1.8 / Review

Luc Tuymans

By Leigh Markopoulos February 10, 2010

Luc Tuymans has made 500 paintings, and been the subject of ninety-five solo shows, as well as 395 group shows since 1988; the corresponding number of catalogue essays and reviews of his work constitute an equally impressive amount of verbiage. In thinking about what contribution a further 750 words could make, I realize that this review might be considered analogous to Tuymans’ work. Tuymans has developed his massive catalog of paintings through intensive research, contemplation, and preparation. He has attempted to convey the vast histories, injustices, and traumas of the world through deliberately mute, enigmatic images. After all the content distilled into his paintings, and all the critical discussion that has attempted to unpack them, how much more can I say of this Flemish mid-career artist?

Much has been made of the Tuymans myth: the flamboyant young artist whose intensely romantic engagement with gestural painting induced an existential crisis; his self-imposed five-year retreat into film and photography (1981–85); his triumphant return to a painterly approach purged of aesthetics, yet undeniably guided by the conventions of the camera. Critics and audiences completely overlooked his first solo show following the hiatus. Today, amidst renewed attention and speculation, Tuymans is hailed by many as one of the most influential artists of our time.

Consisting of around seventy paintings, Tuymans’ current exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a show of firsts: the first U.S. retrospective; the first exhibition to include three complete series; the first time Tuymans has allowed his work to be hung chronologically; and, most importantly perhaps, the first time he has ceded control over the installation to others (co-curators Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth).

Although, in remarks to the press, Tuymans professed himself satisfied with the results, the sequencing occasionally tends toward literalness and rigidity. The trajectory of his painterly development is imposed at the expense of what previously were highly personalized, somewhat instinctive, installations that promoted the independent life of his

Orchid, 1998; oil on canvas; 39 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (99.7 x 76.8 cm). Private collection, courtesy David Zwirner, New York. © Luc Tuymans. Photo: Felix Tirry, courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

The Secretary of State, 2005; oil on canvas; 18 x 24 1/4 in. (45.7 x 61.5 cm). Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York, promised gift of David and Monica Zwirner. © Luc Tuymans; courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

paintings rather than a logical system. Tuymans considers architecture, scale, and contrast or tension when deciding on placement, affording the viewer a glimpse into how he relates to his own work. Interestingly, he never hangs his paintings according to any display conventions, and at SFMOMA, too, their situation is gauged by eye, rather than by measuring tape. The curators have also taken the unorthodox but welcome step of allowing natural light to filter into the fifth-floor atrium, illuminating Tuymans’ palette and supporting his contention that his work is “full of color.”

On entering the exhibition, one is immediately consumed by a curious stress, which Molesworth identified in her remarks at the February 4th artist’s talk as the effort to comprehend Tuymans’ overwhelmingly elusive images. Tuymans courts difficult subject matter—working  in series, he has focused on the Holocaust, death and disease, Flemish nationalism, the fall-out of Belgian colonialism, post-9/11 America, Disney, and most recently the rise of religion traced through the fortunes of the Jesuit order. Ultimately, each constitutes a chapter of a bigger project to excavate some of the less pleasant aspects of history. It stands to reason that the artistic interpretation of these events should reflect their complexity, and need not offer any clear or simple perspective.

We viewers might appreciate a little more certainty, but Tuymans is motivated by ambiguity. He is fascinated by images and seeks to reinvest existing photographs with meaning; the more banal and marginal his source material, the better. He familiarizes himself thoroughly with his subject matter, often over a period of months, but the paintings are completed in a single session and from memory, further widening the gulf between event or object and its representation. The suave man with movie-star looks partially concealed by sunglasses is Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution. The detail of a kitchen table is revealed as a study of a vampiric L.A. serial killer’s banal domestic arrangements. The rather appealing botanical pattern in pinks and greens is in fact adapted from an X-ray of his own smoker’s lungs. As condensed and restrained summaries of bigger pictures, Tuymans’ paintings have often been called iconic. Perhaps iconoclastic is more accurate, as the artist is less engaged in memorializing or heroicizing his subjects than in undermining the assumptions that surround them.

Tuymans’ spare images have been painted into a silent limbo. By contrast, the artist in person is voluble and very present. His rapid-fire delivery, peppered with expletives, delivers searing indictments of mediocrity, injustice, and those who misunderstand his intentions, together with huge measures of dense information about his works and practice. If it seems ironic that someone with so much to say has chosen such a reticent medium, then the impact of Tuymans’ work speaks volumes of the effectuality of his process, further underscoring the artist’s conviction in the possibilities of painting.


"Luc Tuymans" is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco through May 2, 2010.

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