Philippe van Snick. The artists’ artist who created the 0-9 system

Maria do Carmo de Pontes

Winner of the Flemish Culture Prize for Visual Arts 2018, Philippe van Snick blends painting with mathematics and quantum physics. He is 72, but we could still call him an emerging artist.

Philippe Van Snick
Philippe Van Snick, Brussels. Ph. Conceptual Fine Arts.

Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1946, Philippe van Snick is the perfect example of what is referred to as an “artist’s artist”. He is smart, sensitive, multidisciplinary, apparently not yet recognized by the establishment, still admired and respected by the connoisseurs who are familiar with his work. This year he received the Flemish Culture Prize for Visual Arts. It came to him after his comprehensive retrospective exhibition at Grazer Kunstverein Graz and at De Hallen Haarlem (both in 2016), and at the M – Museum Leuven (2010). Through this interview, conducted in his Brussels’ studio, CFA shares a glimpse into the artist’s practice.

Were you trained as a painter?

I was trained as a painter in Ghent. Though ‘trained’ is a big word, because in 1965 the Royal Academy in Ghent was rather old-school and there wasn’t much dynamic in it. I had a teacher in the first year who was a drunk man. He didn’t teach anything. You had to do it all by yourself – even to research what was going on in the art world. In fact, it was the end of a 19th century academic system. In 1968, at the end of my studies, the entire system changed. At that time, when I was about 20 years old, I already had a connection with Antwerp, which was (and still is) a very interesting city in many ways. For example, there was a gallery called White Wide Space that was connected to Germany and to the international scene of Conceptual artists, like Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman and the American wave. I would go to openings in Antwerp and experience what was happening. Also in Ghent there was some kind of dynamic in the actual art movements.

How was the art scene in Belgium then?

Well, there were some people, just a few people, who really supported the contemporary art, which at that time was only showed by a few galleries. There were no contemporary art museums either. In 1970 Antwerp started with ICC (Internationaal Cultureel Centrum, as of 1987 incorporated to form M HKA) as a public centre for contemporary art. In 1975 Ghent opened its Museum for Contemporary Art (Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, later S.M.A.K). This was due to the pressure of cultural associations, art collectors and personal initiatives.

And after you left the Academy, in the late 1960s and throughout the next decade, you detached yourself from painting. What influenced you to experiment with other medias?

Belgian artists, especially Flemish artists, were very interested in Expressionism. We also had an Abstract school, but that was not considered as interesting or important. When I left school this Expressionism didn’t interested me at all. I was highly influenced by artists and movements from abroad, such as (Marcel) Duchamp, Minimal and Conceptual art. In Belgium we had the Surrealist movement as well. This mix of Abstract, Surrealist, Minimal art and Conceptual has been my matrix until nowadays. De Stijl was somehow an influence too, but particularly Georges Vantongerloo. If you do some research you will see that his work was part of De Stijl, but was completely unique. It was more poetic. And he used personal mathematic formulations to title his works. People at De Stijl were rather dogmatic but he wasn’t.

On the mathematic note, can you tell a bit about your 0 – 9 system?

I had a friend who was passionate about Mysticism, and we discussed a lot, amongst other things, about dualism. In dualism, there are two parts, one of which revolves around the other to finally coincide. After they are together they explode in a multiplicity. That was my view of the universe. The question was, ‘how can I make this complicity concrete?’. So I decided to look at numbers from zero to nine. Ten numbers and infinite possibilities of combination. That’s the base where I started from to create and develop my work. In 1979, I started using colours. Each number was assigned a colour: zero: red, one: yellow, two: blue, three: orange, four: green, five: violet, six: black, seven: white, eight: gold, nine: silver.

Then how did you came about to be majorly a painter? Was it a smooth shift, something like a long time coming, or was it an epiphany, to reconnect with canvases?

It was in the late seventies. At that time there was a new dynamic in the art world: the Italian Trans-avant-garde, the Neuer wilden in Germany, the Punk movement, the New wave… And I thought, ‘I want to work with colour’. My first series of works were made with gouache, due to the brightness of the material. After that I started looking at the real paints, which had that same brightness and colours. From that moment I started painting with the help of my internal engine of 0 – 9, a kind of infinite dynamic movement that grounds my practice.

It’s an interesting transition, because in the 1970s there were no colours involved. The numbers came before, correct?

Yes, the first things that came out with numbers were wire drawings, sculptures and photographs. The first experience with colour was in fact a physical experience. I was sitting underneath a sun-umbrella that was orange, and the atmosphere, from that point of view, looked orange. That was really fantastic. This physical experience was the start of my use of colour. Bringing colour into my system allowed me to go further in my investigation of possibilities. Another question was: ‘how things happen in nature? Is this a possibility?’. When you mix things to see what will emerge from it. Take the hybrids, for example. In the plant world hybridisation is common. I often try to make a parallel between nature and painting. Although this ‘orange’ experience drove me to paint, I never wanted to explore colour through projections or artificial props. My personality counted in that decision: not to expose myself too much. To be more a kind of researcher than exposer. I asked myself: ‘how can I use painting as an artist?’. My formal education came back and all the tradition with it.

What about the dualities, for instance in the series ‘Day and Night’?

The theme of Day and Night (duality) came in 1984. I asked myself how to frame the colours between day and night. Day and night is also a new interpretation on my first idea (hard and soft) about duality. In 1969, I made ‘Traditionele L-vormige kamer’, an example of hard and soft: a steel cage and a cotton cage one next to the other. The ‘Day and Night’ is an on-going series, always black and blue with variations on my ten colours between one installation and the other.

You have been photographing since the late 1960s – though your first comprehensive exhibition of photographs, with several never before seen pictures, only happened in 2006 (‘Undisclosed Recipients’ at De Garage, in Mechelen, Belgium). Do you continue to photograph? If so, what’s the role of this media in your practice?

Yes I do. Each time when I come to a city that I’ve never been, I visit first the Botanical garden. I like to make botanical series. Later in my studio I make colour compositions on top of the picture to produce a series.
I also register my studio activities, digitally and on Polaroid.

In the catalogue of this exhibition you are quoted as saying, ‘(my artistic practice) is fundamentally about the instability of the material (…) it is always about the agency of things’. Could you please expand on this affirmation?

Here we can go back to the explanation about dualism. It is a constant movement of attraction and repelling. My interest in the fundaments of nature brought me to read about quantum mechanics. Agency of things is to make proposals readable, is to put the object(s) of your proposal on the right spot in a given space.

You clearly have a long term interest in mathematics – as it can be seen first with the ellipse drawings, then the dual system and finally in the 0 – 9 system. Have you ever thought about becoming a mathematician?

I never had the idea to become a mathematician. The intention to make the ellipse drawings was to register the development of an object from scratch and this in a series of drawings. The best way to register was to use the mathematical language. The 0 – 9 system that I developed is essential for the dynamic in my practice. I use the mathematical language as a way to express my view on the fundaments of my practice.

You operate a lot in the space, with site-specific installations and projects. And it becomes not only about the work being in the space, but the space becoming the work and the visual experience of colour. A more sensorial dimension to the work. After exhibiting in so many places, is there a place where you would really love to exhibit and haven’t done so yet?

My work can be installed anywhere.

January 13, 2023