Thursday, February 11, 2010

A conversation about Tuymans

 Luc Tuymans, Turtle, 2007 (David Zwirner Gallery, courtesy SFMOMA).

When I posted my review on Luc Tuymans, I asked my friends for feedback - good, bad, critical, raves- whatever. One of the frustrating things about writing is the usual lack of feedback. Well, I got more than I asked for. I feel that this is one of the most insightful conversations about art  that I've been a part of in a long time. What makes it even more exciting is that it comes from working artists, not official art critics. (Conversations posted with permission.)

Anna L. Conti : Nancy, this is good. The first part is the best part - up until "Is the heart of darkness white?" I might have ended it there. Actually, I like the paragraph about Gruenwald, too. And now that I read it again, there are many more good points. I guess the only part I'd cut are the remarks about the artist's personal appearance. (Me: Good point and I did cut a line or two).
Working Artists Journal

Richard Bolingbroke
: Nancy, I thought it was a wonderful article. While I have only seen a couple of his paintings and a peek into the closed off exhibit when I was last at MOMA, I find your critique of the exhaustive text and grey paintings to be spot-on.
I find "political" art to be usually second-rate (Guernica and some Goyas excepted) since its not about painting and politics is hard to encompass in a manner that can be appreciated more than a few years after the event.
This whole nonsense about the death of painting and now it's being saved by this shadow of a painter is such hype. Too much about nothing in my opinion.
Keep writing

 Sherry Miller: I read in an interview with Tuysmans that he said he considers Jan Van Eyck (not Grunewald but close!) the greatest artist of all time. I went through the whole show without reading any of the text panels and only a few of the labels. The show seemed to me to be a commentary on 20th century history. It is cool and intellectual (unlike Kiefer) but there is a long history of intellectual painting (Poussin, Leger for example) along with emotional painters (Rubens, Bacon). The intellectual painters are still good painters but I too prefer the emotional. It's a good column with lots of information and your own view clearly expressed. I only wonder what you did in there for a whole hour? (ME _ I went to look at the paintings done when artists didn’t need to apologize for being good painters!)
Sherry Miller

Nancy: Thanks for all the feedback - I really appreciate it. I am ambivalent about Tuyman's work which is why the essay was so hard to write. I DO like some of his pieces; the close-up portraits are powerful, even without the text. I feel that it's important for me to engage with all kinds of art and try to write clearly. It's easier to write when it's somebody I despise, like Koons. Now that was a treat to write! But Tuymans is in a different category and while I don't "like" his work and the hype is a turn off, there's enough "there there" for a serious look.

Sherry : I think we read the same interview. It makes sense that Tuyman's prefers Van Eyck who is cool, intellectual and whose paintings are full of symbolism. But I felt the comparison with Gruenwald was more telling.

Virginia Arana Greene: Nancy, i think you hit the crux of the issue with the question "is the heart of darkness white?"

i think Tuymans perhaps would be the first to agree that his paintings cannot possibly convey the actual sense of horror of colonialism - in the BBC interview he talks about his work being "borne out of a genuine distrust of imagery, distust in terms of not only comprehending it but also making it." i think that is at the heart of the discomfort i feel in looking at his work - there is nothing physical to hang onto or even launch from - images are not to be used/trusted as a starting point, sensual, gestural paint use is gone, color is sharply reduced (i agree it is still there though so it does evoke a powerful mood). in a sense to me then these are not close to "paintings" at all nor even close to photographs really! for me, the whole exhibit becomes a contemplation on the impossibility of truly understanding history. i agree with you that in the end this is the use of a visual work to impart something that might have been as powerfully conveyed through language, through an essay, book or even through a film

Sherry Miller: Virginia you say "for me, the whole exhibit becomes a contemplation on the impossibility of truly understanding history " I think if the show did that, it is a success art exhibit that words would not convey!

Virginia Arana Greene: Hi Sherry - True - I think it is successful to what his intentions were however I'm not entirely sure that words cannot convey similar ideas - certain works of fiction might do that or films.

One thing that sticks with me after seeing the show is that I cannot imagine owning a Tuyman's piece and gazing at it many times in my living room whereas I definitely would want to own say a Joan Mitchell painting and it would never lose its interest for me. For me, I think that sense of continual satisfaction and delight emanating from a piece is the essence of good painting.

Nancy Ewart: You guys are the BEST! You are more articulate, more thoughtful and more insightful than a whole Internet full of "name" critics. I wish I could post this discussion on my blog - if I can, do I have your permission? It's rare to find such a conversation on art and when I find one (even if it's around something I've written), I'd love to have more people read it. Who says that you only have shallow conversations on Facebook?

Sherry Miller: I thought the same thing - that it would be great to post this whole conversation where others could read it; I was also thinking of putting it on my blog. Let's put it somewhere that Kenneth Baker and Tyler Green, not mention Schrewdjahl (sic) could steal it! Ha!

Liz Hager: I was trying to decide whether to drag myself to this exhibit. (Alas, curiosity has the better of me, and I probably will.) In the meantime, thanks for all these interesting points.

    Appreciation for lots of art depends on understanding the context (historical, aesthetic, etc.), so I don't so much take issue with his too-esoteric-for American audiences historical context. But yes the copious amount of (esoteric) text always a turn off.

    What worries me most about the show is Schjeldahl's assertion: "If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things."

    Art's gotta have soul for it to withstand the test of time.
Venetian Red

    Obviously, I disagree with Schjeldahl - just look at the roster of painters that I mentioned in the article. But I also suspect that Schjeldahl was trying to say something clever about Tuymans; it would never do to say that this year's Emperor is wearing shabby clothes. So, he --- like so many others -- resorts to over the top type. I know that hype is nothing new but when there is SO much hype for a painter whose skills are ambiguous , it is, for me, a real turn off.


Zoomie said...

Exciting to read - it must be such fun for you to have sparked so much comment! Kudos!

namastenancy said...

I am absolutely delighted to have initiated such an interesting conversation - but then, my friends are smart and articulate. I'm very lucky.

Anonymous said...

I feel you went astray linking Luc Tuymans to Mathias Grunewald. True, both are troubled by their world, but their styles and approaches are dramatically different. Grunewald, via his anchronistic style--medieval icongraphy versus the 'modern' Renaissance realism of the time--was focused on spiritual intensity. His style links to 20th century German Expressionsim.

Tuymans' style aligns with the cool Flemish presentation of Van Eyck. Even more relevant is his method of disclosure. It's modern in the sense that it reflects ambiguity. Arendt's point in her 'banality of evil' phrase was how evil was hidden in plain sight. We often don't know it when we see it; even more troubling, we don't engage it when we know it.

Tuymans takes this modern dilemma as a jumping off point. The issues don't assualt us, but after a careful viewing of one of his series ("Mwana Kitoko", "Der Architekt", or "Proper"; note that even his titles are obliquely referential to his concerns: the Congo, the Holocaust and the Bush Addminstration) there's a sense of something askew, uncomfortable and inscrutable. That's the 'banality of evil' that governs our world (unlike the clarity of evil in relgious eras). Ambiguity is the language of modernism and it takes work and investigation to unpack the real story; that's what Tuymans is showing us.