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 the images we are inundated with, whether from newspapers, magazines, TV, or computer screens; and it is exciting to encounter a painter who takes a moral stand on this issue and yet also lets a viewer slowly feel his or her way into the matter. Tuymans, who has spelled out his aims over the years in statements and interviews, sees the innumerable images we absorb as creating an unreliable or simply false sense of reality. In response he has created a universe of his own not easily graspable, and often misleading, images. With them he seems to be offering a kind of corrective or warning: a call to us to be more skeptical.
The experience of Tuymans’s art can leave you both dizzy with the many ways he asks you to appraise his pictures and emotionally flattened by the unremitting dourness of his mood. At his most engaging, he is a purely visual artist whose work is about the act of looking and then deciphering, or not deciphering, what we see. His best paintings transfix us with their muted paint surfaces and hazily bleached-out light. Yet he is also an artist who sees political undercurrents everywhere and needs to incorporate in his pictures his convictions and questions about the world we live in. At the same time, he is something of a Socratic teacher who wants his paintings to prompt responses from viewers, even to the extent that a given work becomes merely a spark to a discussion the viewer has with himself about the artist’s intentions.
Then, too, there is a tense, somewhat melodramatic, B-movie spirit to Tuymans’s art that is rarely encountered in art shows. A little like Graham Greene, who also alighted on sore spots on a global basis, Tuymans seems to be half in love with morally—and visually—murky atmospheres and with people who, when not outright malevolent, stand for organizations that many viewers will think of with anger or foreboding, or at least some ambivalence. At the retrospective, in addition to Walt Disney and Condoleezza Rice, we come across the faces of, or references to, Ignatius Loyola, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich (chief organizer of the Final Solution), Albert Speer, and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Many of Tuymans’s images refer quite directly to the Nazi death camps. One of them, resembling more a sketch than a painting and capturing the particular hollow look of certain stage sets, shows the façade of Theresienstadt, itself a stage set in that it eventually became a kind of model camp that the Nazis allowed the outside world to inspect. In a number of works from 1992 with the collective title The Diagnostic View, we encounter faces of people or parts of bodies that look a little too sallow or perhaps bruised. It is hard to tell what is wrong (or in some cases even what we are looking at), but the point is unmistakably that something is amiss, and the images, we learn, were painted from photographs of various illnesses in a medical reference book (entitled The Diagnostic View).
Regarding the 1994 Blacklight, a dark painting of a living room in which we make out a TV and, eventually, a body lying on a sofa in the background, it is no surprise to learn that some commentators believe that we are looking at a crime scene, or that, in Peter, a painting of the same year showing a coffee-maker and some pans, Tuymans created the work from a photo of the kitchen of a serial killer. The limply hanging flag that can barely be discerned in The Flag (1995), a serene picture made up primarily of a whitened atmosphere, shows, we learn, the symbol of a far-right Flemish nationalist party.
Not every Tuymans picture, it should be said, is about people or organizations connected to a criminal misuse of power, or refers to a polarizing figure, or even has buried within it a disturbing point of origin. A suite of pictures entitled Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man (2000–2001), for instance, while very much concerned with political and social events, presents in the face of Patrice Lumumba an exception to the many Tuymans images we look at with suspicion or uncertainty. Mwana kitoko means, in Congolese, beautiful boy and is the way the Congolese referred to the young Baudouin I, the last Belgian king to rule the land before, in 1960, it was granted independence. The pictures that make up this group touch obliquely on aspects of the moment of transition, and include a portrait of Lumumba, who worked for his country’s independence, was its first prime minister, and, after less than a year of serving, was assassinated in 1961.
Lumumba is a different order of person for Tuymans, and, in the painting, derived from a head-on newspaper shot, he has a sweetness and directness that is hardly evident in Tuymans’s picture of, say, Himmler, an image taken from a shadowy black-and-white photo that would be threatening even if we had never heard of the man. But for Tuymans’s purposes, Lumumba is as much a victim as a hero; and, really, it is hard to imagine an outright hero or heroine in Tuymans’s universe. Martin Luther King Jr., say, or Desmond Tutu, or Simone Weil, or some unknown person who challenged injustice, or sacrificed himself or herself to call attention to barbarity, would seem out of place.
In the suspicion-laden atmosphere Tuymans creates, we don’t need to learn the details behind, say, his 1991 Buttonhole (which shows just that), or his 1998 Orchid (which shows just that), to get a little edgy. We feel we are in the presence of an artist for whom people, places, and things are most fully alive when there is something frightening or culpable about them, or when, disturbingly, he can suggest that a vital aspect about the person or thing we are looking at is being withheld. In an earlier century, his specialty as a painter would surely have been images of hell.
Perhaps the most elusive aspect of Luc Tuymans’s art is the way it can seem entirely visual and at the next moment rather literary, or not visual at all. The curators of the exhibition, Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth, indirectly say how this can be when, in the preface to their catalog, they describe the forces at work in Tuymans’s painting. They write that
he came of age with a television in the house and in the long shadow of World War II. He belongs to an artistic generation that lived through the overthrow of colonialist regimes, the apotheosis of conceptual art, and the heyday of auteur cinema.
Their list goes on; but I was struck by the references to movies and especially to conceptual art, because, together, they seem to explain the double-sided and essentially psychological experience Tuymans’s paintings afford.
In the early 1980s, when he was in his early twenties, Tuymans actually gave up painting to make movies, and excerpts from them can be seen in the current show. The silent film footage we look at forms a too-slow but still engaging collage of seemingly unrelated passages. We see a looming, derelict ship in a port; a thuggish man who smokes and then smiles; a bearded ship’s captain who recalls the Joseph Conrad era, and so on—moments that, not unexpectedly, have a pervasive scariness.
But the very way Tuymans conceives and exhibits his paintings is movielike. From his first painting show, in 1985, he has given each of his exhibitions an overall title, with the effect that when we walk into a Tuymans exhibition and absorb the title—in addition to the aforementioned Diagnostic View, Mwana Kitoko, and Proper, they include Security, The Heritage, and Der Architekt—we are automatically ready to see the eight or so pictures before us, unrelated to each other as they might seem at first, as somehow connected. We can’t help but see them as aspects of the group title, or, in effect, as stills from one movie (which doesn’t mean they stay together; they are sold individually, and in the retrospective a number of the groups have been reassembled).
Tuymans’s feeling for titles may be responsible for the way that, in the last number of years, seemingly every gallery show (in New York, anyway) comes with some presumably provocative or ambiguous overall title. More importantly, the role Tuymans gives to titles, whether for an entire exhibition or a single painting, illustrates the impact on him of conceptual art, with its insistence that the artist’s idea, not the resulting object, and certainly not craft in itself, is the artwork. It is the relationship of the titles of his pieces with their respective images (or, you might say, the pull on him of the forces of conceptual art and of movies) that often generates the real tension of his work.
For Tuymans, the title provides the mechanism whereby viewers enter into a picture and investigate it. The title says, “This is the governing idea of the piece. Your job, as viewer, is to see how the image that accompanies it does or doesn’t live up to it.” Tuymans’s art is ultimately psychological because he can put his viewers in a crossfire—a mental space—between a picture’s title and what it shows.
Tuymans’s crossfire confronted me with a visceral force when, at the show, I encountered for the first time a small, sketchlike painting from 1986 of what seemed to be a good-sized and fairly empty interior space. With its tentative, inky black lines drawn over various ivoried and yellowy-tan tones, the painting seemed elegant and beguiling (and momentarily suggested a ballroom before an event). Upon learning that the work’s title is Gaskamer (Gas Chamber), and is based on a watercolor Tuymans made at Dachau, I was suddenly left hanging, uncertain what I felt.
In other works, we look at pictures where, even with their titles, we aren’t sure what we are seeing; and sometimes the tension that arises from our trying to square the image with what the title makes us want to see in it can be wonderfully enlivening. The Doll, for example, a small painting from 1994 in soft tones of black, white, and gray, never became a clearly recognizable image for me, and that only added to the pleasure I derived. The picture shows some black, pronglike shapes stretching into an empty gray area, with a rounded white shape—the doll’s head?—set on one of the dark shapes.
The doll, if that is what it is, has a little bit of dark paint under it, which makes it look as if the doll has a downcast, even demonic, eye—rather like the way Philip Guston, painting his big, rounded potatohead faces, would have eyes going right to the edge of the potatohead’s face. Looking at Tuymans’s picture, I thought I could be seeing an aerial view of a watery landscape on a sunless, possibly wintry day, with the black pronglike shapes representing wooded peninsulas going down to the sea. How the doll with its “eye” connects with this landscapelike space I cannot say, and I like not being able to say.
Uncertainty—though is it the kind the artist intends?—hangs over a more forceful (if less endearing) work entitled The Heritage VI (1996). It is a sensuous and lustrous painting, done entirely in shades of gray, of a smiling man with wavy white hair. Not knowing anything about Tuymans’s subject, we might think he is just some hale fellow, albeit bullishly so. But in the context of Tuymans’s show, and learning, in the catalog, that we look at Joseph Milteer, a “right-wing extremist, Klansman, and somewhat obscure player in conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy,” this grinning man can seem repellent.
But what if Tuymans had made a mistake when he was finding his source to paint from, and the photo he used actually shows someone who is rather apathetic about politics, or is even a liberal state senator from, say, Minnesota? Wouldn’t the picture lose its sting? Wouldn’t this be the case for a fair proportion of Tuymans’s work? Isn’t much of the ominousness and wariness we feel before his pictures dependent on our sharing his left-wing cultural and political assumptions? But then we wonder if the artist isn’t having the last word on this, since he forces us to look at the way images can be anything we want to see in them.
Still, there is something obvious about the parade of villains in Tuymans’s work from the past ten or twelve years. It is in this period that he has made units of pictures about the Nazis, Belgium’s role in Africa, the George W. Bush era, Oberammergau, the Disney Company, and the Society of Jesus; and, yes, on some level it is fascinating, even thrilling, to watch an artist take on such wildly challenging subjects. The 2005 suite entitled Proper concerns what Tuymans saw as a climate of propriety and a return to traditional values enveloping the United States during the Bush years. The group includes paintings of a fussily done-up table setting, a formal room with a mirror on the wall, and, the most loaded work in the bunch, The Secretary of State, which presents the squinty-eyed and vaguely frowning face of Condoleezza Rice.
One feels on Tuymans’s part such a sense of reproach underlying these pictures, though, and most viewers will probably look at the subject so much the same way, that in the presence of these works we are less visually or emotionally destabilized than merely made impatient. Tuymans’s political and visual thinking gets almost gimmicky, however, in a 2008 work from the Disney series entitled W, which shows the barest sliver of a man standing before a map, on which his shadow is cast. If you encounter this work without knowing it is part of the Disney group you undoubtedly will assume that you see Bush standing before a map of Baghdad—not, as it turns out, Walt Disney giving a talk (in 1966) about the future home of Disney World. The point, probably, is that we viewers are to get our predators confused.
But the larger issue concerning Tuymans’s recent art is that, as he understandably wants to increase the size of his canvases, his paintings have lost something of the frugal and dulled down yet strangely distinctive appearance—the “Lenten manner,” as Joseph Leo Koerner puts it—that marked earlier and smaller pictures such as those from the series The Diagnostic View. Tuymans still builds up his paintings with one little pat after another, but in the Bush pictures especially, those pats have become cottony. And this fluffiness, along with the way that Tuymans is clearly happy to go along with the distortions in light and space provided by his photographic sources, makes a number of his pictures of the past decade feel disconcertingly like belated examples of mid-twentieth-century works by Bonnard or, even more, Sickert.
Yet Tuymans has made paintings in the last years that are as riveting as his small earlier ones. Some of the finest of these also happen to be among his largest in size. Diorama, from Mwana Kitoko, a dark, blue-gray picture, presents what appears to be a movie screen showing a movie of a rhinoceros running wild in the night. Even after taking in the work’s title, and therefore absorbing that we look at a stuffed animal in a museum display, the painting’s off-kilter sense of space is surprisingly disorienting.
The 2007 Turtle also casts a spell; and it showed me, at least, that there are ever new ways of being made nervous by the artist’s work. We learn that the image—it is essentially an abstraction, comprised of many white blobs and dots—comes from a photo of a lit-up float in a parade at Disneyland of a turtle cartoon character. But prolonged study of this picture—which is some twelve feet high by sixteen feet wide, and has a beautiful liquidy paint surface, like snow just fallen—has divulged to me no turtle. I see a bridal couple embracing. I have become fond of them, and now dread the day when the turtle materializes.
(For reproductions of other work by Luc Tuymans, see the slide show on the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.)
February 11, 2010