New York

Luc Tuymans, Jacket, 2011, oil on canvas, 73 7/8 x 54 3/4".

Luc Tuymans, Jacket, 2011, oil on canvas, 73 7/8 x 54 3/4".

Luc Tuymans

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Luc Tuymans, Jacket, 2011, oil on canvas, 73 7/8 x 54 3/4".

Has it ever been summer in Luc Tuymans’s paintings? I doubt it. So by titling his most recent exhibition “The Summer Is Over,” was Tuymans just promising more of what we’ve learned to expect from him? Not quite. Although the saturnine sensibility and “diagnostic gaze” that his work has consistently evoked over the past two decades have hardly lightened, there is a difference. A typical strategy of his has been to paint things that at first glance appear innocuous (although his tersely tremulous, mordantly taciturn touch in and of itself may make you want to look at them suspiciously) while letting it be known that their real referents are indelibly stained with the blood of modern European history—redolent of the Nazi era, say, or of Belgian colonialism in the Congo. Now, in the seven large recent paintings shown here, Tuymans has trained his eye on his everyday surroundings. The paintings have become more introspective. They depict such things as part of a man’s sport jacket, for instance, or a window seen from outside a building, which, as the title alerts us, houses a zoo—insignificant details of daily life, things one might see a thousand times without ever quite noticing. Of course, Tuymans, along with a century’s worth of detective stories, has trained us to cast a gimlet eye on the most ordinary things. A window you can’t see through? Who knows what harms may be hidden by the glare of the sunlight on the glass.

But no, really, there’s nothing amiss in these paintings, unless it’s on a purely existential level. The buildings we see in these works, we are told, are in the artist’s neighborhood in Antwerp, Belgium; presumably the jacket is his own. In the nearly unreadable My Leg (all works 2011), one absolutely needs the title to know that it is a leg, not to mention whose it is. On the other hand, the helpfully titled self-portrait Me presents a fairly recognizable likeness, only it’s not one that actually reminds you of its subject. This rather benign-looking bespectacled everyguy seems like someone who’s just sat down to catch the afternoon soccer game on the tube rather than an artist who intends to assay the ills of Western civilization in paint.

But that’s not to say there’s anything easygoing about these paintings, and their power, unlike that of previous works whose tacit subject conditions viewers’ attitudes toward what they see, comes from their success at resisting interpretation. Jacket is a case in point. It’s not that, as with My Leg, you have any doubt as to the painting’s subject. It’s that the reason for it being depicted just so is mysterious, and the image is distinctive in its manner of incommunicativeness. With almost any other painter, I think I’d know what to make of the pair of joined lines that cross the painting from top to bottom toward its right: I’d be sure he had used the shadow of the arm to concoct an homage to Barnett Newman’s zips. But Tuymans doesn’t play that game of homages. And besides, what a strange thing to do—to make a couple of vertical lines more than six feet long out of hundreds of more or less horizontal little strokes. Those marks have less to do with adumbrating a contour than with digging their way into your unconscious. The reason for that is not to be found in what they show, which is primarily the painting itself, but what they do. And Tuymans still does unease better than anybody.