The dark art of seduction: Luc Tuymans in Venice
“I hate Venice,” says Luc Tuymans. “Decay, morbidity, memory: it is the most likeable city where you can be uncomfortable — in a comfortable way.”
The grumpy Belgian painter has just finished installing a stunning and unexpected retrospective that opens this weekend at Palazzo Grassi. Any artist would be thrilled to exhibit across this neoclassical courtyard interior and movie-star staircase, and from the first glance at two watery showpieces looking on to the glittery, serene Grand Canal, it is clear how Tuymans — magnificently and menacingly — both exploits and undermines the setting.
“Murky Water” (2015) is a dystopian triptych of acrid yellow-green reflections of street lamp and car in the algae-ridden, litter-strewn surfaces of a putrefying Dutch canal, a composition enlarged from a blurry Polaroid shot. The velvety indigo-violet-black seascape “The Shore” (2014) is more sinister: it features a distant line of blank figures, hands raised in surrender, delineated by wipeout — Tuymans smudged the dark ground and painted the gaps in white blots. They represent submarine crew members about to be shot — the source is a still from Don Chaffey’s 1968 adventure movie A Twist of Sand — but the tiny exposed huddle could be any vulnerable people. The painting is Goya-esque in its blackness and expression of terror.
Tuymans’ unease about Venice mirrors exactly the discomfort created by his paintings. Their themes of disintegration, death and the challenge of collective memory are deeply disturbing — the more so because Tuymans aestheticises trauma with supreme painterly seduction. “Wandeling” (1989), an idyllic snowscape with pine trees and figures like little crosses, is Tuymans’ imagining of Hitler and his entourage strolling outside Berchtesgaden, planning the “final solution”. In “Frozen” (2003), a bright halo glimmering around a gloved hand on what could be a treasure chest signals nuclear breakdown; the hand belongs to a worker cooling a Chernobyl reactor element.
“Strangely enough, people could come out of this show and say it’s beautiful,” Tuymans snarls. “I think that would be funny.”
Luc Tuymans, Master of Moral Complexities, Tries Something New
This month at the Palazzo Grassi, looking out over the Grand Canal in Venice, visitors will find a beautiful new floor in the atrium, made of thousands of Italian marble tiles.
Only once they’re upstairs, looking down on the entire mosaic, will they see that it depicts a cluster of sparse pine trees. And when they read a wall label, they’ll learn that the evergreens were planted along the border of a Nazi concentration camp, to hide it from public view.
The mosaic is the centerpiece of a major retrospective of the Belgian contemporary artist Luc Tuymans, opening at the Palazzo Grassi on March 24 and running through Jan. 6, 2020. It is based on Mr. Tuymans’s 1986 painting “Schwarzheide,” named for a forced-labor camp in Germany where many inmates were worked to death.
Mr. Tuymans is credited with bringing painting back in the 1980s, by pioneering a style of figurative painting based on found images. His palette is almost always muted shades of gray, and his forms are blurry and washed-out, suggesting memories of things faded from view.
The mosaic may be a departure from his usual medium, but it is also emblematic of his trademark sleight of hand: Mr. Tuymans gives us an image that may make us feel one way, but when we find out what it is — through a title, a wall text, or, in this case, a new perspective — its meaning changes, often in an unsettling way.
His work has often reflected on history, in particular World War II and Belgian colonialism, but often concerns current affairs, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the war in Iraq. One of his most famous works is a 2005 portrait of the former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice; another is his 1986 “Gas Chamber,” a blanched-out image of an empty space at Dachau.
At his Antwerp studio in late January, just before his works were to be picked up for shipment to Venice, Mr. Tuymans smoked cigarette after cigarette and tried to figure out whether the Palazzo Grassi show, with more than 80 paintings plus the mosaic, is his largest to date, out of some 150 solo shows in the last 30 years. Two thirds of the works on display will be recent, from 2016 to 2018, he said.
“I made it a point not to show the most topical works,” he said. “This is much more about understatement.” (Some of those the more overtly political works will be shown as part of a retrospective of about 50 paintings at the De Pont museum in Tilburg, the Netherlands, runing from June 29 though Nov. 17.)
Bart de Baere, the director of M HKA, the leading contemporary art museum in Antwerp, said Mr. Tuymans doesn’t invent images, but rather repurposes them, and his source material is often drawn from magazines, film stills, Polaroids, internet images and his own iPhone photos. “His primary artistic action is in the choosing of an image,” he said. “Part of that is the awareness of the fact that the image is part of a context and that any choice is partial. No choice is neutral.”
The exhibition in Venice is titled “La Pelle” (“The Skin”), a reference to the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 novel, which is set in Naples just after the liberation of that city by the Allied forces at the end of World War II. The novel reflects on how residents of the city have been simultaneously conquered and liberated; they were both co-conspirators and victims of the war.
Q&A: Painter Luc Tuymans Predicts Trump’s Reelection and Explains Why His Work Is Ultimately About Revenge
His works fetch tremendous prices both at auction and off gallery walls. But for his latest show, “Sanguine: Luc Tuymans on Baroque” at Milan’s illustrious Fondazione Prada, Tuymans is showing only one painting of his own. His main gig here is as curator, having organized an exhibition combining Baroque masterpieces with contemporary artworks. The show, as Tuymans told Observer, is full of juxtapositions, focusing on dissonant, beautiful portrayals of violence and mortality.
As with much of Tuymans’ oeuvre, this exhibition is political. Contemporary pieces by Kerry James Marshall and On Kawara hang next to the 16th and 17th century masterpieces by Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens to create conversations across time about western image making, propaganda and globalism. Meanwhile, elements from the past appear quite changed in the context of our post-truth era and the new rise of right-wing populism. Beyond his art and curatorial efforts, Tuymans isn’t shy about speaking publicly on political matters, either. He talked to Observer about feeling Steve Bannon’s presence in Europe, and how we got to a place of Brexit and Donald Trump.
OBSERVER: This show speaks to the current state of international politics both overtly and in more subtle ways. How does Sanguine, which brings together the drama of the baroque with the drama of the contemporary—while we’re living in a dramatic age—reflect on the international social and political climate?
TUYMANS: I came up with the idea to [show] two poignant works: Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud, shown here in the form of a film, [and] Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, from 1610, the last self-portrait he made, where his head has been cut off. They are two elements of extreme violence, extreme contrast and of schisms. In between I would make a constellation of contemporary art, because I also think we live in a time of schisms.
This is a European show in Europe, which is now sort of in shambles because Steve Bannon is already here, so to speak. Then of course you have what’s happening in the United States and the entire West. There were two things that I foresaw: Brexit and Trump—I also think the guy will be reelected. You have an element of protectionism [now], which was actually downloaded immediately after 9/11. The world changed. Two other major mishaps in this whole political story are the first and second Gulf Wars. So we have the extreme migrant crisis.
It is therefore interesting to counter this element with the idea of culture—with another form of populism that was actually based on broadening the horizons instead of narrowing them. So this show is a sheer juxtaposition.
OBSERVER: What do you think about artists throughout history wrestling with this idea of capital “T” truth and, all of a sudden, living in a time where truth is actually perceived as subjective and flexible, but in a very negative and dangerous way? Artists have always been playing with the truth—I’m thinking of Baroque works that were total propaganda during reformation or David’s invented images that he painted to add to the aura of Napoleon.
TUYMANS: Yes. The baroque was first an element of propaganda. When Bernini finished the Colonnade [in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican], it was the first time the word propaganda was brought up, because it is the embrace, through the form of architecture and sculpture, of the masses. People like Rubens were completely subscribed to the program. It was the first idea of western image building that was propelled from here all the way to South America. Therefore you have Javier Téllez [from Venezuela] in the show, you have Pascale Marthine Tayou [from Cameroon].
And of course in shrill contrast, to stay in the time period, look at the two personalities of Rubens and Caravaggio. Rubens was always famous. He remained famous throughout his life. He worked with the studio. He has numerous amounts of assistants. PR didn’t exist but he would have invented it. So this is the first idea of western image building, so to speak. In contrast with Caravaggio—who killed a guy, who was working alone and was actually on the run—the impact of both is completely different. [Rubens] subscribes to the system, working mostly for the Spanish court but nevertheless within the idea of the counter-reformation.
Caravaggio, also working under the framework of the pope and the papal forces, was in the end disregarded because of the murder, nearly excommunicated and on the run. But he also got away with an imagery that was extremely modern, and remains so to this day. For the same reasons, they had to be appalling, they had to have impact. But both deal with the idea of ultimate violence. Baroque was never envisioned as a transitional period in art up until the 19th century. It was rather seen as a negative, as overkill or overload.
OBSERVER: Can you talk about that transition from the invention of PR in the baroque period to now, where it seems like we’re rediscovering propaganda?
TUYMANS: I think now we are actually living in a period of extreme forgetfulness—the opposite of information. [Baroque] was misinformation but with a specific agenda, most of the time a religious one. But it was also geopolitical. Don’t forget that as this was happening the world was rapidly expanding. It was also the heyday of the western image, which is now in ultimate decline.
So we’re living the inverse. This could be an inverse image of all the possibilities, including all the illusionism, like the images of Mark Manders’ sculptures that look like clay but are actually bronze. They are also twisted and cut in half. Or the work of Carla Arocha and Stéphane Schraenen that reflects but also deflects and sort of disperses all the imagery, and sucks it in and throws it out at the same time. They all play with this idea of what can be seen as real or what can be an illusion.
The challenge of the show is how you connect the dots, how you connect the lines within this framework where people are forgetful, where people forget, not only where they come from, but what historically was an important departure point for the things we’re living now.
OBSERVER: Moving away from politics, if I’m not mistaken, your first exhibition was staged inside an empty swimming pool. I want to ask you about the way that your practice has always been curatorial, and this sort of need to create an atmosphere or an aura.
TUYMANS: There is a sort of link [between curating and painting] because if I curate there is a specific choice, and that choice will not be overly positive. It will go to a darker segment, which I think is more interesting, for example, the work of Pierre Huyghe in this show, Untitled (Human Mask), which deals with this situation of aberration with this monkey wearing a mask, but also in a very specific place—where a tsunami happened, where the monkey is disoriented. You see an existential crisis with the monkey running around, but it becomes extremely human through the simulation, which is shocking to most people. In my work, there is an undertow and situation where violence is immanent—or revenge, to be honest. In that sense, these things are powerful motors in terms of what the visual actually can do. There will always be this element of, not a subliminal message, but the understatement that runs throughout.
Now, my very first show in this swimming pool was of course not that clear. But it was the first time my works got out of my very small studio and it was very important for me to see them displaced and confronting quite a radical architecture because it was a pool from the 1930s, so it wasn’t like a white cube or anything. So the works would have to go in to a specific dialogue. Although nobody came except my parents and some friends—my mother started to cry. When I was on the balcony looking into the pool I said, “It’s going to be fine,” because I understood that the work could take on the space and I saw it for the first time.
Antwerp is in full Baroque mode, with half a dozen museums devoting their summer programming to the high-drama art of the 17th century, and to Rubens, the city’s favorite son. Even the Museum of Contemporary Art has got in the 17th-century spirit with the substantial exhibition “Sanguine/Bloedrood,” an exercise in luster, mortality and timeline-smashing. Recent works by Sigmar Polke, On Kawara and Marlene Dumas share space with a major late work by Caravaggio, and portraits by Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.
The curator of “Sanguine/Bloedrood” is Luc Tuymans — the artist who bestrides Antwerp’s scene today as Rubens did four centuries ago, though his paintings are as cool and color-sapped as Rubens’s are showy and saturated. Mr. Tuymans is a practiced curator, a rarity among artists: In 2016 he organized a well-received retrospective of the Belgian Expressionist James Ensor at the Royal Academy in London, and he has curated shows of German Romanticism and Polish contemporary art. “Sanguine/Bloedrood” is not one of his more demanding curatorial efforts: It has nothing much to say about the older Baroque art on view, and its propositions rest too heavily on the offbeat contrasts that characterize “artist’s choice” shows.
Still, it’s worth scrambling expectations from time to time, and there is a certain pleasure in encountering Baroque paintings and sculptures in the purified realm of a contemporary art museum. The show’s anchor is Caravaggio’s “Flagellation of Christ,” painted in 1607-8, in which the bearded, thorn-crowned son of God looks downward as two men tie him to a column while a third prepares to flog his naked body with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Jesus’ bright, alabaster flesh is set off from the shadowy background in intense chiaroscuro, which Mr. Tuymans compounds by displaying the painting under a spotlight in an all-black circular gallery.
The “Flagellation” hangs here near two startling gilded statues of Mary and St. John by the lesser-known sculptor Johann Georg Pinsel, as well as a C-list St. Sebastian, stiff and unconvincing, that Francisco de Zurbarán could not have spent much time on. In the same room are works of contemporary art. On the floor, as high as your ankle and refracting the Baroque works on the walls, is an abstract construction of mirrored triangular prisms by the Antwerp artists Stéphane Schraenen and Carla Arocha — another work that produces drama through reflected light. (It’s also a reminder that this show’s curator does not play by the rules: Ms. Arocha is Mr. Tuymans’s wife.)
The classic definition of the Baroque comes to us from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, whose “Principles of Art History” (1915) distinguished it from the earlier High Renaissance through a series of visual contrasts. Renaissance pictures are “linear,” each figure outlined and balanced within the picture plane; Baroque pictures are “painterly,” with figures melting into one another. The contrast isn’t without exceptions, but Wölfflin’s typology remains helpful: If Renaissance painting aimed to depict “the solid figure,” the art of the Baroque era favored “the changing appearance,” “movement” and “the form in function.”
A small number of the contemporary works in this exhibition have that same dynamism and heightened visual contrast. One is “The Kiss,” a lovely wall-mounted sculpture of undulating red velvet and a black wooden triangle, made in 1984 by the excellent and still underappreciated Flemish artist Lili Dujourie. There are also several kitsch rehashes of historical motifs, including Nadia Naveau’s clownish plaster busts of Figaro or a curly-haired courtier (whose Rococo curls seem more 18th-century anyway). And stately black-and-white photographs of Brazilian Baroque sculptures by Marcel Gautherot, the French photographer better known for documenting the construction of Brasília, expand the show’s focus from Europe to colonies in the new world.
Yet the Baroque is as much a temperament as a style. It’s theatrical, and obsessed with death. It’s also profoundly Catholic — the Baroque era coincides with the Counter-Reformation, and artists here in Flanders relied on cash from the church or from patrons in Spain, which ruled the Catholic Netherlands, to produce these extravagant images. It’s this visceral character that seems to interest Mr. Tuymans most in Baroque art, and much of the most compelling contemporary work in “Sanguine/Bloedrood” echoes the 17th-century tradition in its excess and intensity, rather than in its appearance.
For “In Flanders Fields” (2000) by Berlinde De Bruyckere, perhaps the only Belgian artist more lugubrious than Mr. Tuymans himself, the embalmed corpses of three horses, their hides patched and their eyes sewn shut, lie in morbid suspension. (As always with animals in Ms. De Bruyckere’s art, the horses died of natural causes.) In the most striking move of “Sanguine/Bloedrood,” on a wall in the same gallery are a clutch of On Kawara’s frosty “Date Paintings,” each carefully lettered with the day, month and year on which the Japanese-American artist made it. These archetypes of conceptual painting, accompanied, too, by Kawara’s nearly unknown early prints of atomic bomb victims, have never appeared more operatic and ghoulish than they do here.
Those two understandings of the Baroque, one visual, one emotional, collide in Edward Kienholz’s “Five Car Stud,” a walk-in sculptural tableau of harrowing violence that was one of the most controversial artworks of the 1970s, but that has been little seen since. This giant installation, staged in an inflatable dome in a parking lot near the Museum of Contemporary Art, comprises four cars and a pickup truck whose headlights illuminate life-size figures in the center of the room. The figures are white men, wearing ghoulish rubber masks, who stand over and prepare to castrate a black man — presumably for being seen with the white woman sitting in the pickup’s cabin, hiding her face in agony.
Shown at the now-mythologized Documenta 5 of 1972, “Five Car Stud” spent the next four decades languishing in storage at a Japanese museum; it now belongs to the Fondazione Prada in Milan, where this show will go after its Antwerp run. Like Caravaggio’s “Flagellation,” its depiction of violence in chiaroscuro reaches Baroque heights of intensity and drama. Unlike in the Caravaggio, here that violence never resolves into beauty, and its actual-scale lynching grows only more disturbing the longer you look.
And perhaps this is the real point of Mr. Tuymans’s peculiar exhibition, beyond the formal echoes of light and shadow across centuries: that the extremity of Antwerp’s old style serves all too naturally for art that aims to depict our present age. For Kienholz and for so many other artists here, the Baroque had become a kind of realism.
Artist Luc Tuymans says of his elusive, sometimes eccentric, and seemingly misprinted paintings: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know how to do it.” The Belgian’s paintings don’t make the eye pop quite like the bold work of American street artist Kaws, the glowing, kaleidoscopic pumpkins of Yayoi Kusama of Japan, or English artist David Hockney’s splashy landscapes and portraits on smartphones, now showing at the Tate Gallery in London. It’s strange then that Tuymans is credited with being the man that saved painting from itself in the early 1990s.
So deft, yet so undeveloped, and so quiet seem his canvases that we cannot but wonder whether he’s being stingy with the paint. We feel like a blind man in a black room searching for a black cat which isn’t there. Tuymans toys with us. His sleight of hand teases our eye. His art looks easy or, at least, Tuymans makes it look easy. But his work contains incredible precision.
Tuymans makes the amateur aesthete work hard for his or her reward. Because his art never forces your eye or your other senses, you’re unsure when or where the interaction with the subject happens. Looking at a Tuymans is like looking at morning mist outside the window and wondering when the sun’s rays will sharpen your focus on the world.
A smattering of the Antwerp-born artist’s works will be on display thorugh New York-based dealer David Zwirner as part of Art Basel in Hong Kong this month. Zwirner has represented Tuymans for the past two decades, and Tuymans is taking the opportunity to show new works. These include ‘Twenty Seventeen,’ painted for his own gallery Zeno X in Antwerp, and inspired by a Brazilian film Tuymans saw on YouTube. There are three portraits, including K and C, both inspired by billboards Tuymans saw in Panama, and a third entitled ‘The Swamp’.
Tuymans and his generation grew up heavily influenced by cinema, television, advertising, shopping and latterly the Internet. The painter’s favourite film is Jean Luc-Godard’s “Le Mépris (Contempt) from 1963. “The film reaches an epic point on an unconscious level,” he says. “The whole concept, at the point we’re living in now, is quite interesting.”
In conversation, Tuymans often mentions the political dimension of Europe and the part Belgium plays in it, specifically how Brussels remains capital of the European Union—as if we might be in danger of forgetting. And talk of Low Countries art in the 14th and 15th century animates him. The painter’s artistic hero and villain is the 15th century Flemish master Jan Van Eyck.
“‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ is one of my preferred paintings,” Tuymans says. Van Eyck’s work of a bride and groom depicts a mirror in the background which reflects the backs of his subjects and the figure of the painter. “It’s clearly something I envy because I would never, ever be able to do that. Coming from this region and having this f***** there, which is Van Eyck, is hard to take.”
Tuymans first set foot in mainland China in 2008, bringing an exhibition called Forbidden Empire: Visions of the World by Chinese and Flemish Masters, which was first shown at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It was transplanted to the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, where Yu Hui was the chief curator. In 2010, Tuymans returned to the mainland with The State of Things: Brussels/Beijing, shown in Beijing at the National Art Museum. His co-curator was Ai Weiwei. The exhibition was also first shown at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Tuymans is familiar with the mainland and the Chinese are familiar with him, and he is intrigued by how readily they have taken to his paintings. “What could be the interest in my work? There is an element of understatement which, in a way, they have and don’t have. It’s fascinating to them, I think. The work is also not really ‘poppy’. It also has an element of where I come from, which is clearly Europe, but I think it mostly has to do with the element that China has reservations. They are themselves very pragmatic. It is probably the cautiousness of the work that might interest them and still does, I hope.”
Tuymans pauses before making another broad mental brushstroke. I think that’s also another thing we have in common with the Chinese; an element of opportunism,” he says. “When you work with them there are resemblances, in that it’s hard to do something micro. We are very big in terms of creative thought. Having works with the Japanese, there is a big difference between the two. With the Japanese there’s an extreme emotion of trying to crack the code. But with the Chinese, it’s another form of pragmatism. It makes it all the more intelligent, somehow.”
The reaction Van Eyck provokes in him betrays an intensity in Tuymans which is reflected in his paintings, the longer and more closely we look at them. It is an intensity bordering on anger and even violence. The ease of his work and its disarming calm hide sinister undertones. Conversely, when a painting reflects the political anger of Tuymans, the indirectness of his style is disarming.
Some have called Tuyman’s ‘The Secretary of State’ the equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. When the younger George Bush was United States President, Condoleezza Rice was his Secretary of State, being the first black woman to hold that office. Tuymans was inspired to paint her by comments made by his friend Karel De Gucht, the Belgian foreign minister at the time. De Gucht described Rice as “quite intelligent” and “not unpretty”. Her portrayal as powerful yet somehow vulnerable evokes the persistence of racial and sexual prejudices in the US. The painting mirrors the Dubya era.
“Condoleezza Rice was a particular choice, a particular moment in time, very topical, as she was still Secretary of State,” Tuymans says. “But my fascination was this element of containment that nobody has yet figured out so far. Even as we speak right now, nobody has figured out what Condoleezza Rice was all about. We know what she stood for but that, again, is not the entirety of the person.” One gallery owner told Tuymans he had done for Rice what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe.
Tuymans still has the US in his sights. “When something becomes a laughing stock, it’s funny, but very dangerous, too. To do something about the US right now is becoming very complicated,” he says. “America is a nation of immigrants coming from the region I come from. This [is] the important thing that people tend to forget.”
But the artist trains his sights on other aspects of the modern world, too, such as the agonies of the Congo; Russia under Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as a tsar “playing the world”; and the role France plays in Europe.
Tuymans also draws a bead on artists of the modern age. “I never liked the work of Warhol. But then it took me a while, and I saw a show and realized that black was a very important item for Warhol. But, at the same time, he had the element of authority in print, which was interesting for a painting. Despite being superficial, it was very analytical.”
El Greco’s paintings, “not even good ones”, says Tuymans, are “very modern, despite the majesty, and have a certain temperature about them”. He calls them “the first paintings to deconstruct imagery, which I find interesting and difficult to remember”. Velasquez earns his acknowledgement too, “just because he’s such a great painter”. Tuymans compares Velasquez and Goya but favours the latter. “Later in life, Goya interests me more. He’s more uneven. But he’s very annoying,” he says. Then, quelling his annoyance, he adds: “At the end of his life, Goya was isolated”.
Maturity has given Tuymans a greater sense of what he is doing and how he does it. “There must always be, not the unexpected, but an element of pleasure,” he says. “Knowing and not knowing is an element of curiosity. After more than 600 paintings, it was never the [purpose at the] outset to have a style.”
David Zwirner represents another Belgian artist, Michaël Borremans, whom he brought to Art Basel in Hong Kong last year. Borremans spoke of how he paints best when he “feels like the aristocrat in the room, drinking a glass of wine and gliding around”. In contrast, Tuymans plays no such role to do his best work. “The only persona I would take on is a sort of non-persona,” he says.
Tuymans spends months planning a picture, then paints it in one day. “That day, I mentally prepare. When I start the work, it is total concentration,” he says. When he is in front of the canvas, he does no thinking. Other artists, he says, believe they ought to be thinking when they are holding a brush.
“I know very carefully what I’m doing, and have no illusions in that sense,” Tuymans says. “When I’m in the middle of the painting, and the colours begin to assemble themselves, that’s where the pleasure starts. After a day that can be a long day, my level of astonishment is at what has been achieved. It’s not so much taking on a persona as being totally flabbergasted by the fact that this becomes a possibility.”
Yet more feelings accompany the astonishment. “The nervousness remains, like an actor going on the stage. That’s important, because there also has to be a high level of humility, and that’s a very important point. This goes back again to my big role model, Jan Van Eyck, who I could never be able to perceive as an equal. He is so f****** talented it’s not even fun. He’s so hard-edged. He had an interesting motto: ‘I can’. He was big on humility but behind that had the most gargantuan ambitions.” Look who’s talking.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.'
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.
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 Robertson. Prior 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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.