San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Wexner Center for the Arts/DAP, 228 pp., $60.00; $45.00 (paper)
There is a kind of perverse magic to the art of Luc Tuymans. The Belgian painter, who was born in 1958, has an odd gift for showing the world in disembodied, not always decipherable, and almost always ominous ways. He has made pictures of, among many seemingly disparate things, drops of water, a buttonhole, bloodstains, a child’s room, a man driving a car, and pillows. But he has also taken as subjects living and dead figures, and events and places, in the public sphere. Either directly or through inference, he has made paintings of members of the Nazi high command and the concentration camps, and also Belgian rule in the Congo. A suite of works from 2005 entitled Proper included paintings of a black-tie ball, Condoleezza Rice, and a view of a park as seen from a surveillance camera, while other pictures of his show aspects of the Oberammergau Passion Play and the Walt Disney Company.
And whether he is dealing with drops of water or world leaders, Tuymans’s approach is roughly the same. Usually basing his paintings on photographs and often painting with considerable amounts of white, he presents images that are rarely warmly bright or densely dark but seem, rather, foggily muffled and damped down. In recent years, his canvas sizes have sometimes become huge, and in these and in his earlier paintings, which could be quite small, he creates an unsettling and insidious mood. It is derived in good measure from the way he puts paint on canvas, which is never with gusto or a sense of freedom but, instead, with many docile and innocuous little touches, which make his pictures seem at once neutered and ready to explode.
The Antwerp-based Tuymans is now having his first American retrospective. Jointly organized by the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the show presents an artist who, though he may not be more than a name for the general audience, has attained a considerable standing in the art world. The exhibition, which will also be seen in Dallas, Chicago, and Brussels, follows a major showing for the artist at the Venice Biennale in 2001, a Tate retrospective in 2004, and significant exhibitions over the years in Warsaw, Tokyo, Berlin, Budapest, Mexico City, Portugal, the Netherlands, and his homeland. Tuymans’s New York gallery shows, held since 1994, have caused considerable talk, and in the writing in the catalog of the current exhibition his importance is taken for granted. In words that are in keeping with the tone of his fellow contributors, the art historian Joseph Leo Koerner writes that Tuymans is “often credited with having saved painting in our time.”
It is easy to see how the artist we encounter at the current exhibition has generated this attention. Tuymans’s subject is the ambiguous nature of our relationship to …