“Daily Life in a Universal Language”: Philippe Van Snick on Color, Math, and Inspiration

  • Image courtesy of Tatjana Pieters.

    Image courtesy of Tatjana Pieters.

Over the last few years, interest in Philippe Van Snick’s work has exploded. Aside from taking part in exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Austria, and the Netherlands, his work was featured in “The Gap,” an exhibition of Belgian abstract art in Antwerp that also showed at the Parasol Unit Foundation in London. As his fourth solo show for Tatjana Pieters in Ghent, Belgium, came to a close, we caught up with the Belgian artist and talked about the development of his practice over the last five decades.

Artsy: In the 1970s, your interest in systematic methodologies prompted you to develop your own system of colors and numerals, which you’ve been using in your practice ever since. Could you talk about the origins of that system—your inspiration for creating it, the 10 colors you chose, and the extent to which it guides your current practice?

Philippe Van Snick: I use structuralism, logical and abstract systems—for example, mathematics—on the one hand to describe and understand how the world functions, and on the other hand to create a certain rhythm, a sort of mantra. It is my intention to express daily life in a universal language.

Dualism, the decimal system—and, since 1979, also color—are recurring themes in my numeric system. 1979 was the year I added 10 colors (red, yellow, blue, orange, green, violet, white, black, gold, and silver) to my numeric system (decimals representing zero through nine.)

This system must be considered as an underlying dynamic of my practice. It allows me to use different materials—such as pencil, ballpoint, cardboard, wire, and paint—and to work in different mediums, like photography, video, painting, drawing, and three-dimensional works. Through these, I describe the essence of life.

Artsy: After finishing your formal studies, you stopped painting for a while. Why?

Van Snick: After finishing my studies, I stopped painting, for a time, because I didn’t have the intention to identify myself with the actual Flemish or Belgian tradition at that time. I was especially interested in the international movement in arts such as conceptual and minimal art and Arte Povera.

At the end of the ’70s, the spirit of that period was asking for change.

Artsy: Can you explain the connection between your interest in Aztec culture and the “characters” you invented?

Van Snick: I’d read about the Aztec culture, and it caught my interest. In 1988, a friend gave me the catalogs from the exhibition “De Azteken. Kunstschatten uit het Oude Mexico” in the Royal Museum of Art and History in the Jubelpark, Brussels.

But I have always been interested in world cultures. In the ’70s, Tibetan culture attracted my attention—for example, the concept of the mantra, which led to my work Kruispunt in 1973.

Artsy: The exhibition at Tatjana Pieters features works from several decades. In comparison with more recent works, pieces from your early career—like Kruispunt (1973) or Bogen (1977)—are practically devoid of color. Can you speak to this development?

Van Snick: Before 1979, my work is practically devoid of color because I was mainly occupied by the inner structure of my concept of reality and the materials that I used. Then I decided to introduce color to materialize the reality—the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue; the secondary colors of orange, green, and violet; and the non-colors white, black, gold, and silver.

My numeric system, along with these 10 colors, creates infinite and ever-renewing possibilities to express daily life through a universal language. My artistic language may, at first sight, seem formal and distant, but nothing could be further from the truth.


—Bridget Gleeson


Philippe Van Snick / Permutatie 1972–2015” was on view at Tatjana Pieters, Ghent, Belgium, Apr. 24–May 29, 2016.

See more artists from Tatjana Pieters on Artsy.