Zwart Huis
Willem Cole

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Zwart Huis presents a series of interviews with several artists who stood at the cradle of the gallery in Villa De Beir in Knokke. We kick off with Willem Cole whose exhibition 'Couleurs, Fleurs & Vin' is currently running at the Brussels location of the gallery.

In 2006 you exhibited for the first time in gallery Zwart Huis in Knokke. What do you remember of this exhibition?

I remember the beauty of the house and its location. Good architecture evokes a gesture, it was once said, a physical reaction. I therefore remember the exhibition perhaps also as a moment when the surroundings and the architecture made me more aware of the physical dimensions of my work.

What was the expo ‘Color’ about?

These were mainly portraits, but I particularly remember the homage to my friend Maarten van Severen, who had died the year before (in 2005). All portraits depicted friends, but I dedicated a separate room to Maarten.

What is the topic of your work in general?

That is impossible for me to say. My work generally only acquires meaning because of the environment in which it ends up and who looks at it. I determine very little. What I do is to give it a basic form. The interpretation comes with the use, with the viewer. Because I make portraits, you could say that my work is about the uniqueness of each person, but not in general. I am specifically concerned with that uniqueness from the logic of looking, and from the individual viewpoint. Il faut voir. Il faut parler. I have no problem with the obvious. On the contrary, I want to give it some attention.

What is your current exhibition at The Rivoli about?

About colours, flowers and wine, I suspect. The same as usual, but different again.

What does a typical day in the studio look like?

That’s easy. I arrive, I draw, I make a phone call. There’s a lot of drawing, of course. But what is important to me is the fixed ritual. In the afternoon I always go for a soup together with Mario De Brabandere at Le Perroquet, around the corner. In the evening I sometimes go to a café. There I get visual ideas. I execute them in my studio, in a sort of meditative state.

How do you think the (art) world has changed in the past 20 years?

The art market dictates more than ever what can exist. Art is becoming more calculated. It leans towards entertainment, lifestyle. The result is that everything is much more alike. I see it as a kind of decadence, although I do realise that I sound like an old man. As an antidote I lavish myself with my own artistic heroes, often strict minimalists or conceptualists but with a great feeling for colour and for the human scale. André Cadere, Josef Albers or Donald Judd, for example. They keep me young. And they remind me that art must remain democratically accessible to everyone.

What role do you see for art while the world stands still because of the current pandemic?

Honestly, not a very special one. In my view, the best response to a work of art is the desire to be part of it, the willingness to go along with it. To enter into dialogue with another logic is liberating. And we do need liberation when imprisonment is the order of the day. I think the strongest example is Benoît's cheerful despair, a smile amidst the gloom and torment.

What do you miss the most nowadays?

I miss being able to have an aperitif with my wife Paty and my friends in café Ouest on Friday, another fixed ritual that is now forced to be 'on hold'. But I also miss drawing in pubs in general. ‘Enivrez-vous’, wrote Baudelaire. Speaking of decadent. But for me it means above all: being really busy with my work, being absorbed in drawing, drowning in the trance of concentration. My 'drunken drawings' are my reservoir, but I would like to be able to replenish it.

Photo Willem Cole, Color, 2006:
Photo Willem Cole, Couleurs, Fleurs & Vin, 2021: