Cool Hand Luc

Franklin Melendez on Luc Tuymans at SF MoMA

San Francisco

Left: Curators Helen Molesworth and Madeleine Grynsztejn. (Photo: Heather Wiley/Drew Altizer) Right: Collector Shirley Morales with artists Luc Tuymans and Carla Arocha. (Photo: Franklin Melendez)

SF MOMA MAY NOT have gone as far as other institutions to accommodate Luc Tuymans’s notorious smoking habit, but it certainly put its best foot forward to fete the second leg of the painter’s midcareer survey, which debuted at the Wexner Center last fall. In fact, so jovial was the mood on a mild Wednesday evening that it seemed to hint at other developments a-brewing. But despite the high spirits, mum was the word with the SF MoMA staff, who at the time would only tease of big news to come. Bigger than the retrospective’s sole West Coast engagement? Hard to believe—especially for the artist concerned. Just that day he had followed the gracious remarks of curators Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth by thanking a select few, and then half-seriously adding: “I suppose I should also thank myself.”

Taking a peek around the fifth-floor galleries, I must admit that his gratitude is not entirely undeserved. The sprawling exhibition expertly traces Tuymans’s engagement with his medium, which has yielded some indelible imagery as he traffics in the morbid and the banal. Along the way, he’s managed to reimagine history painting (a mode seemingly exhausted by the media age) through his skewed framing, anemic color palette, and detached brushwork—all on proud display under the skylights that the museum uncovered just for the occasion.

Roaming the exhibition, a soft-spoken Barry McGee expressed his admiration—if somewhat unconventionally: “I really like the yellowing of the canvases, and how they’re smoky. If I saw them in a thrift store, I’d kick a hole through them. I’m really into it.” A nearby guard shuffled uncomfortably.

Left: Jeffrey Grove, senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, with dealers David Zwirner and Frank Demaegd. (Photo: Heather Wiley/Drew Altizer) Right: Ratio 3's Chris Perez with artist Barry McGee. (Photo: Franklin Melendez)

Downstairs, other attendees offered less full-contact accolades. Ratio 3’s Chris Perez voiced his approval, then weighed in on Jeffrey Deitch’s imminent ascension at the Los Angeles MoCA: “What better way to end a gallery?” Artist Jordan Kantor conversed briskly with the guest of honor, until interrupted by art historians T. J. Clark and Anne Wagner. Before making a dash for the door, BAM/PFA director Larry Rinder chatted with emerging painter Conrad Ruiz, whose MFA show centerpiece (a large-scale watercolor of Obama riding a corgi) is now part of BAM/PFA’s permanent collection. An energetic Ruiz, who recently closed his first solo show with Jessica Silverman, added simply, “I’m just trying to keep it going.”

The reception continued next door with an intimate dinner at the St. Regis hotel, though the real action quickly shifted to the smoking terrace. The ever-gracious (and impeccably styled) Grynsztejn admitted that though unwilling to bend California law, the museum did make special accommodations during the show’s install: “We set up a little area so he wouldn’t have to go down five flights each time he wanted a smoke.” Still, it was a far cry from the lounge at the Museum of Modern Art, Antwerp, which the artist still remembers fondly. “It was like being at the airport,” he noted. “And extremely successful!”

The scene on the terrace quickly grew into an impromptu afterparty, and many more seemed to rise up and join the fray of dealers (David Zwirner, Peter Freeman) and museum directors (the Wexner’s Sherri Geldin and the Menil Collection’s Josef Helfenstein), including Tommy Simoens, Tuymans’s studio right-hand, and artist Carla Arocha, who couldn’t help but grumble about San Francisco’s somewhat surprising puritan streak. During the course of the evening, various admirers and well-wishers braved the secondhand smoke, including the consul general of Belgium, who stood politely nearby—whether in a show of national support or to ensure good behavior was not entirely clear. After a few refills of the drink of choice (Triple Crown Whiskey, lots of ice), the crowd took turns sharing Tuymans-related stories, most of which were politely, but firmly, asked to be kept off the record. Collector Shirley Morales made several gracious attempts to provide printable material, but somehow each tale kept going awry. “Better not use that one either,” she added mischievously. There was one, though—involving Tuymans drinking with a crew of firemen who proceeded to escort him in full gear to his Antwerp gallery opening, fire truck in tow—that seemed PG enough to limn. “It was one of my favorite openings!” he added gleefully, before reaching for another Marlboro Red.

Left: SF MoMA director Neal Benezra with Luc Tuymans. Photo: Heather Wiley/Drew Altizer) Right: Artist Conrad Ruiz and BAM/PFA director Larry Rinder. (Photo: Franklin Melendez)

Early the next morning, before most hangovers had fully registered, SF MoMA finally unveiled its second reason to celebrate. After a boisterous fund-raising effort, the museum managed to secure more than half the funds for its projected expansion—which will include, among other things, tripling its gallery space to accommodate the Fisher Collection (which the museum inherited after the Presidio museum debacle). Although no architect has been selected yet, the expansion is expected to be completed by 2016—quite a feat in a time when most public institutions are struggling to stay afloat. So we’ll certainly drink to that.