour tones. He builds up colour tones by applying various transparent layers of acrylic paint one above the other. It is an extremely subtle play of colours, the result of which is dependent on the number of layers of paint, the degree of transparency, and the sequence of the colours used. With this technique, he reaches higher colour intensity than he would if working with opaque paint. Sometimes, he departs from a layer of silver, bronze or gold paint as a base, because it allows the overlying layers of colour to function differently. For the application of this technique, the use of acrylic paint is more appropriate than oil paint, for example.

In the lower paint layers, sometimes ground sand is added to the paint. Sometimes, he also applies one or more layers of repetitive lines or patterns with paint, or cotton threads. Transparent layers of acrylic paint are then applied above this. This labour-intensive painting process leads to extremely subtle gradations of colour and texture which, in one or another sense, generate depth (2000/16). The layered construction of his paintings requires a great deal of concentration. You can also see the painting practice of Luc Coeckelberghs as a form of contemplative work. In terms of time investment, it should rather be placed by the medieval miniature artists than by contemporary painters—who are often aloof in the handling of paint and canvas. With precision and patience, Coeckelberghs builds up layer upon layer until colour, thread and ground sand exchange their materiality for an almost indescribable luminosity. Light penetrates the surface and energizes the matter into a transparent presence.

In the blue painting (1994/1), Coeckelberghs has applied waving cotton thread to the painting in an all-over composition. Then, he has painted over it with various transparent layers of paint, one over the other. It is especially the texture of the surface, with the slight filtering through of blue and brownish tones that makes the painting exciting in an intriguing way. The main tone is azure blue. The frequent use of blue—the colour which represents spaciousness—is certainly of no coincidence.

In later works, he no longer adds additional materials to the surface; he only uses paint. The surfaces are smoother, but have no less depth because of this, on the contrary. These are paintings which reveal their secrets slowly. Only by taking a long look it appears that, under the dominant pattern of line in the foreground as in (2001/3), a lot can be hidden. Where at first nothing seems to happen, suddenly it appears that a swirling world of colourful motifs comes to life.

Below the upper pattern of lines there is so much hidden. But also the pattern of line itself deserves, at the least, some special attention. Although the lines and motifs are indeed always manually applied in regular intervals, great variations emerge in the development and tonality of those lines. Herein lies the fragile beauty of this work which moves continually between two- and three-dimensionality, the surface and the absolute space; between appearance and disappearance, the material and the immaterial. It produces intimate, understated, tranquil work which reveals its immense depth only sparsely, to those who take time for it.

Depending on the elected lines, motifs, shades and grid-patterns, between which he manages to build up visual tension, there prove to be endless possible variations to create depth in his paintings. It is noteworthy that in Coeckelberghs’ dialogue with the material, chance and intuition will always play a very important role.

Furthermore, Coeckelberghs also continues to vary with the presentation of his canvases. His strongly layered surfaces can function individually or in a series. In a series, the works become familiar with a certain order or coherence, from where they stand in relation to each other, bringing small nuances (with the drawn lines or swarming patterns) to the forefront and making it exciting. He then arranges the whole series in a harmonic relation to the architecture.

The series (1998/8) consists of a set of eight azure-blue canvases of the same size, placed side by side, of which the layered composition, colour and texture hardly differ. In (1998/3) MP-M’P’ Coeckelberghs built two squares of the same size with painted rectangular canvases. With one square, he allowed them to tilt to the inside and with the other to the outside. This is an example of the playful manner in which Coeckelberghs builds up compositions on the surface with canvases/paintings. Another variation of this is (2002/1-2-3-4-5). It consists of ten canvases, painted in various shades of colour, arranged in pairs. There is no system involved, except that the five pairs of vertical canvases are organized intuitively on a horizontal line.

The artist now regularly makes compositions by joining individual canvases treated all-over. Some colour compositions are built symmetrically, as in (2003/4). Others are constructed asymmetrically, as in (2000/19), because the deep blue is more dominant than the lighter, paler colours.

In recent years, he assembles sets of large canvases to each other, creating monumental polyptychs/’altarpieces’. These are painted all-over with well over twenty blue, green or purple transparent layers of colour. With the same saintly patience as with his smaller similarly layered works, he has been conscientious and precise here when layering colour, one over the other, to the limit of what is possible. Knowing that one layer too many can completely destroy the brilliant luminosity and transparency of the canvas.

In the monumental royal blue quadriptych (2012/1), for example, at first sight a grid of dark lines comes to the fore; only when we look more closely can we discover the world underneath it. With a swarm of blue tones he creates a mysterious space, which partly because of its large size, has a sacred and mystical character. This work, and the purple polyptych (2013/18), undoubtedly mark a highlight in the dematerialization process, which Coeckelberghs has carried out throughout his oeuvre. In these brilliant works, he achieves perfection in the glaze technique, which he meanwhile applies in a highly personal way, giving to it great significance.

If we now compare the painting of Coeckelberghs with that of the American artist Robert Ryman, we come to some interesting parallels. In his exploration of an infinite number of variations of white-on-white, Ryman also focuses strongly on the material parameters of painting in order to ensure an intense physical experience of his work. We find by both artists that their focuses are on light and space, the (im)permeability and transparency of the surface, in order to increase the viewer’s ability of perception. What they also have in common is the passion to present art in unity with architecture as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, which generates a total experience.10

Both artists create subtle, layered paintings. Under the still white and uneven surface of Ryman’s paintings, much is hidden that comes to life if you look long and attentively enough. The big difference between the two artists, however, is that they each use a different painting technique. Ryman works with white opaque paint on the upper layers, with which he entirely paints over the many colours and motifs that are underneath. Where there is no white, colours and forms seem to try to find a way out. Whereas Coeckelberghs, on the other hand, works with transparent layers of coloured acrylic paint, hiding colours and motifs behind a top layer, or a grid, so that they seem to make their way into the depths. In a subtle manner, both artists play a game with concealing and revealing patterns and colours, yet with each of them this yields a different viewing experience. By Ryman’s paintings, even when we look extensively, we are pushed upon the surface. While with Coeckelberghs’ work, we are moving in the depth. Both equally invite us to experience depth on the surface, which encourages reflection and contemplation.

Spatial installations with cotton thread and light

In addition to the further exploration of depth in the surface, over the last twenty years Coeckelberghs has also continued to make spatial installations with cotton thread. What is new in his work is that he also recently started experimenting with coloured light.

An example of an installation with cotton thread is the work (2001/18). He made this piece for the group exhibition Caspar in de ver(d)rukking at the mine site in Genk. There, he built a transparent wall by wrapping coloured cotton threads around metal bars. The loose cotton threads, which played in the wind, formed spacious lines. They were able to attract attention to themselves and organize the surrounding space. Yet at the same time, they remained virtually invisible and drew particular attention to the surroundings. As in his previous in situ installations, he used the threads in a subtle interplay, concealing and revealing the surroundings.

In his architectural installations made with coloured light, Coeckelberghs examined the impact that colour can have on the visitor. It is an extension of his research into colour and light which began with his paintings. While in his paintings he worked indirectly with light to create colours, here he could work directly with coloured light and drop all materials.

The intention was to guide the visitor into an immersive space where he/she would be completely submerged, so his skin colour and the colour of his clothes assumed the colour of the environment. This was accompanied by a certain physical and mental experience, of a spiritual and contemplative level. In his LightHouse (2009/3), realized for ContourLight in Mechelen, Coeckelberghs made use of LED-technology to create dynamic light. Red, green and blue LEDs were procentually mixed to create a perception and experience of colour.11 Through an ‘at random’ computer control, Coeckelberghs turned on the LEDs to create colour after colour. It was his detached way to bring to life monochrome abstract paintings, changing indefinitely. The viewer could experience different colour gradations depending on the length of time that he remained present in the space. On the outside, the LightHouse was illuminated with a static white fluorescent light whereby it lost its materiality.

In the White Out Studio in Knokke, for LightRoom (2010/9), Luc Coeckelberghs made use of static coloured light, by means of fluorescent lamps and colour filters. In the central space red, green, and blue filters were attached to the existing fluorescent lamps. Other fluorescent lamps with red filters were placed on a single line on the floor. By the light mixing, respectively green/red and blue/red, he acquired intense transitional shades. The visitor was completely absorbed by the colour. There was no longer any mention here of a canvas but of the whole architecture which became a carrier of colour.
Coeckelberghs makes colour-lit spaces, where the viewer is not piloted. There is only colour-, space- and time perception.


  1. Willy Van den Bussche, Dan Van Severen, PMMK Oostende/Stichting Kunstboek, 1998, pag. 5.
  2. Ad de Visser, De Tweede Helft – Beeldende kunst na 1945, SUN, 1998, pag. 138.
  3. Luc Coeckelberghs curated in 2014 the ‘Granfalloon’ show in the Cultural Centre in Hasselt, with former students of Sint-Lukas College of Arts; among others Alice De Mont, Shelley Meert, Mira Sanders, Wobbe Micha, Michael Van den Abeele.
  4. Rudi Laermans, Dan Van Severen, ‘De winst van het verlies’, Ludion, 2000, pag. 11.
  5. Rudi Laermans, ibid, pag. 10.
  6. Christine Vuegen, Kunstbeeld, Nr. 4, Volume 17, Amsterdam, April 1993, pag. 25–27.
  7. Christine Vuegen, ibid.
  8. Wim Van Mulders, Kunstbeeld in Vlaanderen vandaag,
    Lannoo, Tielt, 1982.
  9. Wim Van Mulders, ibid.
  11. By procentually RGB-mixing (Red, Green, Bleu) 16.777.216 different hues can be achieved.