1.8 / The Painting Issue

Luc Tuymans Retrospective. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 10 A.M. February 3, 2010

By Jake Longstreth February 10, 2010

Image: Der Architekt, 1997-98, oil on canvas; 113 x 144 cm.  Continuous loan of the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst to the Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden. © Luc Tuymans. Photo: Felix Tirry, courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

Arriving at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the press preview of the Luc Tuymans retrospective, I reflected that I had seen only a few of the artist’s paintings in person. Despite having his Phaidon monograph on my bookshelf for years, and being familiar with the wealth of literature his work has inspired, I had tried to retain a necessary skepticism, a suspended judgment until I had the seen the work in person. This was difficult considering the expanse of his influence and the almost universal reverence of him within discussions of contemporary painting.

In the atrium, exhibition co-curators Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth made a few anticipatory remarks; Molesworth noted of the paintings, "A lot are beautiful, none are pretty." This show marked the first time Tuymans had not curated his own exhibition; additionally, the curators organized the paintings chronologically instead of thematically, contrary to his standard practice. At last, Tuymans spoke. Thanking the curators, he remarked that this was his "ninety-fifth solo show."

Those assembled for the preview then gathered into elevators that took us to the fifth floor, where we crammed into the small, warmly lit entry room. Tuymans wasted no time in launching into a blitzkrieg of descriptive information pertaining to the first few pieces in the show. He sustained this performance throughout the entire exhibition, delivering nothing short of a tour de force of exposition.

Gaskamer (Gas Chamber), 1986; oil on canvas; 24 x 32 1/2 in. (61 x 82.5 cm). The Over Holland Collection, in honor of Caryl Chessman. © Luc Tuymans. Photo: Peter Cox, courtesy The Over Holland Collection.

Tuymans' earliest paintings were, initially, difficult to apprehend. Odd, dirty-looking, dilapidated canvases are hung unframed on pristine white walls. They look feeble and antiquated, as though they are from some forgotten chapter of the early 20th century. Tuymans explained that he constructed them with an approach toward "authentic falsification," which involved "deliberately (trying) to make work that looked as if it were made thirty years ago." Looking at Gaskamer (Gas Chamber) (1986), Tuymans called it "the most problematic painting I've ever done and will ever do as I long as I live probably." The painting is just a cursory sketch of an interior on a putrid yellowish ground. Based upon a watercolor he made on-site, it depicts a gas chamber at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. It could be just a dank basement anywhere, and, as Tuymans informed us, "without the title, it would be completely without effect….You need the title to demonstrate the triviality of that sort of horror."

Many of the works toward the beginning of the exhibition are harsh, brittle, and diagrammatic. They embody a tough-minded, avant-garde spirit. According to Tuymans, who was once a gestural painter, the "suffocating and existential" trauma of dealing with painting's long, hallowed history caused him to "go against” his aesthetic values: “I killed that all off," he said. The exhibition's chronology begins with this decision, and supports the artist’s subsequent assertion that, "in the end, you get another aesthetic when you have 500 paintings behind you."

Organized in this way, one sees the maturation of his early work into a painterly, and, yes, beautiful set of solutions for another chapter in figurative painting. With a grin, Tuymans beckoned us into the first of the large, spacious rooms: "Now we move into the light!" It is unclear whether he was referring to the room with its bright, high ceilings, or to the paintings themselves. Nonetheless, many of the works in the large galleries do possess a glowing, internal luminosity that his earlier works don’t.

Starting around 1994, Tuymans’ output began to acquire a radiant quality; these paintings don't depict light so much as project it outwards. In the 1997 Der Architekt (The Architect), a skier—often cited as Albert Speer, Hitler's architect—has fallen down. He sits with skis splayed in the middle of the picture, which is gradated in a shimmering icy blue. Tuymans remarked that the painting is blue because he derived the image from a documentary he saw. It is a "transmitted image"; Tuymans is actually depicting the blue TV-screen light instead of natural light reflected from the snow. Of course, without the artist's divulgence, this differentiation wouldn't have been at all apparent. These sorts of revelations and insights defined much of the morning's tour. Tuymans provided us with many contextual details about the work's inception: interesting, charming, anecdotal details about what was going on in his head when he was inspired to make this painting or that painting, what idea each painting "represented."

But ultimately, this knowledge did little to supplement my enjoyment of the work. His comments couldn’t explain the weird alchemy that occurs when he paints from a photograph and makes it something new. How much one wants to unpack and discern these paintings’ back-stories or source imagery is up to the individual. Thankfully, the paintings are not contingent on it. Standing before Der Architekt, the work emerged as a flat-out lovely painting, holding my attention with its deceptive simplicity and casualness. Over the years, I had seen and grown familiar with this image—along with many of Tuymans’ paintings—as a reproduction; it felt strange to replace that familiarity with a new acquaintance.

Ballroom Dancing, 2005; oil on canvas; 62 1/4 x 40 3/4 (158 x 103.5). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional and promised gift of Shawn and Brook Byers. © Luc Tuymans.

Works that had seemed inert, uninteresting, and puzzling in reproduction sprang to life in person. They possessed luminosity and presence. In Ballroom Dancing (2005), a couple dances at the Texas Governor's Ball. The painting is mostly a purplish monochrome suffused with dour grays and pinks, atop which floats the woman's dress, radiating pastel orange like a Rothko color field. The painting's compressed tonal range allows the color relationships to quietly sizzle; as I stood with it, a slow burning meditation on complementary colors emerged. My eyes and mind fired back and forth between the subject and the painting. This is true of much of the work. Bizarre, arbitrary shifts from warm to cool tones don't so much disrupt our apprehension of the images as hold us there. His brush stroke, like a great Modernist, embodies both an idiosyncratic personality and a refined detachment. 

"Painting is quite specific,” Tuymans said during the walk-through. “What is important in an artist is the way he uses the medium and how specific he is with it. And that's it. And that can be painting, it can be anything. In my case it's painting, because for me, painting is like riding a bus.”

The experience reminded me of the ban L.A. artist Robert Irwin imposed on photographing his work in the 1960s. He argued that a photograph could capture everything the work was not about (which is the image), and nothing that it was about (which is to say its presence.) And Tuymans' work exemplifies this problem, which of course, isn't really a problem. Literal and hermetic, with little metaphorical power, his source imagery is banal. His paintings aren't very interesting as images, which is often why people are hesitant to like his work. The paintings only really work in person, as objects in a room, exuding presence, consuming space.

In a recent New York Times article, Alex Katz, another figurative painter who shares Tuymans’ methodology of completing his paintings in one sustained session, succinctly testified to Tuymans’ painterly achievement: "Luc's small paintings control big spaces, and his paint strokes all connect." [1]

Having spent several years as someone only familiar with the Tuymans whose work lives in the pages of art magazines and jpegs, it was relevatory to finally see this work. The virtual, mediated Tuymans somehow hadn’t been enough for me. The real one is. And if this treatment of the exhibition has been unscholarly and informal, it is only to suggest one person’s experience with the actual work.


[1] Spears, Dorothy. “Putting the Wrongs of History in Paint” in The New York Times, February 7, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/arts/design/07tuymans.html?ref=design

Jake Longstreth is a painter living in Oakland, soon to be moving to New York.

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