Life-defining, watershed moments, they don’t happen every day. Those incidents and accidents that either reveal an artist’s future path or shoved them off the one they were on, the pivotal experiences in the narrative of people’s lives that helped them find their artistic identity and fundamentally shaped their careers. From Chantal Ackerman’s jump from film to fine art to Luc Tuymans’ first major solo show, we’ve dug into the past lives of a merry crop of contemporary art world denizens to shine a light on what they consider to be the most significant moments in their careers. Nine stories about the past’s effect on the present, and what it might all mean for the future.
Luc Tuymans had a part-time job as a bouncer when Ulrich Loock offered him a solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Bern in 1992. Despite having already garnered a solid reputation in his native Belgium, the Bern show put him on the map internationally and paved the way for a spot at Kassel’s Documenta. It was a pivotal year for the artist, and one that cemented his role as one of the most important painters of our time.
In 1992, I had a studio in a small apartment in Antwerp. It looked a bit like Francis Bacon’s studio compared to the big one that I have now. At the time in Belgium, everything to do with art was concentrated around Antwerp. Most of the galleries and artists were here and it was both a good time and a bad time to be an artist: the art market had just collapsed, the machinery was there and it was opening up for the younger generation – which was me, though it wasn’t something I was aware of at the time.
Ulrich Loock, who ran the Kunsthalle Bern came to the city to see my gallerist, Frank, because he was doing a show with Raoul de Keyser, who was represented by the same gallery as me. Completely by accident, he discovered my work on the second floor where it was installed for a new show. He asked Frank to drive him straight to my studio. I wasn’t aware that he was coming and I was actually about to leave; if he had arrived five minutes later, we would have missed each other. I showed him 150 paintings and he didn’t say a word so I thought the entire thing was a failure. But once I got home, I got a phone call from Frank telling me Loock had been so amazed that he was speechless, that he hadn’t seen anything like it since Richter. So I got an offer to do a show at the Kunsthalle Bern that same year. Ulrich’s decision was purely instigated by the work itself; we didn’t know each other and had never even exchanged a sentence. I was very aware of the impact the show in Bern would have and that’s why I immediately spoke to Jan Hoet’s assistant to make sure I wasn’t going to be included in Documenta that year. I was afraid: I was used to working at my own speed and all of a sudden was being thrown into a bigger concourse.
When it was made public that I would be part of Documenta, I went into a small rage. I knew that the Americans would see the work there and global interest would rise and I was concerned about the effect it would have on the integrity of my work. There would be enormous pressure. But it happened so I just had to deal with it. I thought to myself: either I can leave everything to my dealers to take care of – which I couldn’t because I’m such a control freak – or I need to make a clear distinction between making art and the art world. I decided that they should not have anything to do with each other. In order to do that, it was necessary to dedicate some energy to the art world in order to keep it out of my studio. I still do that now. It’s a quite a schizophrenic way, but it functions.
Being a successful artist is not something that falls out of thin air. You need to control everything up to and including the market prices. That’s the professional part which should never interfere with the freedom you have to make your art, and it’s a method that takes up an enormous amount of energy but it also offers extreme payback. Bern was a very important show because it opened up so many other doors; it led to other shows in Germany and opened up the whole European realm including, of course, Documenta. This again led to shows in the States and to being taken on by David Zwirner. The show in Bern speeded up my career enormously and it proves that you have to have luck in your life but also that you have to act upon it to not lose the momentum. A great deal of my practice as a painter is all about the element of timing and precision. There’s no mystery, except that one moment of chance. It was the largest show I had ever done at that point. I wasn’t stressed before the opening. I was just happy. The night before, Ulrich drank so much that I had to give the speech in front of the press. For me, the symbol of this turning point was really this little paper with ‘These drawings are now owned by the Kunsthalle Bern’ written on it, which I reproduced and enlarged in a painting.
South African artist Kendell Geers is famous both for his art and for pissing into Duchamp’s Fountain at the 1993 Venice Biennial. He has enjoyed countless international exhibitions, been invited for breakfast by the Queen of Holland and scored a retrospective at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. But there were two occasions in his life when he opted out of the art world altogether.
In 2000, when I was living in London, my artworks were part of an exhibition curated by Jan Hoet, who I consider one of the best curators in the world. On the morning of the opening I was supposed to go have breakfast with the Queen of the Netherlands. You could say that I had pretty much reached the peak. But I felt completely ill that day and couldn’t even get out of bed. When I went to the doctor he couldn’t find anything. I’m convinced I fell ill because I had lost faith in the art world, in the whole system. I just couldn’t see myself continuing under these circumstances and needed a time-out.
And it was then that I decided to stop. It wasn’t difficult to stop creating, it was great actually – like going back to the drawing board. I just read books and did some research. I needed to find a new spirit, a new virtue, another personal dimension to be able to continue. I was still committed to being an artist because that’s something that never stops. I was just tired of the machinery around it. It was and is too easy for an artist to get recognition and participate in exhibitions, and anyone can be a successful artist nowadays. In the end I decided to just ignore it all, the market and everything. I had a kind of spiritual calling where I realised that art needed to be something magical. I make what I make and if the art world likes it that’s great, but I’m not creating anything for the art world. All my galleries freaked out quite a bit when I took that break, but they need us more than we need them.
Last year, I did pretty much the same thing all over again. It was because of the retrospective about me at the Haus der Kunst in Munich at the time – the curator there didn’t want me to be involved at all! I can’t stand how artists are viewed as mere suppliers, how they get instrumentalised. There is just no respect anymore for artists and their work. I fell into a depression and cancelled all my projects. It’s important to stop sometimes and take a step back and just live your life. That would be my advice for young artists: stop making art and live. And take hallucinogenic drugs, too. That helps. Let the art follow your life and not the other way round. It’s important to understand that art is not a career but a calling. I feel like today a lot of art is empty because the artists are missing experiences. All the extreme, strong, transformative moments that challenge you beyond the everyday are things that can later be incorporated into your art. The time I spent taking a break from it all I experienced so many things and if I hadn’t put everything on hold I would never have started painting, for example. It was only possible because I had no pressure, no deadlines, no exhibitions. It was rock’n’roll.
Steve Powers, better known a ESPO, is one of the few graffitists who’s managed the leap from the street to the establishment, and his work has been exhibited at such places as the Venice Biennial. Back in 1979, in a run-down house in Philadelphia where he lived with his parents, five siblings and 24 cats, an eleven-year-old ESPO made a startling discovery.
In 1979 Chic’s Le Freak was big in the charts, that I remember. On a typical day I’d go to school, probably get in some fight or argument, get yelled at, come home to an empty house, have the place to myself for a few hours and mess around, eat whatever was in the fridge, watch TV… Then I’d get bored and draw. I’d just do anything but homework. I hung out in my older brother’s room all the time for the sense of adventure and solitude. It always smelled like pot in there and he had lots of weapons, and porn. It was a pretty good place to make a drawing. At the time I was copying a lot of album covers by Pink Floyd and sport team logos, something I’m still influenced by now.
I basically started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. The first drawing I did was when I was three; it was a car. I showed it to my mom and she freaked out about it and put it on the fridge and from that time on I wanted that reaction every time I did a drawing. Drawing was also the only thing that got me through school. I would have dropped out in fourth grade, otherwise. But the teachers let me draw in the back of the room and we all agreed it was for the best. If they didn’t let me draw I would just act up in class and try to make classmates laugh and cause trouble. I was drawing whenever the mood struck me, and the mood struck me every day. When I was older I used to go shoplifting to get Christmas presents for my brothers and sisters, who I loved. But in 1979, I was trying to harness any abilities to make presents for them and I found myself copying a photograph of my brother. I’ll never forget the astonishment I felt when it actually looked like him. Something that came out of my pencil looked like my brother! I knew something very large had entered the room; I realised I was in possession of something. It was like finding out you’re rich. I couldn’t fully understand the impact of it at the time, but I felt the power and the excitement and a real joy.
That moment, when I realised that I could do that, that I was capable of such a feat, everything changed. Drawing was no longer something I did as a distraction, to get me through the boring hours. It became a real tangible force that I possessed and that I was suddenly responsible for. I’ve always felt that it was a sin not to live up to your potential. I knew I wanted to be close to it and understand it. It was kind of like finding out I had a kid that I had to take care of and raise and be responsible for in a nurturing environment. So that’s what I did. That’s all I’ve done ever since.
Steve Powers lives and works in New York.
As a young student at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the nineties, Cindy made a startling discovery in a magazine that led her to London on the trail of a certain troupe of Young British Artists. It proved crucial in shaping her work.
Discovering the work of Lucian Freud was a revelation. To see his vision of humanity, the rawness of his brushstroke, his sense of detail… it was incredible. I remember this self-portrait of his, it had a three-dimensional feel to it. The paint really became flesh. I ripped the image out of a magazine and I think I still might have it in a box in my attic. From early on I had a thing for British painters. I came to Antwerp in 1996 and every morning I’d go to the Academy at 8:30 and practise model painting. I’d spend the whole day in the Academy, at noon I’d go out for lunch, then I’d come back to the academy and stayed there until the guard would lock the doors and kick me out.
Sometimes we’d go to the bar around the corner afterwards but mostly I’d just go home and start another painting. One night at the bar I met a few British guys, they were artists and they had a show in Antwerp. I heard them speaking English and went over to them and told them that I just loved the work of Lucian Freud. “Do you have more in London like that?!”, I asked them eagerly. “Just go to Saatchi,” they told me, amused. I went as soon as I could. The gallery wasn’t next to the Thames at that point, it was just one big white cube and it was only in its beginnings, but it was quite sensational. I was so excited when I came back and I wanted to tell everyone about it. Nobody in my school knew anything about it. I took a catalogue of Jenny Saville to my teachers and I said: “Look what I discovered there! Why can they do that over there and not here?!” I didn’t understand why we didn’t have this figurative kind of work anymore. It was almost taboo. Actually, painting was under fire at the time and Jan Hoet and other curators were saying that painting was dead. Of course there were Rubens and Van Eyck, but in the contemporary world there was no one to really show me how to deal with the interpretation of the world around me. We had Luc Tuymans, a good artist, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for. I could only find it in London.
These days it’s so easy, you just go to Google and you can find anything. But we didn’t have that kind of access at the time – we had to take a boat! I started going to a lot of galleries in London. Every month I’d take my backpack, hop on the bus in the morning and come back in the evening because I didn’t have money to stay overnight. Sometimes I’d have to sit for five hours at the station waiting for a bus. The Young British Artists I had discovered at Saatchi impressed me as much as Lucian Freud. They showed the same rawness and the same confrontation. When I saw how delicately Ron Mueck could show how skin looked – the veins underneath, the amount of detail, the sensitivity he could recall… And Jenny Saville, with the expression of her brushstroke, the energy in the work, the monumentality, the expressiveness… all that was very important in the development of my own work. These artists showed me a solution, in a contemporary way; a vision of how you could look at humanity. I loved how they could confront people with their own existentialism, and create a certain tension which attracts the viewer but repulses them at the same time. It was interesting, this horrific beauty. It was very important to me, and this fragility and fleetingness still play a crucial role in my work. I wanted to use the same paint as Lucian Freud because I was so fascinated by it. But then you start searching and experimenting. It really was a revelation. I learned how to paint from looking at other painters but at a certain moment you have to let go and evolve into your own direction. But the encounter with the YBA was really essential for me. I still feel the connection today.