Luc Tuymans’ painting of the bespectacled and smiling man could be anyone; he looks like your best friend’s dad from the old photos in the den. Included in the Luc Tuymans retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the man seen in The Heritage VI is hopefully not your best friend’s dad. Like the buried history that Tuymans consistently paints, The Heritage VI is actually a very particular person: Joseph Milteer, KKK member, right-wing extremist, and a possible conspirator in the Kennedy assassination. It was also painted at a very particular time: 1996, with the pain from the Oklahoma City bombing still very fresh, and similar conspiracy theories beginning to spread.
Luc Tuymans, The Heritage VI, 1996. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York. © Luc Tuymans. Photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York.
In Tuymans’ work fatherly types turn out to be Klansmen; modernist buildings are revealed to be stopovers on the way to World War II-era deathcamps; and a painting of a pattern of flowers is reproduced from the decoration of a chair in which someone was murdered. Repeatedly, Tuymans paints the “banality of evil,” a phrase Helen Molesworth uses, quoting Hannah Arendt, to title her introductory essay in the indispensable catalog for the exhibition. If in photography “a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow,” as Siegfried Kracauer says, then Tuymans shows us the same is also true of painting, particularly since he bases his work on photographic sources.
Congruent to these ominous subjects, Tuymans’ palette stays subdued, using mostly greens, grays, blues, whites and blacks (a shade which he never uses straight but rather creates by mixing together other colors). The works that he produces are subtle in tone and rarely reproduce satisfactorily, so seeing the paintings in person is an absolute must. Perhaps the irreproducibility of the paintings coupled with their unappealing color choices are reasons why he is more widely known in Europe than in the U.S.
Luc Tuymans, Ballroom Dancing, 2005. Collection of SFMOMA, promised gift of Shawn and Brook Byers. © Luc Tuymans. Photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York.
The paintings by Tuymans ask us to never forget, even as they simultaneously ask us how and what we remember. In a more contemporary context, memory is also at the heart of Tuymans’ series from 2005, “Proper”, which examines a post-9/11 United States held together by “orderly decorum” among other things, as Joshua Shirkey asserts in his catalog essay. Triggering memory and a response is at the heart of Demolition, where abstracted billows of smoke take up most of the pictorial space, the only representational object is a small streetlight located at the lower left corner, which gives a small measure of scale.
The painting’s source image is a controlled demolition, but there is absolutely no way to know that without external resources like a wall label. Shown in New York City in 2005, Tuymans knew the image would inevitably read ambiguously, a factor of the painting he deemed important. It could be the terrifying images of the twin towers’ toxic dust barreling through the New York City streets (which is what I instantly thought of), and it can allude, through the title, to the conspiracy theories that hold the U.S. government demolished the towers. Or it could just be an old building being demolished. As the event becomes a distant historical moment, the immediate reactions of future viewers will probably change.
Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005. Oil on canvas. 17 7/8 x 24 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (45.5 x 61.5 x 4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Promised gift of David and Monica Zwirner; © Luc Tuymans; photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York.
Demolition reaches even further, since remembering the events of 9/11 immediately reminds one that we are currently in the tenth year of the Afghanistan War. The active Afghanistan War reminds one that only two months ago we declared an “end” to the combat operations in the Iraq War, but can we remember the reasons, the evidence, for why we were invaded Iraq in the first place? Not far away from Demolition is Tuymans’ famous portrait of Condoleezza Rice, The Sectary of State.
By the end of viewing Tuymans’ retrospective I’m drained both visually and emotionally. The detached quality of Tuymans’ paintings draws you in to study them and the best of them pack a visceral impact with their paint handling. It may be cliché to say that the twentieth century was the bloodiest and most violent in human history, but it’s also true and Tuymans forces us to critically remember that.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago
(Top image: Luc Tuymans, Ballroom Dancing, 2005. Collection of SFMOMA, promised gift of Shawn and Brook Byers. © Luc Tuymans. Photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York.)