New York

Luc Tuymans

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

No one would call Luc Tuymans’ paintings exciting. Their palette is drab, visual effects and narrative details are minimal, painterly flourishes virtually nonexistent. But for all their studied reluctance to call attention to themselves, these paintings hardly qualify as wallflowers. They plunge, albeit surreptitiously, to the heart of the long-standing debate over the viability of painting in an age of commodification. In the ’90s, painting has carved several niches for itself, one of which may be described as “smartly insipid,” a term under which can be grouped artists as diverse as Michael Krebber, John Currin, and Marlene Dumas. Tactically, this genre favors the average: neither too beautiful, too smart, nor too passionate, its material means are humble and its ambitions seemingly constrained. Along this route, we encounter Tuymans, a Belgian artist whose first solo exhibition, in 1985 in Ostend, took place during the heyday of large-scale, eye-popping painting that bristled with critical quills and defensive strategies. Tuymans belonged to those who worked in an altogether different vein, and for a decade he has produced paintings without a single heroic bone in their body—or so it would seem.

The underwhelming impact of Tuymans’ work is so carefully managed that it amounts to an ideological position: to dissuade those who expect thrills, inspiration, or the like from painting by making seemingly mediocre works. In his second New York exhibition, Tuymans sidles up to American culture in a series of ten paintings, all entitled “Heritage,” 1995–96, that includes washed-out images of an American flag, a birthday cake, a factory worker, an automobile, and Mount Rushmore. Though the series recalls American Pop art’s colonization of mass culture and its transformation of its conventional signs into isolated, mystifying, painterly icons, in Tuymans’ hands Americana takes on an eerie, ghostly quality as the hubbub of daily life slows to a funereal pace. Like meaningless fragments of dated advertisements—their colors are faded, their lines blurry—they suggest a skeptical relation to “progress.” Tuymans’ paintings return us to that moment when Pop’s images presented, however inadvertently, images of a consumer paradise, with all the rampant nationalism they implied, to a Europe still nursing its battle scars at the height of the cold war.

If the “heritage” to which Tuymans refers leads to reflection on the politics of style, it also raises the specter of painting’s own heritage. Like early Pop, Tuymans’ works foreground the problem of original versus copy, of painting as representation versus painting as nothing other than a sign of itself. In this respect, they are quite self-conscious. According to the artist himself, each canvas is painted in a single day, a 24-hour process that links his work to photography, just as his compositional strategies of framing and cropping, and the fact that he paints from photographs do. At the same time that Tuymans’ paintings acknowledge mechanical reproduction, they also draw attention to themselves as paintings. Oddly inviting yet ultimately inaccessible, they bring several arguments about the viability of painting full-circle by defaulting, finally, to the allure of the medium itself.

Tuymans’ tableaux induce subtle reveries. They are quietly polemical and inflected with references to painting’s past. At the same time they are personal, restrained, and highly controlled. Perversity simmers beneath what seems a wilted approach to subject matter, but in lieu of the unschooled effects of “bad painting,” rousing surface treatments, or other virtuosities, the virtue of Tuymans’ paintings—and this is by no means a dismissal—lies in their refusal to justify themselves. So closely do they adhere to intermediate positions that they suggest taste and aesthetic pleasure as their determining criteria. Either you like it, or you don’t.

Jan Avgikos