Looking at a foggy Luc Tuymans painting requires excavation. It takes careful uncovering of his source images and the narrative behind each work to see the abstracted banalities and quiet images of evil he chooses to paint.
Before his major retrospective opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA) I had seen just a few paintings by Tuymans; distinctively muted in color, unframed, with unusual horizontal brushwork. Conceived in interrelated, thematic groups, the seventy-five paintings together at the MCA help make his sometimes obtuse work accessible, especially with the inclusion of the artist’s source materials of Polaroid photos, film stills, and images from history books on display.
Co-curated by Helen Molesworth and Madeleine Grynsztejn (seen at left with Tuymans, all image credits at bottom) and jointly organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts, the retrospective presents Tuymans’ paintings in chronological order for the artist’s first comprehensive exhibit stateside.
Intense at first sight but not brooding, Luc Tuymans wears black on black at the press preview, his tailored suit projecting a sharp combination of European sophistication and an established artist. He doesn't miss a beat, speaking quickly and earnestly about almost every painting as he leads a tour through the exhibit, locking eyes with his small audience, one at a time.
“I was quite poor,” he says entering the first gallery. Hands, the earliest (1978) work on display, is on a canvas that Tuymans painted over multiple times. It shows a faceless man against a stark, surreal landscape, everything rendered in flat planes and tones of gray. Although the man's hands are prominent, the most traditionally expressive and detailed part of the portrait, the face, is blank. Unsettling, it forces inquisition by the viewer, a device that is imperative to Tuymans’ work.
Between his Dutch accent and the muffled microphone, Tuymans’ stories are fragmented, but I hear him call Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy chief of the SS in the four-part painting, Die Zeit (Time), the "only handsome Nazi."
As the retrospective progresses, Tuymans' skill as a painter grows with the size of the paintings, but his affection for murky neutral colors remains. The artist's ice blue eyes and silver hair even look as if they were brushed up off of his palette. He mentions he doesn't use straight black, but makes it himself. This off-black is part of his oeuvre, along with blue-green grays, dusty mauve, ochre, chartreuse and other sickly shades that mimic the light from his source images: a television’s glow, the tint of a Polaroid, and its successor, the iPhone.
In person, I was surprised at the amazing depth and gradation, even in Tuyman's most monochrome paintings. The wash of these colors on canvas occasionally reaches a near opalescence. This makes for extremely difficult and sometimes inaccurate photographic reproduction, particularly in Der Diagnostische Blick (The Diagnostic View, seen above), a series of paintings base on a medical manual of patients and their ailments.
Subject-wise, evil manifests itself throughout Tuymans' retrospective, but the violence that accompanies it is invisible. It's in the normalcy of a recreational mishap; Albert Speer, Hitler's architect for the Holocaust, has fallen on his skis, stranded on blanket of snow in Der Architekt (The Architect).
Political power and corruption run through Tuymans’ retrospective alongside violence and nationalism. Sculpture and Leopard (seen above) evoke European colonialism through their portrayal of stolen customs and relics, and reference the broader story of the political assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the series “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man.”
In the next room hangs the narrow and now notorious portrait of Condoleezza Rice, The Secretary of State, near a painting depicting a wall of smoke that looks conspicuously like an image from the events of September 11th. Tuymans assures us that it’s not, but the juxtaposition of the images shows a talent of his, painting history without explicit personal commentary.
Nearing the end of the tour, Tuymans shares another cast of historical moments and characters centered around Walt Disney. Tuymans states that Disney was a manic depressive with a bad smoking habit, it's ironic since Tuymans is himself an avowed smoker. A painting of Disney next to a map of his Capitalist utopia has Texas-sized implications through its title, W. Disney's lofty ambition is driving him off of the washed out canvas.
The show ends with Turtle, Tuymans’ monumental tribute to a beautiful accident, an electrical short in a lighted Disneyland parade. Hazy, serene, and amorphous enough to be anything, Turtle loops back to Tuymans’ early works, where his vague imagery meets his powerful need to create a dialogue with the viewer about his simultaneous abhorrence and fascination with the modern world.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(Image credits from top to bottom: Luc Tuymans. Photo by Grant Delin. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York. MCA Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn and Luc Tuymans. Photo by Jeremy Lawson. Luc Tuymans, Orchid, 1998. Private collection, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; © Luc Tuymans; photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York. Luc Tuymans, Der Diagnostische Blick V, 1992. Private Collection. © Luc Tuymans. Photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York. Luc Tuymans, Leopard, 2000. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © Luc Tuymans. Photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York. Luc Tuymans, Turtle, 2007. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York. © Luc Tuymans. Photo by Ben Blackwell; courtesy David Zwirner, New York.)