Luc Tuymans

FEW LIVING ARTISTS OCCUPY as central a position in the critical discourse of their medium as Luc Tuymans, whose painting practice has set important conceptual and material parameters for a generation. As much through his examination of our fragmentary, contingent experience of history as through his novel painting style (which accounts for photographic media without recourse to rendering), Tuymans has developed a distinctive artistic strategy that, at its best, creates compelling fusions of concept and form. Now midcareer, the fifty-one-year-old Belgian has recently been the subject of several international survey exhibitions, each presenting a slightly different picture of the artist. While some emphasized his strategic range and others his poetic formalism, the latest iteration, which opened last September at the Wexner Center for the Arts, privileges Tuymans’s engagement with (often incendiary) historical subject matter. Chronologically organized from 1978 to 2008, this first North American retrospective features sixty-eight pictures and reunites long-separated paintings in the groupings the artist conceived for them. Although the exhibition thus generously foregrounds Tuymans’s own historical intentions, its organizers, Helen Molesworth and Madeleine Grynsztejn, have selected series dealing with the Holocaust, colonialism, and 9/11 that advance an argument for Tuymans’s primary import in the broader contemporary context as a painter of traumatic themes.

The show begins emphatically, with Tuymans’s iconic Gaskamer (Gas Chamber), 1986, smartly hung to anchor the long sight line in the Wexner’s sweeping, asymmetrical first gallery. Based on a watercolor Tuymans made of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Gaskamer is arguably the artist’s most notorious canvas and exemplifies his early interest in rendering Germany’s fascist past in a minimalist, affectless style. In its imagery, the painting is barely legible; however, with the benefit of the title, the pictorial restraint and narrative obscurity become integral aspects of the artist’s postulation that historical representation may be more a matter of distance, omission, and translation than of proximity, completeness, or primacy. Indeed, the painting derives as much power from what it withholds as from what it reveals. (Such pictorial silence is, Molesworth argues in the catalogue’s introductory essay, one of the artist’s most powerful tools.) As in all the early canvases on view, here Tuymans emphasizes the physical work of painting as a concrete analogue to the imaginative construction of the past. Not only the work’s clunky facture but its off-kilter stretcher bars embody the way in which the artist uses material facticity to buttress, contradict, or otherwise engage his depicted subject matter. By juxtaposing the fugitive rendering of Dachau’s killing room with his painting’s almost sculptural materiality, Tuymans tempers the imaginary fiction of the image (and, by extension, our transparent access to the past) with the matter-of-fact reality of the painting he’s fashioned. Throughout the 1980s, he would hone this particular fusion of materiality and narrative so as to solicit larger speculations about the role painting can play in historical reckoning. In retrospect, it is remarkable how manifest Tuymans’s best ideas were at the beginning of his career.

Filled with canvases from the early to mid-1990s, the Wexner’s second gallery charts Tuymans’s evolving interest in more structural investigations; and in works from the artist’s series “The Diagnostic View,” 1992, and “Superstition,” 1994, his signature formal strategies emerge. Translating various found photographs into fields of choppy horizontal brushwork, Tuymans develops a shallow, airless pictorial space of low-contrast, desaturated canvases with limited chromatic range. Almost all the paintings from this time are dispassionately rendered with strokes that discount the contours and specificity of the motifs they describe, registering the mechanical logic of photographic imaging while remaining resolutely painterly. The “Diagnostic View” canvases in particular, based on medical photographs of diseased patients, evocatively demonstrate how the artist used this pictorial language to telescope specific subjects into larger theoretical speculation, deftly taking the question the works’ source images ask—can we tell the inner workings of a body from external appearances?—as a springboard for artistic inquiries into representation more generally. Here, the opacity of the paint is congruous with the opacity of the photographs, which, despite their invasiveness, disclose very little useful information. By suffusing photography’s rhetorical purchase on truth with the “unreliable” subjectivity of painting, the artist cultivates ontological doubt. This strategy, to probe the fictions painting necessarily solicits in order to posit a healthy skepticism in all brands of ideology (artistic and otherwise), is one of the artist’s most enduring accomplishments.

The heart of this exhibition is the reconstruction of two of Tuymans’s most significant solo gallery offerings, “At Random” (ZenoXGallery, Antwerp, 1994) and “The Architect” (Galerie Gebauer, Berlin, 1998). It is exciting to see these shows reconstituted, and the contrast between them provides the hinge point of the retrospective. The nine moody, modestly sized canvases of “At Random” demonstrate the artist’s masterful use of cropping, scale, and color, showcasing his considerable formal talents. But rather than connect his works through a specific subject or backstory, Tuymans compellingly allows individual images to speak in and of themselves, privileging iconicity over narrative. Rabbit, 1994, is the best of the lot. This is Tuymans the painter’s painter, a Tuymans I wish were presented in greater depth. As it stands, the show does not linger long in this formal reverie—though partly, it should be noted, because “The Architect,” a collection of canvases populated by Nazis and their environs, would represent the artist’s turn to message. While the titular painting of the 1998 exhibition, depicting a still from one of Albert Speer’s home movies, is one of Tuymans’s masterpieces—a symphony in blue even while a portrait of the banality of evil—his reprise of Holocaust topics feels more strategic the second time around. Less redolent of the material experimentation that characterizes his earliest treatments of similar themes, these canvases illustrate their subjects as much as inhabit them. Simply put, rather than amplify each other as they do in his best early works, the what and the how of Tuymans’s paintings begin here to split, with a distinct priority given to the former.

While the fundamental structure of the survey follows the artist’s own hermeneutic lead, the specific groupings the curators selected place even greater emphasis on the what of Tuymans’s work, staging him primarily as an artist of serious subjects. That is, by featuring the most explicitly thematic groupings, the show advocates thematic readings of the paintings, willfully forgoing a more balanced representation of his work. Rather than include a fuller complement of his many less obviously narrative paintings—Embroidery, 1999; Reuntgen, 2000; or Pink Glasses, 2001, for instance, would have fleshed out the compelling formalism of Lungs and Orchid, both 1998—the exhibition goes straight for the topical jugular, passing directly from Heinrich Himmler to Patrice Lumumba. The latter is the martyred protagonist of “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man,” Tuymans’s tencanvas rumination on the Belgian Congo that constituted the artist’s contribution to the 2001 Venice Biennale. More than any previous work, this series consolidated the artist’s position in the pantheon of contemporary painters, and it looks great still. Weaving public document and artistic imagination, the series powerfully visualizes the associative, episodic act of remembering. (Sadly, Lumumba’s portrait— the icon of the suite—isn’t included here and is somewhat puzzlingly replaced by a full-scale black-and-white photographic reproduction.) In its grave subject matter, narrative discontinuity, and presentation of historical memory as an archival collage of mediated fragments, “Mwana Kitoko” is this survey’s primary object lesson for those aspects of Tuymans’s art on which the exhibition insists, particularly in light of Grynsztejn and Molesworth’s decision to round out the show with the most typically overt of the artist’s recent work. Paintings that address 9/11 and the era of George W. Bush, as well as the Walt Disney Company and its resplendent ideology, fill the last galleries.

Tuymans’s canvases often grow to gargantuan proportions to accommodate such grand narratives—Turtle, 2007, a bleached-out painting of a huge, lighted Disneyland float, is more than sixteen feet wide—and one senses a dissipation of energy and a certain literalism. Of course, in light of his earlier strategies, this work might be read as an attempt to approximate the spectacular nature of contemporary image culture with spectacularly sized paintings, or perhaps an ironic comment on the history of history painting. There is a lot at stake, though, for if one does not give Tuymans the benefit of this doubt, or refuses to buy his gambit that interesting subject matter is itself enough to make for interesting art, the last room of the show can feel like an unmotivated bunch of pictures of things. Again, a broader view of the artist’s production— the inclusion of several of his 2002 “Exhibit” paintings or Window, Idol, or Masks from his 2005 “Les Gilles de Binche” series, for example, all of which prioritize painting itself over its task of depiction—would have closed the show differently. Indeed, if we had been given the chance to view Tuymans’s later thematic paintings in tandem with canvases in which more overtly formal interests prevail, we could have read these dual aspects through one another—considering, for example, the politics of form and the abstraction of the political. In punctuating the show with an exclamation point rather than a question mark, the curators, I think, missed a chance to sketch a more faceted, perhaps even contradictory, portrait of the artist.

I have not yet mentioned Tuymans’s films. Occupying a side gallery (as much an excursus in this exhibition as in the artist’s career), a collection of filmic fragments, made during a hiatus from painting in the early 1980s, is shown here for the first time—sort of. Screened in a looped DVD projection “produced by the Luc Tuymans Studio . . . especially for this exhibition” rather than in the original formats in which they were shot, the works stand halfway between art and document and evidence the artist’s own work of rewriting history. Authored by the “studio” rather than by Tuymans himself and presented in a “greatest hits” lineup lacking information about the original footage, the films seem oddly liminal and strike a strange note in an exhibition so committed to the task of faithfully reconstructing the artist’s “original,” historical groupings. Of course, one can understand the impulse to account for this undoubtedly important chapter in Tuymans’s development—and the curators even commissioned a catalogue essay on his interest in film—but looking backward through material that was apparently never completed for highlights that, in the words of the wall text, “foreshadow the imagery in his later paintings” is an act of revisionism fundamentally at odds with the show’s prevailing rhetoric. The irony of this turn is all the greater since the takeaway message of Tuymans’s work is to vigilantly remember that the writing of history is as much an act of creative production as one of objective notation. This lesson, though simple, remains profound. Even if it unwittingly underscores the contingency of this retrospective’s own argument—predicating as it does many versions of truth—the observation entreats us to assume responsibility for our own futures, as well as for the pasts we write. And despite the consistently bleak mood of Tuymans’s work, that is a remarkably empowering prospect with which to leave the show.

“Luc Tuymans” is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through Jan. 3; the exhibition travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Feb. 6–May 2; the Dallas Museum of Art, June 6–Sept. 5; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Oct. 2, 2010–Jan. 9, 2011; the Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Feb. 11–May 8, 2011.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and associate professor of painting and humanities at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.