Luc Tuymans: Proper
David Zwirner Gallery until November 19
525 W. 19 Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, 212-727-2070
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 20, 2005
Luc Tuymans is difficult to like and harder still to ignore. Which is exactly as things should be for an artist who puts alienation at the heart of his enterprise. He is an artist more concerned to problematize than to delight.
The 47-year-old Belgian is probably the most influential painter of his generation. His blurry, intentionally bland and off-hand pictures are so widely imitated in art schools, for instance, that the critic Jerry Saltz issued a call for a four year moritorium on the use of photographs as sources for painting, to be called “the Tuymans Rule” (“The Richter Resolution” was an alternative title.) His hauntingly vacant images are compelling yet elusive to the point of seeming wilfully obtuse. They put you in a mood (a blue one, generally), but you come away from them with a generalized sensation rather than specific visual memories. Although they often focus on singular objects or events, they are somehow too tricky and shadowy to submit to memorability.
Mr. Tuymans’s sixth solo exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, typically, has a stated theme that is as enigmatic as any of the individual images: “Proper” purports to deal with “the crumbling state” of American current affairs. But the intriguingly eclectic range of images — a portrait of Condoleeza Rice, a still life of a timing device, some ballroom dancing scenes — hardly adds up to a Dogville-esque indictment of Uncle Sam.
Mr. Tuymans is, in a way, Postmodernism’s history painter. He tackles loaded political themes — past shows have taken on the Holocaust, Belgian meddling in post-colonial Congo, and the press response to the September 11 attacks — in ways that are teasingly tangential. If history is usually told from the point of view of a highly intellectual fly on the wall, Mr. Tuymans offers, instead, the take of a half-asleep couch potato, subliminally aware of TV or newspaper images as he mulls over personal, prosaic concerns. It is history as experienced by the numbed, the apathetic, the befuddled.
There is virtually no image, beyond the Rice portrait, which is identifiable as a significant news source in this show, except perhaps “Demolition” (2005), a cropped study of a building coming down in thick,billowing dust, which because of the implied scale with the tiny lamppost at the base might put the viewer in mind of the World Trade Center. Instead, “Proper” consists of seemingly neutral—and, if “telling,” bewilderingly so—details like a couple ballroom dancing on a marble floor sporting the state seal of Texas, or a vertiginous perspective of a timing device on a bare wall.
He is a kind of still-life history painter because what he dwells on are not so much events in themselves as images of them, or around them This is not to say that he is a photorealist; rather he is trying to find through paint a metaphorical equivalent of the enervating ubiquity of the photographic image.
This is not new, of course: In his affection for blur, as Mr. Saltz realised, Mr. Tuymans recalls Gerhard Richter, who has made photo smudge a trademark of his “capitalist realism,” and Walter Richard Sickert, whose uses and abuses of the photograph were complex and varied. The latter, like his mentor Degas, appealed to a fresh disinterestedness, but in his innovative late work Sickert found in photography a potent means to convey the simultaneous aloofness and intimacy in the mass audience’s relationship with celebrities.
Mr. Tuymans’s “Mwana Kitoko” (2000) a portrait of a colonial officialin dress uniform is reminiscent of Sickert’s portrait of the ill-fated King Edward VIII. And the “The Secretary of State” (2005) relates to innumerable portraits from photographs by Sickert, as they do to the self-consciously Sickertian modern history painter R.B. Kitaj’s deliciously subversive monochrome portrait of Unity Mitford.
The apparent inspiration for Mr. Tuymans’s Rice portrait was the reported characterization by a Belgian politician of Ms. Rice as “strong, not unpretty.” Like Mr. Kitaj’s portrait of the cute young fascist, “The Secretary of State” evokes an erotic ambiguity: A presumably left-leaningpainter is turned on by a strong, not unpretty woman who personifies policies he abhors. Sexuality complicates political thinking the way painting complicates a straightforward snapshot. The painting has a simultaneous immediacy and otherness that comes from an empirical rendering in blown-up scale of the surface data of a photograph, which itself is not a posed, official portrait but a frozen moment of reportage.
The pervasive unease in Mr. Tuymans’s work amounts to a sublimated violence. His imagery deals with conflicts and problems obliquely: Seemingly intent on capturing the banality of evil rather than its drama, his strategy is the antithesis of the Renaissance theorist Alberti’s definition of *istoria*, which is to capture the most telling moment or episode that encapsulates the tale, and the moral lesson. Very little in the current show, however, seems explicitly sinister beyond the anemic colors, shaky cropping and skewed perspectives of trees in a park, in “The Parc,” or the top of a four-poster bed, in “Courtesy,” (both 2005
In his equation of banality and violence, Mr. Tuymans represents an update of Francis Bacon, not in the spasmic contortions of blood and guts that constitute Bacon’s foreground figures, but in the equally disturbing blandness of his deadpan backgrounds. Bacon doesn’t just convey violence in paint but commits a certain kind of violence *towards* the medium, which is what Mr. Tuymans does.
One of the strangest aspects of Mr. Tuyman’s project is his strict rule of finishing each painting in a single sitting. This is particularly perverse because *alla prima* painting is usually intended to achieve freshness and spontaneity, whereas Mr. Tuymans has more than lived up to his anti-heroic ideal of the “authentic forgery.” Far from conveying any kind of speed or dashed-off painterliness, his surfaces have a flat, matter-of-fact delivery that is usually associated with a slow, deliberate hand. But they do have a sense of belligerent unfinish and of apathetic awkwardnesses. It is as if they wanted to convey as much alienation and unease in the way they are made as in the way they will be received.