Everything from the phenomenon of painting

Luc Coeckelberghs, in conversation with Lies Daenen, Frank Maes, and Etienne Van den Bergh — Meensel-Kiezegem, February 17, 2014

How would you explain the fact that you have painted abstractly from the beginning? Did it have to do with the spirit of the age, or did other motives play a role?

Luc Coeckelberghs: For me, it was obvious. I’ve never been attracted to making figurative images. This does not mean that I cannot appreciate figuration. But even during my art studies, I started working abstractly. In fact, that was never a choice. During my secondary school years, I had bought a little book on the work of Kandinsky from the series Bibliothèque Marabout Université.1 Almost all of the images were of abstract paintings. I then made copies of them in gouache. In 1973, I visited the MoMA in New York for the first time. It was a startling confrontation with the visual arts. The works that really hit me then were The Water Lilies by Claude Monet — a triptych — and two paintings by Mark Rothko. That was my world; the paintings drew me in. I do not know exactly why those images touched me in such a manner. I simply felt connected to them.

During my first solo exhibition, at the Gallery Drieghe in Wetteren in 1977, I showed a number of works on paper that were very simple in structure and were elaborated in gray tones. The images were divided into two horizontal planes, each of which I had treated in a specific manner. To my surprise, those images were read as landscapes. That was entirely not my intention. So, I had to be clearer in my communication and more extreme in my approach to constructing images. To me, those images were pure abstractions, and so they should have been read. I never thought of landscapes when I made them.

Are there any exhibitions or artists that you found important and which may have confirmed the path that you were taking?

For me, Dan Van Severen’s exhibition in 1974 at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels was a revelation. I discovered, in a manner of speaking, a kindred spirit. I didn’t know his work so well and I didn’t know Dan. But the exhibition showed his mental world and I recognized myself in it. In 1980, when I became a laureate of the Jeune Peinture Belge (the Young Belgian Painter Prize),2 there was a new exhibition of my work at the Gallery Drieghe, Wetteren. I then received a letter from Dan who congratulated me on the award and on the installation that I had shown in Wetteren. So, he had visited the exhibition; moreover, it was later revealed that he followed the exhibitions there closely. For a young artist who was taking his first steps, it was a pat on the back and a boost to my confidence that I never could have imagined. We always stayed in contact, right up until his death, and a few of Dan’s works have prominent places in my home and work environment.

Precisely what spoke to you in the work of Dan Van Severen?

That mental world. Those simple images and what they represent. The disappearance of materiality. Things are reduced to their essence and incidentals are thrown overboard. I felt completely comfortable with his work; I found it brilliant. I could completely find myself in it.

So there has been no question of a process of abstraction in your work. The work was actually founded in abstraction. Considered in this way, it could also be called concrete, in the sense that you actually begin to construct something from abstract visual elements, and that you use them in a concrete way. In other words, for you, abstraction is self-evident, a kind of visual language that was present from the beginning, and that you, therefore, immediately began to use.

That’s completely correct. I found the French Supports-Surfaces3 and Fundamental Painting4 interesting: thinking and analyzing from the phenomenon of “painting,” to creating images. But to me, it is about images that do not merely refer to “painting,” but transcend “painting.” You can indeed describe that as concrete research. Then you ask yourself questions about what a painting actually is, about the carrier and the paint, etc. And that is how you begin to work. And then you do not actually need a picture. You work with the elements of art.

In 1982, I received an invitation to become a teacher at what was then the St Lukas Hogeschool (Sint-Lukas College of Art) in Brussels. There was an assignment to start up and develop the workshop “The Study of the Visual Elements” as a pilot project in the department of fine arts. This request corresponded perfectly with my own practice, and has in the meantime become part of every course offered by the school. Thereafter, other colleges were inspired to organize a similar studio, or to integrate it into their training in one way or another. And the course name is sometimes quite literally borrowed. The studio is also consistent with the assignment to carry out artistic research, which — years later — the colleges were expected to implement due to the “academization” of higher education. In 2007, by the way, I was asked to launch a studio that dealt specifically with the research assignment. Since then, I have also been a teacher of Research and Development in the Artistic Practice. Again, I was able to steer a pilot project in the department of fine arts.

In your work you have definitely never depicted space, in the sense of perspective, and yet, it appears that the concept of space runs through your work as a common thread. You yourself have written about this.

Yes, quite early on I’d written a kind of artist’s statement during a period of study at the Academia di Belle Arti and the Academia Belgica in Rome.5 The concept of an “artist’s statement” is quite normal now, but back then, it was unheard of. My statement begins with the words, “Absolute space only exists as an idea.” That was in 1978. I had graduated two years before. And the fact that I wrote that text in such a manner obviously shows that I was already very busy with the concept of space. It is only later that I became aware of the fact that in one way or another, everything I’ve ever made is related to the concept of space, which runs like a power line through all of my works, no matter how different they are in terms of appearance. That has developed over the course of time.

So far as your relationship with space is concerned, was it an important step for you in Tienen, in 1978, when you received the opportunity to create an exhibition in a large space? (1978/4)

It was the first time that I developed a work entirely on site, instead of previously working it out in my studio, and then it was immediately on a large scale with huge formats. With fragile elements, I tried to play with the colossal space there.

What was so special about this space? The floor is rectangular. The entrance to the space is situated in the middle of one of the short sides of the rectangle. The wall opposite the entrance is almost entirely composed of glass, a stained-glass window. In the space, there is a gradation of light present, which becomes less intense as you move away from that window towards the entrance. My intervention was based on the gradation of light. I wanted to translate it into an image and make it physically palpable. I did that with papier mâché balls, painted in shades from white to intense yellow.

Originally, my intention was to hang them in a straight line onto the railing that surrounded the whole space. But when I painted them — in fact, I immersed them in liquid paint — I found that the yellow colored balls seemed heavier than the white. And I included that experience in the work by hanging the yellow balls very low at the entrance and then literally, and gradually, moving up towards the white balls at the window. There thus arose two oblique, materialized, dotted lines in space and they created a slanted virtual plane where you, as the viewer, walked straight through. Through those small elements — the balls had a diameter of 5 cm — which were systematically present in that immense hall, the space was given at once a totally different identity. It was fantastic to experience.

In 1980, I did something similar with an installation that I’d made for Start/Tremplin (Start/Trampoline), in the Palace of Fine Arts, Brussels (1980/6). It was part of a series of exhibitions where a young artist would be given an exhibition space to exhibit his or her work to a large audience. Starting with the walls, floor, and ceiling — the six planes that defined the architecture — I created a “pictorial,” spatial experience.

I continued with the same theme in BRU’81, an exhibition in a part of the Flagey Building in Brussels (1981/1). It is a very characteristic space in which I closed off a passage with two walls and a floor that I constructed with sugar cubes. The penetrating light interacted with the sugar crystals, which delivered a very intense pictorial and immaterial result.

Just as canvas is the carrier for a painting, in those installations, the room became the carrier of the image. But unlike canvas, space is not neutral. You take into account what is present and integrate it into your work, or you integrate your work in that specific environment.

On the one hand, it results that such a work only has a temporary existence. After the exhibition, it is dismantled. Eventually, only some artifacts remain that only have sense and meaning in relation to the space for which they were designed. On the other hand, that also creates new opportunities. For example, you can use ephemeral materials with specific qualities. That’s how I began using sugar cubes, amongst other things. And you know before you begin that the work will disappear.

I have also made sculptures in function of certain exhibitions and locations. For budgetary reasons, it wasn’t always possible to make the works out of Corten steel. As an alternative, I made wooden constructions on whose surfaces I then applied torn sheets of asphalt, so-called roofing. Creating an image in the open air has its consequences. When you have to compete with trees that are ten or fifteen meters high, in a park or on a square, or against buildings of several storeys, you need to have a work of considerable size. I consider the sculptures as scale models 1/1. My sculpture for the exhibition Beelden Buiten (Outside sculptures) in Tielt, in 1986, is an example of this in a natural environment (1986/1). As far as an urban environment is concerned, I think back to the sculpture that I made for the Biennial of the Middelheim Museum, in 1987, which stood on St. Nicholas Square (1987/3) in Antwerp. But there are also steel sculptures that I made that I designed in function of the material. One example would be my contribution to the exhibition Kontakt at the IKOB Museum of Contemporary Art in Eupen, in 1993. (1993/5)

With you it seems that it is possible in an exhibition with a large spatial installation, as in Tienen, to also show two-dimensional works on paper, in gray tones—a kind of shading with grey lines. In your opinion, is spaciousness also present in these works?

Yes, but in a totally different manner. The painting of gray lines on paper, as a two dimensional carrier, doesn’t suggest space. Space is present purely mentally. You see lines on a sheet of paper, and strictly visually, they are only that. You yourself, as a viewer, need to accomplish a spatial reading of them.

You realized early on that your chosen visual language certainly entailed severe limitations. In any case, over time, you began to express yourself in various media. Did you perhaps deliberately seek out a limit to your development at every stage; namely, the limit of possibilities within a certain range of visual tools? Did you then sometimes feel that the limitations were too strongly imposed and that it was time for something new?

By continuing to limit myself, I eventually felt very restricted in what I could do, to the point that I didn’t dare to do anything. For some years, I only made gray paintings or gray works on paper. After a while, the gray became whiter and whiter, and the two-dimensional works appeared almost as white surfaces. And that was not really my intention. I then quite deliberately broke out of that by making totally different things. I started making drawings that were more organically structured. Those drawings gradually became a sort of “plan” (1983/tek31990/tek7) for installations. And then I also had the opportunity to build new installations. This first happened in a natural environment, for an exhibition in 1983 (1983/5) in Speelhoven, an area near Aarschot. A year later, I was able to make another installation, this time in an architectural environment, namely for the Montevideo project (1984/1) in Antwerp.

So that was a matter of you experimentally searching for a sense of the visual grasp, even if only for a time?

Yes. The installation in Speelhoven was built on one side of a valley. I used a mirror there, directed to the other side of the valley, so that the installation was reflected. Thus, a new spatial situation was established. The cotton threads that I installed were attached to wooden branches that I had recovered locally. They moved with the wind and accentuated the direct influence of the natural elements.

The installation that I built for Montevideo started with red-painted wooden rods that made a connecting line from the floor to a yellow panel, which was mounted on the wall. From there, they ran through a panel that hung in the room. The panel was painted blue on one side and black on the other. Then the rods floated further on, through the space, ending up in a sort of tree-like structure, which connected the floor and the space, and which was held in place by a weight.

It is clear that the imagery was less strict and symmetrical there than in my earlier work. The structure was composed more organically. Also, those installations came from painting and from the intention to simplify, but I left myself room for a certain playfulness and lightness. I later reverted from that.

I have always made installations according to the place where they were shown. The location of the exhibition at the Montevideo in Antwerp was a former port warehouse, with a floor made of cobblestones and log walls made of wooden beams and planks. Either you go there with heavy tools and the materials to face it, or you do exactly the opposite and use very fragile elements, without being blown away by the environment. That was my solution.

May we say that your whole work is an ongoing quest to find the meaning of space?

I do indeed think that I have always sought, and continue to seek out, what the concept of “space” might mean in the context of the visual arts: two-dimensionally, three-dimensionally, four-­dimensionally, physically and mentally. Whether it be in paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, or working with colored light… the mental world that exists therein is analogue to me, comparable. The materialization of it, choosing the medium, is always an open question, a possibility.

But I find it incredibly difficult to concretely describe the notion of “space.” I’ve tried to describe it for myself in a text, but didn’t succeed. And the more I get involved, the more complicated it becomes. In Thinking Architecture, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor says that he does not claim to know what space really is. He says that the longer he thinks about it, the more mysterious it becomes.6 I can understand what he means, and perhaps that is exactly what makes his ­architecture so interesting.

As a matter of fact, I have been trying for a long time to find a definition of the term “space” in writings and statements by artists, architects, etc. I haven’t found a conclusive answer anywhere.

Not even in Minimal Art? The strategy of those artists was exactly to make space palpable, by placing “objects” in that space.7

Minimalism sets the cerebral component more in center stage and pays less attention to the purely visual component. For myself, I find that the visual aspect is important, that my work has visual qualities where elements of texture and facture are of importance. My work also has something tactile. And that is not unimportant.

May I refer to another interesting experience that I’ve had? I have seen and studied several works by Richard Serra and James Turrell. The one is distinctly material, and the other is distinctly immaterial. Still, in both cases, my experience was similar, which I find quite remarkable. And that experience gave me the freedom to experiment sculpturally and spatially, with various materials, and without having complexes. From cotton threads, gauze, and wooden rods, to translucent sugar cubes, papier mâché and colored artificial light… to sheets of asphalt and metal sheets and profiles.

But in the meantime, I have also always kept on painting in my studio.

Through their layering, your paintings hold an inner space, and thus give the viewer the opportunity to quietly enter their pictorial world. But sometimes you place the canvases in the middle of the room, whereby they become a secluded structure, or you switch them around to become a series, and as a result they become perceived as an object on the wall more than as a layered image that invites you to delve into it. Is that the manner in which you switch between different functions?

“Painting” has always been my starting point, but that doesn’t mean that I have only made paintings in the traditional sense. Thinking from the phenomenon of “painting,” the pictorial, I have also made sculptures, and developed installations. No matter what the final form was, there always lay a painterly idea at the basis of it all.

Since, by painting, I was trying to capture “space,” I was confronted with two-dimensionality as opposed to three-dimensionality. I asked myself how I could use elements from the two-dimensional world, by using canvases, to approach space in a physical way, and how I could work sculpturally with pictorial elements.

Specifically, I have combined paintings with each other to form a sort of bas-relief and attached paintings to each other to form sculptures (1992/1). Another time, I created an accessible architectural room by assembling 12 trapezoidal paintings (1987/2). Seen from the outside, the room functions as a sculpture, while on the inside it is one painting.

I also have a work consisting of fifteen paintings that are not hung on the wall but placed facing in different directions in the room (1998/7). In this way, spatial relationships arise between the individual paintings. You can also walk between them, and that explains why the sizes are so large, namely in relation to the measurements of a human body. In this work, it is also striking that the painted side and the reverse of the painting have an equal significance.

The paintings that are serially attached to one another can be seen in a similar context (2012/1). They can be of three or four layers, or more, incorporating paintings of the same or varying sizes. Every single painting has its own identity, its own handling of paint and development. Their composition is often not hierarchical, but all-over.8 The structure of the overall image is determined by the shape and size of the individual canvases, and through the way in which I position them in relation to each other. They may be two- or three-dimensional, horizontal or vertical, and so forth. From those works autonomous sculptures also arose that refer back to the physically two-dimensional painting (2006/15).

How does color function in your work?

The colors that I make are always composed of transparent layers of paint, on top of one another. By piling up glazed coats of paint, more and more of the wavelengths of the white surface disappears. It starts with the first layer. The amount of reflected white that becomes filtered out depends on the color used. With the next layer, the process continues. There comes a critical point when so many of the wavelengths of the original white surface are filtered away that you no longer have an interesting color, and when it goes wrong, there is no more color.

The number of layers that you can use varies, and is dependent on the degree of transparency of the color you choose, and the succession of different transparent layers. You can play that game subtly, and that’s how I occupy myself. It results in the intensity of the obtained colors being higher than when you work with an opaque paint. And that is also the reason why I use the glazing technique. It is a time-consuming activity and the number of layers can be significant. That’s why I also work with acrylic paint. It dries much faster than oil paint; therefore, it is better suited to my style of painting.

You have also made art works with light. Did you come to do so because it is similar to your painterly technique?

I think so, yes. Just as I painted, applying layer after layer of transparent paint to the canvas, I made a dynamic light installation with LED lights. I filled the inside of a large container with layer after layer of color using a randomized computer control (2009/3). So abstract “light paintings” came into being that could vary into infinity.9 At another location, I worked upon a static light installation — with fluorescent lamps and colored filters — creating a spatial painting by establishing direct relationships between the pictorial color and the surrounding architecture.10 (2010/9)

When you step into such an installation, every­thing changes in tone. Your skin color, the color of the clothes that you are wearing, the color of the surroundings, the walls… The light installation becomes an immersive space that determines your physical, as well as mental, presence. And the artwork is around you; you become immersed in it, and swallowed up by it. This is unlike a sculpture — where then you walk around the static work, you yourself are dynamic — and also unlike a painting, when you are static and you look from a certain perspective at a static object.

The evolution of “painting” from a more historical approach — painting on stretched canvas — to the use of other materials, means and forms, lets new visual possibilities arise that are particularly interesting to investigate and to experiment with. This evolution has not happened to me in a chronological order per discipline. If you look at my successive exhibitions, you’ll see an oscillating movement, from painting and drawing, to object and sculpture, to installation, and back, via highways and byways.

Your work always appears fragile anyhow, which is an aspect that you have in common with Dan Van Severen. The fragility preserves your work, in some way, from senti-mental expression.

The fragility of my work is also concerned with the tactility and with the mental impact of the material. And with the way that the material is applied. It has been my experience that if you work with fragile materials, such as cotton threads or gauze, for example, some people react bitterly. Apparently, because they feel provoked by it. Although it is not my intention to provoke, I do find it strange. For the exhibition Kaspar in ver(d)rukking (Kaspar in exaltation/oppression), in Genk in 2001, (2001/18) I had built a kind of transparent wall by linking metallic rods with colored cotton threads. The work was about 100 meters long and about 2.4 meters high. The wires were carried by the wind, a direct confrontation with nature. I had worked long and intensely on it, but even from the beginning of the exhibition, the installation was being completely destroyed. Fragility somehow evokes aggression in some people, while you would expect just the opposite.

But it is precisely this fragility that gives the attentive viewer the chance to have a very direct, authentic experience. The coincidence of absolute materiality and mental strength makes the fragility, indeed, very real. That the physical and mental coincide in one way or another, that they can’t be separated, touches the core of visual arts.

We look with our brains and with our entire bodies. A physical experience is accompanied by a mental experience, a mental space.

You like to immerse yourself in the work of architects as potential helpers or supports for your own spatial research. For example, the Japanese Tadao Ando, who sees his architecture as a “spiritual shelter.”

Ando’s work is fascinating because he thinks about space and materials almost more sculpturally than architecturally. They are utilitarian buildings, but their spaciousness transcends that. And for example, I also experience that same sculpturality in Cistercian abbeys, or the Pantheon, in Rome.

What I love about Ando’s work is that he almost literally takes elements from classical, traditional Japanese architecture and updates them. In much of Ando’s architecture you have to travel a distance, a little walk if you go from the street to the entrance of the building. Then, you walk by elements of nature: water, rocks, plants, and trees… But it is an artificial, constructed nature. It is the transition from the external to the inner world. And the walk also represents the time that you will need for the transition.

But I remain in favor of that, when a bit of the outside world penetrates into the inner space. If you lock yourself up, then you’re a romantic; your work will become sentimental. Then it is no longer interesting. In an early text, I once wrote that the de-sentimentalization of the art object may intensify the sensibility.11


  1. Kandinsky, from the series of the Bibliothèque Marabout Université, No. 73 (Verviers, Belgium, 1964).
  2. The Prix Jeune Peinture Belge or Prijs Jonge Belgische Schilderkunst (The Young Belgian Painter Prize) is a biennial prize that has existed since 1950. It is intended to support young Belgian artists and to offer them a platform in the arts. In 2013, the prize was given a new name, The Young Belgian Art Prize.
  3. Supports/Surfaces is an artistic movement that arose in France during the late sixties and which had a great influence upon Fundamental painting.
  4. With the term Fundamental Painting, we refer to an artistic movement from the sixties and seventies which was both prominent in the US and Europe, and which was strongly related to Minimal Art and Geometrical Art. The whole emphasis lay on the process of painting. In Germany it was referred to as Analytische Malerei, in France as Nouvelle Peinture, and in Italy as Nuova Pittura.
  5. Rome, Academia Di Belle Arti and Academia Belgica: Specialization Scholarship from the ICB (Management of International Cultural Relations, from the Ministry of Education and Culture).
  6. Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006), 22.
  7. Minimal Art or Minimalism is an artistic movement that began in the United States and started to spread to Europe in the sixties (with artists such as Carl André, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt). Just like the Fundamental Painting Movement, it was a reaction against the then overpowering Abstract Expressionism. The artists involved made use of the simplest means and materials, to create a relationship with the surrounding space.
  8. An all-over composition means that the pictorial elements are placed on the surface without ranking. They are all the same; they appear like patterns and seem to be able to run into infinity outside of the painting.
  9. LightHouse for the exhibition ContourLight (Mechelen, 2009).
  10. LightRoom in the White Out Studio (Knokke, 2010).
  11. Cf. Luc Coeckelberghs, De Absolute ruimte is universeel (The Absolute Space is Universal), Rome, March 1978; see pag. 110.