Luc Tuymans


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In Conversation: Luc Tuymans with Jarrett Earnest

For decades, Luc Tuymans's paintings have plumbed the nature of images–charting the limits of their personal and political functions. Before the opening of his latest solo show at David Zwirner Gallery, Tuymans spoke with Jarrett Earnest about temperature in paintings, their instantaneous decay, and the balance between violence and tenderness.

Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I wanted to start by talking about color. In this exhibition the painting Model (2015), appears to be a single dark tone, but within it there is a subtle fluctuation between warm and cool, which creates a very gentle rocking across the surface of the painting.

Luc Tuymans: That is true. First of all, I don't use black. That is important to know. I used to use a lot of van Dyck brown to get this really deep, dark color. I do that because it's about the profoundness, the depth of the tone, which, if you use black and just mix it with white, will be flat. Therefore you're right; in Model there are two different colors, it has been worked twice: first in the cool color, then overworked again the same day with a brown because it was too blue. When there was just one color it stuck out too much; it was not the right balance with the image.

Rail: That painting showed me something about the rest of the show, which is that they have a color dynamic that wavers between warm and cool contrasts, that are very close in tone. In the three "Murky Water" paintings (2015) I was particularly interested that they are green, which is already a mixture of warm and cool–blue and yellow. Its relationship to warm and cool is precarious, so that the rather cool green feels warm next to a blue-edged shadow. How do you approach the color temperature as structure?

Tuymans: The temperature of things is really important. The early works, particularly the Gaskamer [Gas Chamber] (1986), are quite warm in temperature. Throughout the years I've become much more cool. There is a big difference between the "Corso" flower parade paintings and the green "Murky Water" paintings–they are from different distances. They are differently painted also. That was the whole idea, to let them collide with each other, which gave me the idea of the title for the show–Le Mépris [Contempt (1963)]the same as Godard's film. The title painting in the exhibition, which shows the fireplace of that fantastic villa where Godard filmed is the only painting in the show that deals not with temperature but with light: light that beams out–pierces, actually–and makes a hole in the wall. In producing a show there is one particular painting I make to stop it, put the lid on the body of work, and that was it.

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A conversation with Luc Tuymans

With over 120 solo shows, and 600 group shows on his curriculum vitae, Luc Tuymans is credited by critics such as Peter Schjeldahl with having contributed to the revival of painting, which misguided critics have been eulogising since 1839, when the French painter Paul Delaroche declared it dead. After studying art history at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and working as a bouncer in Brussels, Tuymans became a full-time painter in the early 1990s. In 1994, he was one of the first artists picked up by the burgeoning David Zwirner gallery–both the gallery and the artist have since become international art world phenomena.

Tuymans' paintings are marked by quiet, restrained tones which seem to suggest they come from a place beyond reality. Tackling weighty themes such as the Holocaust, 9/11, the colonial history of his native Belgium, and market capitalism, Tuymans paints from photographs culled from newspapers, magazines, and his personal archive. As a result, they exist somewhere between the real and the copy: they are memories from secondary sources, bearing witness to retelling.

For his exhibition Le Mépris (5 May - 25 June), at David Zwirner in New York, Tuymans approached the general theme of 'contempt' with two series of paintings. The first depicts the Zundert Flower Parade, a yearly event in the afore named Dutch town where his mother was born. It consists of works such as Corso II (2015), which is based on a photograph Tuyman's father took of a float in the parade in 1958, the year the artist was born, and which is rendered in pale shades of primary colors. The second series features the polluted waters of the canals of Ridderkerk, a town in the western Netherlands. The colours are more sub fusc here: including jaundiced greens and yellows in works like Murky Water I (2015), used to depict garbage floating on the surface of the canals.

In this Ocula Conversation, Tuymans discusses his latest show, his process, politics, sense of ennui and feelings on the current state of the art world.

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Luc Tuymans on Tenderness and Mépris

Le Mépris, Luc Tuymans' exhibition of new paintings at David Zwirner Gallery, takes its evocative title from a Godard film of the same name. Translated as Contempt, the film stars Brigitte Bardot and takes on themes of art, commercialism, and gender politics. Tuymans mirrors Godard's serious, but irreverent, take on these issues with a group of paintings that speak volumes in their quietude. Taken from Polaroids and other found imagery, Le Mépris combines mysterious paintings of a parade in his mother's hometown, standing water in local canals, and the eponymous painting of the fireplace of the Villa Malaparte, where Godard's film was shot. It may sound scattered, but what it coalesces into could only be described as a kind of burlesque, which shows you just enough of what you crave, and traps you in an unending search to see more.

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Looking today at the works of Luc Tuymans, the most important figurative painter to emerge in the last three decades, it's easy to forget just how strange they looked to the art world of the 1980s. Time has made them less unusual, but not less perplexing. His stern, almost banal paintings depict some of the most violent passages of history–Belgian colonialism, the Holocaust, the war in Iraq–with unsettling economy and washed-out colors: grays, ochres and bilious blues and greens. He paints each one in a single day, and almost always draws his imagery from photographs, films, or his own iPhone. (One source image, of a populist Belgian politician, is the subject of an ongoing dispute: the photographer accused him of plagiarism and won substantial damages, though Tuymans is appealing.)

Tuyman's office lies near the port of Antwerp–his studio is a short walk away, hiding in a courtyard. On the day we meet he wears all black, a little white paint speckling one of his trouser legs. He lights cigarettes with the regularity of a metronome. We speak about Flemish art history, the meaning of novelty, and the unpromising future of Europe, and though he speaks boldly he isn't ever careless: his words are as precise as his paintings are murky.

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A day after the opening of the current Luc Tuymans exhibition in London, DAMN° had the chance to sit down with the Belgian artist and discuss his work, as well as how it is being a painter in the early 21st century. Inevitably, the subject of the recent court case against him for plagiarism arose, nicely adding colour to the conversation. Given that the use of images circulating in the media and elsewhere is, and always has been, at the heart of his practice as a painter, the matter is all the more intriguing. Regardless of how you look at it, Tuymans is an artist of our time.

Luc Tuymans has an eye for images that are charged with symbolic power. He is the type of artist that reads our time and picks out images that are significant and worth reconsidering. That is where his practice as a painter begins. On the occasion of his exhibition The Shore, Tuymans took us on a tour through the David Zwirner Gallery in London. The first works on display are three small portraits based on those by the Scottish painter Henry Raeburn. Tuymans took pictures of these paintings with his phone, printed them, enlarged them, re-photographed them, and then painted the results. His versions can still be called portraits, although the psychological distance from these figures is significantly different. It is not the kind of portrait through which you get to know somebody, but rather through which you see somebody, shifting the perception of the depicted person. The faces seem too close, and are even unpleasant in colour. All three of these faces have a blue glow, similar to the light emitted by a computer screen, contrasting with the orange-pink flesh tones.

To Tuymans, it has always been clear that he is not 'original'; he knew this long before a judge in his hometown of Antwerp convicted him of plagiarism. He has been choosing photos and digital images as a starting point for his paintings for more than 20 years. But four years after he painted a Belgian Politician, based on a newspaper photo depicting Jean-Marie Dedecker, the photographer filed a complaint. "I offered to mention the source", Tuymans explains. "I've always been open about where I find my imagery. But the photographer didn't think that was enough. So then it went to court." The judge thought the painting was too close to the photo, in terms of its composition and the framing of the image. But this judge never saw the painting in real life. So the only 'evidence' was a reproduction, as absurd as that may sound. The whole process was thus based on photographic images, while the issue at stake was the difference between a painting (an artwork) and a press photo. It becomes even more ironic if you consider that Tuymans's work has always involved research into the reliability of images, and the difference between paintings and other types of images. What could actually be regarded as an ode to a photograph has turned into a felony. "It's insane", Tuymans laments. It is clear to him that it was the particular newspaper–which he is not allowed to mention by name–that started the rumour and urged the photographer to take action. "In this part of Belgium, which is centre-right oriented, people have hated me for decades." Tuymans is determined to fight the case on appeal. "It will become an iconic painting", he says. "We will fight the case. There is too much at stake now… The law is behind by 20 years and should be adapted to acknowledge the present-day use of images."

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Luc Tuymans interview: 'You can feel a threat, and the threat is imminent'

Tuymans's new exhibition includes portraits of Scottish enlightenment figures, a creepy film-still-inspired canvas depicting figures caught in a searchlight, and a disconcerting view from the artist's bed. The show comes shortly after a court case in his native Belgium, in which Tuymans was found guilty of plagiarism in his use of a press photograph as source material for his 2011 painting 'A Belgian Politician'. He tells us about his latest work and how he intends to fight against the ruling.

You've billed this as a show for London but there's a strong Scottish element. Why?
'Three portraits are derived from paintings by Henry Raeburn in the University of Edinburgh, where I'm going to show later in the year. The show is generated out of these portraits. It's on two levels with two distinct atmospheres. Downstairs is about domesticity and status. Upstairs is more about the disquietness of things.'

What do you like about Raeburn?
'I like the way that, once you've cropped his images and enlarged them they look contemporary. It has to do with his touch, the strokes he made.'

He was said to have a 'square' touch, which is something I recognise in your work.
'Yes. I don’t like the lyricism of Rubens or that kind of thing. He's a great artist. It’s just not my painting mode. That's about the virtuoso. Some people are great at it, like Marlene Dumas. Edvard Munch was also great at it but a lot of people aren't. For me it's dangerous–it's very scary to do that I think because it can work but it can also fail, radically.'

Did you make the work during the Scottish referendum?
'Yes. So, it’s intended to be a bit of a kick in the ass for people here. It would have been a disaster for Scotland and England to split, just as it would be for my country to split; it's totally ridiculous.'

What’s going on in the large, dark painting 'The Shore'?
'I was looking for imagery, trying to find a war movie on YouTube and, by accident, I saw the beginning of a film from 1968, a British film called "A Twist of Sand". The film is not very interesting but at the very beginning you see a succession of imagery. The painting is from the second scene, of people isolated within this black nothingness. That's what the disquiet is all about, because you can feel a threat, and the threat is imminent. It instils a state of mind, something we’re actually living in a way now. If you see the film, in the third scene you hear the shots.'

You've said that this is one of your blackest paintings, why do you think it's taken until now to make such a dark work?
'Some things really have to incubate for a while. Goya, for example, is an artist who is still growing on me. I was in the Prado recently looking at his black paintings. But actually this painting isn't black, because I don't use black: it's quite a warm colour.'

Do you expect people to get all your references?
'The work isn't really serial in terms of how you connect the dots. But it's tailor made for this gallery because it's a house. I like that element of domesticity, the human proportions. It's not like you go into a gigantic space and you first see the space and then see the work, which is mostly the case now. Here there's a sense of intimacy. In the portraits, you'll recognise the colour of the skin, the blue that comes out, the temperature.'

How do you go about transforming a photograph or film still into a painting?
'You can work from websites, you can work with Photoshop. I work with my iPhone. I don't take Polaroids any more but I still draw, and all that comes together. I think it's ridiculous to fight new media. You can't win, so you just have to incorporate it into your toolbox and make a painting out of it, which is fantastic.'

You've used press photographs as source material for many years, were you surprised by the recent plagiarism case?
'Not really. But this one painting is generating so much coverage, which is insane: it's only one painting. It's going to be a very famous painting.'

You're not allowed to show the painting or make any more 'reproductions.' How does that make you feel?
'It's interesting because it has generated so many caricatures, it's like going back to the nineteenth century, to Manet's "Olympia", so actually it is really funny. We're going to fight this because what's at stake is freedom of speech and freedom to criticise what's in the world. If you're no longer be able to do that how can you be a contemporary artist? It's just not possible.'

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Japanese cannibals and German executions: Luc Tuymans goes over to the dark side

Luc Tuymans is best known for his washed and bleached-out canvases, so one huge work in a new show represents a real departure for one of Europe's most influential painters: it is incredibly dark.

The painting is literally dark, in that it is a night-time scene, and metaphorically dark–it shows a group of people moments before they are shot.

"It is a one-off...something different," he said of the painting, called The Shore, which is based on a scene from a best-forgotten 1968 British film called A Twist of Sand.

In the gloom are a German submarine crew about to be executed–but Tuymans said it could easily be read in a different way. "It has a very strange feel at the moment because of the idea of Isis and execution. If you put Arabic letters on top of it, it would immediately resonate in a different way."

Tuymans said he had been striving to make a "really dark" picture for some time, and was increasingly influenced by Goya and his Black Paintings.

The painting is one of several new works going on display for the first time at the David Zwirner gallery in London.

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Luc Tuymans at David Zwirner

A huge black canvas on which moonlit figures on a beach await execution is the centrepiece of a new exhibition of works by Luc Tuymans at David Zwirner gallery, London, from Friday January 30 to Thursday April 2 (all prices on request). The painting, The Shore, is typical of the artist's work in that it is inspired by world events, yet viewed fuzzily at a distance from them. What aren't typical, however, are its dark tones. Tuymans has made a name for painting snowy flurries and pale greys; images characterised by looking bleached, or as though faded by the passage of time. But this work, inspired by Goya's paintings and the 1968 film A Twist of Sand, is more completely black, in both palette and subject matter, than any before. Also on display is Tuymans' third portrait of Issei Sagawa (third picture), who killed and ate a fellow student at the Sorbonne in Paris in the early 1980s, but who now roams free.

Widely credited with having contributed to the revival of painting in the 1990s, Tuymans insists on its continued relevance. "I still indulge in the perversity of painting, which remains interesting," he says. Born in Belgium in 1958, he studied art history as well as painting, and his fascination with the Old Masters, in particular works by Sir Henry Raeburn, are the basis for a series of portraits in the show of three Scottish Enlightenment thinkers: John Playfair (first picture), John Robinson and William RobertsonPrior to the 2014 independence referendum, Tuymans visited Edinburgh and, on seeing the paintings by Raeburn, found in them "an element of disruption" that matched the current political climate. He took photographs of them with his mobile phone and then blew up the images to focus on the eyes, nose and mouth. The cool light of digital screens is reflected in their colour schemes.

Tuymans is also known for elevating the mundane, and two other paintings–Bedroom, which features a single white globe light suspended by a wire from the ceiling, and Wallpaper, inspired by the wallpaper in the hotel where he was staying in Edinburgh, which featured 18th-century parkland scenes–provide reflections on high and low living, a recurring theme in his work.

This show is a Tuymans masterclass, covering portrait, landscape, still life and history painting–all seen, as ever, through a veil, bleakly.

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Luc Tuymans: dark visions and enlightenment

Luc Tuymans in his studio with 'The Shore'. Image courtesy The Financial Times. 

The sky is leaden, the rain relentless, the wind so fierce that the bridges over the Scheldt are closed on the day I make my way to see Luc Tuymans in Antwerp. Across a courtyard behind a 19th-century terrace, a glass door opens on an expansive, L-shaped, dirty-white studio. A pale wintry sheen flickers through ceiling windows but a large, long painting on the dominant wall is so black that it commands the space: menacing, heavy, driving out light and hope. Only close up do you see a row of tiny blotchy white figures, stranded in darkness. The picture is called "The Shore".

Before it, in a torn low armchair, slumps the painter, dressed in black sweater and trousers, dragging on a cigarette, looking grey and exhausted. Tuymans, who has just finished the works for his first exhibition of 2015, opening at David Zwirner London this month, rises sluggishly as I admire his monumental night painting.

"For ages I tried to make a really dark painting," he explains. "This is the moment before these people are shot." 

The blank-faced, minute, surrendering figures were delineated literally by wipeout: Tuymans smudged away patches of the dense indigo-violet monochrome with toilet paper, then painted the gaps white. "There is the element of terror," he says, nodding. "It's painted differently from usual. Normally I come from lightest to darkest, here I painted dark first. You feel the space, these people are exposed, it's more splendid and, therefore, more terrifying."

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Three decades of the Mayfair art scene

The past five years have seen, as Ben Brown suggests, a steady stream of international galleries opening in Mayfair. Larry Gagosian started the trend of American galleries moving here, opening Gagosian on Davies Street in 2004, followed by Pace Gallery and David Zwirner in 2012, and Marian Goodman in 2014. Other newbies include Hauser & Wirth, Kallos Gallery, Haunch of Venison and Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

Angela Choon, director of David Zwirner London, had been working with David for 20 years before making the jump from the US to Mayfair. "It was time to look for something in Europe and pretty soon we realised London was the place. We were very clear from the start that it had to be in Mayfair, just because the art market is very international and when people do come from outside the UK, they come to this area. I feel like we've influenced a lot of other galleries to think about moving further afield, not just on the traditional Cork Street/Albemarle Street area," she tells me. 

The gallery is currently showing an exhibition of new works by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, with whom the gallery first opened. "It was very important to open our London gallery with an artist whose career has been simultaneous with the gallery's growth," Angela explains. His new show has been made specifically for the Grafton Street space. Quiet, restrained and at times unsettling, his works engage equally with questions of history and its representation as with quotidian subject matter cast in unfamiliar and eerie light. Painted from pre-existing imagery, they often appear slightly out of focus and sparsely coloured, like third-degree abstractions from reality.

Working in the art world for 20 years, what has Angela seen change? "Not only the expansion of art galleries, but also the art world. David opened the gallery in a recession in the early 1990s, and you grow and grow with the artists' work and you see them become successful. That has been really wonderful to see."

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Review of Luc Tuymans: The Shore, David Zwirner, London

Luc Tuymans returns to David Zwirner, London, for the second time with a new body of work, The Shore. Drawing upon a diverse cross-section of subjects including a Japanese cannibal, footage from a British World War II film and portraits by Henry Raeburn, Tuymans' work silently glides from subject to subject. However, the longer the viewer spends with the paintings, the more you are forced to confront topical socio-cultural and historical issues.

On the ground floor, the exhibition unfolds into three small portraits. These pieces are re-workings of three portraits of esteemed Scottish enlightenment figures: William Robertson (2014), John Robison (2014) and John Playfair (2014), which were originally painted by Henry Raeburn. The paintings, glazed in a digital art like abstraction, are manoeuvred by a brushwork that is honest and unforgiving, reminiscent of Rembrandt in areas and which epitomize the very nature of class driven academia.

Tuymans came across the original portraits on a visit to the art collection of the University of Edinburgh just prior to the 2014 independence referendum. He found in the works "an element of disruption" that matched the political climate at that time. The artist reflected this by first capturing them on an iphone, before blowing up the images and printing them out and rendering them through painting. The resulting distortion, through areas of pixilation and breakdowns into segments of primary colour, are heightened by Tuymans' refusal to use white or black. In place of white an icy blue washes over the images rendering them as isolated castaways.

The class indifference that isolated the figures, that sought them as radicals, was re-ignited by the Scottish independence referendum and is countered crudely by Cloud (2014). A tall, sickly beige canvas, which, perpendicular to the three portraits, acts as an invisible barrier as it looks down across the gaze of each portrait. The painting sees a dainty cloud as it blissfully drifts over mock Tudor rooftops. It comes from a cropped section of wallpaper from the Balmoral Hotel where Tuymans had tea during his Edinburgh visit. The wallpaper he proclaims symbolizes the "disgust we have for the class society!"

The second floor presents a dramatic departure for Tuymans in The Shore (2014). A large horizontal canvas looms with a captivating darkness. Whitish figures occupy a thin sliver of land in the centre of the image. The work is transposed from the opening scenes of the colonially-inspired film A Twist of Sand (1968), where the unidentifiable figures are about to be executed by an unknown source. The impending doom so solemnly captured, sees humankind at its most brutal echoing the manner in which conflicts and genocide is splashed across digital platforms as a weapon to induce fear.

To its right a small blue-hued portrait Issei Sagawa (2014), chillingly reminds us that not all threats of evil stem from foreign conflict. Issei Sagawa is a Japanese cannibal who ate his fellow student, Renée Hartevelt, at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1981. He was extradited to Japan and, following his prison sentence, is now free and even enjoys a cult celebrity status. In the image he is wearing a strange helmet and mask, poised in a disturbingly calm manner. When combined with The Shore, it capitalizes on the isolation we feel as we question just what are we, even I truly capable of?

It becomes evidently clear, that through the very nature of Tuymans' process of appropriating from photographic imagery, abstracting it and then re-working it through mind and hand, he draws upon a lack of sincerity and belief in photographic imagery today. Painting works with time and through time, it stalls a moment and can be left lingering within the artist’s for a prolonged period of time before it is finally realized. In this, a painting entertains a core, habitual truth, one that an iphone or imagery from a computer screen can never possibly convey.

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The greatest living painters in the world

In our world of loud images, all jostling and barging to grab our attention, the paintings of Tuymans are as reticent as ghosts. Why choose so ordinary a subject? Why paint it in so muted a way? The only answer to the question is to take a longer look. Working in thematic series–his works address subjects from Belgian colonialism in the Congo to post-9/11 America–he sifts through visual residue (internet images and newspaper articles, TV programmes and postcards) and examines the ways in which facts filter down to us. The evidence cannot be trusted, he suggests. His bleached-out images–the products of prolonged study, poured out in a single sitting–feel at once vaguely familiar and yet depersonalised and detached. That empty room is a gas chamber, for instance, but you won't necessarily realise it. Tuymans' cryptic images take the tradition of history painting into disturbing psychological territories. As the viewer decodes them, a discomfiting realisation dawns. Tuymans, whose latest exhibition, The Shore, opened yesterday at David Zwirner gallery in London, demands that we peer through the filters of our collective desire to explain and compartmentalise and instead to face experiences afresh. It can be unnerving, but this is an artist who has played a major role in making painting again feel relevant. 

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Artistic Positions: Q+A with Luc Tuymans

On Jan. 10, "The Summer is Over," Luc Tuymans's 10th show with David Zwirner Gallery in New York, will open. The seven paintings in the exhibition, which feature imagery culled solely from the painter's personal environment, represent somewhat of a new direction in the artist's work–one where looking and self-reflection come to the fore.

A.i.A. spoke with Tuymans about the exhibition, its personal significance for the artist, and his views on the politics of privacy.

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For three decades, Belgian artist Luc Tuymans has used his palette of muted colors to scrutinize political leaders like Belgian King Baudouin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Now, the 54-year-old painter aims to debunk the mystique of a subject closer to home: the idealized artist.

Artists today are stereotyped either as romantically poor or glamorously rich, Mr. Tuymans says. "All these overblown ideas have nothing to do with the work and instead with personalities and image-building," he says.

This week, the David Zwirner Gallery in New York opens Mr. Tuymans's latest show, "The Summer Is Over," featuring six paintings of objects and locations from the artist's immediate vicinity in Antwerp. The objects are "looked at" by an isolated, purposefully unflattering self-portrait of the artist on an opposite wall.

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I had returned from Chicago just a few days before visiting the Belgian artist for the first time at his Antwerp studio. While in the United States, it was remarkable to hear people talking about his 2010–11 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago many months after it had closed. Leading up to his two exhibitions later this autumn at David Zwirner’s gallery spaces in London (October 5–November 17) and New York (November 1–December 19), I discussed with Tuymans a number of subjects that come out of his two new bodies of work, including the questions they raise around the romanticized life of artists, the recurring issue of otherness in his work, and how a talking parrot in a charmingly ramshackle tapas bar close to his studio inspired the title for a series of new paintings.

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Adrian Searle encounters…Luc Tuymans's Allo!

When did I last get butt-naked with a painting in the line of duty, I ask myself. There's just the two of us here: me, and a work by Luc Tuymans called, propitiously enough, Allo!

I'm off to bed. We're in my cabin on a boat called the Roi des Belges ("King of the Belgians"). Tuymans is Belgian too. To be honest, this is the only cabin. It's after midnight and the crew–let's call them "room service"–aren't about. The tide's up. Where's my cocoa?

I'm sailing through the night on the Roi de Belges, the riverboat shuddering and creaking on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank. Rain slaps at the windows and the wind howls. The Roi des Belges is named after the boat Joseph Conrad captained on his journey up the Congo river in 1890–a trip that became the inspiration for his most famous work, Heart of Darkness, which itself inspired Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now. For one colonialist misadventure, read another.

The tub is also A Room for London, a collaboration between Artangel and Living Architecture, working with the artist Fiona Banner. I had been invited on board–following David Byrne, Jeremy Deller, actor Brian Cox (who read Orson Welles's original screenplay of Conrad's story to a live audience here a few weeks ago) and others. Creative types are invited to stay on the boat, to write and to perform, and the public can rent the joint for the night.

This is more nautical-themed hotel suite than boat. But it is shipshape, with high-thread-count bed linen. It isn't the first time I've set sail across the concrete Sargasso of the South Bank either; last time I floundered in a rowing boat on the flooded sculpture court of the Hayward Gallery, courtesy of the Austrian collective Gelitin in the Hayward's 2008 Psycho Buildings show.

Tuymans' painting, like me, is a stowaway. Allo! was painted especially for the Roi des Belges, and the artist has gone on to paint a whole series of related works since this one-off commission. Tuymans's art has frequently returned to the troubled history of Europe. He has painted the gas chamber, Hitler and his sidekicks, the rotten history of Belgium's colonial past and its relationship with Africa–in particular Belgium's role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first post-independence prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1961. Tuymans filled the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 with a cycle of paintings related to this. Belgium officially apologised for its role in Lumumba's assassination a year later.

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Putting the Wrongs of History in Paint

During a visit to New York late last fall, the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans sat on a couch in the dimly lighted lounge of the Bowery Hotel and recounted a disturbing childhood memory. One evening when he was 5, he said, his family was gathered around his paternal grandparents' dinner table. His mother's brother was leafing through a picture album when a photograph of one of his father's brothers–his own namesake, Luc–fell to the floor. The photo, Mr. Tuymans said, showed this uncle as an adolescent performing the Hitler salute.

"This was totally unexpected," said Mr. Tuymans, 51, explaining that his mother's family had been active in the Dutch resistance and in hiding refugees. For the first time, he said, his father admitted to her that two of his brothers had trained as Hitler Youth in Germany. After that, the artist said, the issue "was always looming" in his parents' home. The marriage was not a happy one, and with his mother more and more outspoken on the subject and his father increasingly introverted, Mr. Tuymans said, "I learned to eat very fast and get away from the table."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Tuymans–whose first major American retrospective opens this weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, after an initial showing at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio–has become known for examining the visual residue of trauma and the collective desire to forget. Some of his best-known paintings deal with the Holocaust, the post-9/11 social and political climate in the United States and the legacy of the Belgian colonization of Congo–and with the ways such things linger, or don't, in the collective consciousness.

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The Belgian Luc Tuymans is the most challenging painter in the recent history of the art, if recent painting can still be said to have a history, and not just a roll call. A retrospective of the fifty-one-year-old artist at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio (it will travel to San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and Brussels), invites a verdict. Mine is a thumbs-up. Tuymans’s thinly brushed, drab-looking (but sneakily lovely) canvases, usually based on banal photographic images with wispy political associations, do two big things at once. First, they dramatize the fallen state of painting since the nineteen-sixties, when Andy Warhol merged it with mechanical reproduction, and Minimalism petrified it with a basilisk stare. Not for Tuymans the tragic pathos of the previously preëminent Gerhard Richter, whose several styles, alternately realist and abstract, have acknowledged the collapse of any coherent tradition in painting, but have done so with defiant bravura, clinging to the old, grand manners. Tuymans’s grayish daubs announce that the war against mass media and Minimalist skepticism is truly over, because it's truly lost. Second, Tuymans discovers in the very humiliation of the medium a vitality as surprising as a rosebush on the moon. He does so with nothing-to-lose audacity, in terms of subject matter. If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things. He works in thematic series, whose topics have included the Holocaust, disease, Flemish nationalism, Belgian colonialism, post-9/11 America, and the mystique of Walt Disney. It's hard to tell how invested he is in his subjects, but he is plainly fascinated by the power of images to roil minds and hearts.

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Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall

Arguably–and often labeled–the greatest painter of his generation, Luc Tuymans signals in every canvas the necessary limits of the medium, even the coda to its drawn-out death: his reliance on fleeting photographic and filmic imagery, his refusal to spend more than one day on a canvas, and perhaps most of all, his indifference to craft bring the Belgian artist into head-on confrontation with painting, and endow his subjects–from the untouchable (the Holocaust) to the pedestrian (flowers, pigeons)–with an unmistakable air of violence inflicted. By foregrounding the impossibility of adequate representation, the disconnection and fragmentation of memory and experience, doubting the relevance of contemporary painting while looking back at the traumatic perfection of the work of the Flemish primitives, Tuymans indexes a simultaneously rich and clouded present for the medium.

Working thousands of miles away, in Chicago, Kerry James Marshall infuses high art-historical narratives with the bald realities of everyday existence in grittier locales in Chicago and Los Angeles. His rendition of a "black aesthetic" (to borrow from the title of his 2003-4 retrospective at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art) freely disintegrates the very notion of such a thing, involving instead a myriad of styles and subjects, from personal narrative to cultural history, intertwining the legacies of Western painting and the civil rights movement.

Despite their very different cultural backgrounds, Tuymans and Marshall find common ground in their views of making and viewing art: its capacity to convey meaning, its frozen moment captured, its physicality, its value and effect. When it comes to the possibility of an insurgency to make a dent in the status quo, however, their outlooks really begin to resonate. Tuymans and Marshall are currently collaborating on an animation project to be produced by the Antwerp-based nonprofit organization objectif_exhibitions. BOMB asked the two artists to continue their ongoing conversation on tape, by phone.

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