Monday, February 8, 2010

Luc Tuymans at SF MOMA

Luc Tuymans, Orchid, 1998; oil on canvas; 39 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (99.7 x 76.8 cm); Private collection, courtesy David Zwirner, New York; © Luc Tuymans; photo: Felix Tirry, courtesy David Zwirner, New York

The latest bad boy of the art world comes preceded by copious amounts of critical hype. He's articulate, fond of making brash, provocative statements and is a photographer's dream. Yet, there’s precious little living in Tuyman’s paintings, much ambiguity and no love that I can discern. Tuyman’s uses his pieces to criticize society, in his case, all the last 100 years of Colonialism, Imperialism and Nazism. But it is a critique from a distance. His work is cool, detached, and ambiguous.  He's cool with his cropped hair, stylish black jacket and provocative stance.

In King Leopold's Ghosts, Hochschild's superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885. Until 1909, he used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, burn villages, mete out sadistic punishments, including dismemberment, and commit mass murder. The hero of Hochschild's highly personal, even gossipy narrative is Liverpool shipping agent Edmund Morel, who, having stumbled on evidence of Leopold's atrocities, became an investigative journalist and launched an international Congo reform movement. I read Kristoff's article on what's currently going on in the Congo and wondered how Leopold's legacy of oppression and torture could possibly be conveyed by Tuyman's cerebral paintings with their deliberately obscured images and muted, grayed color palate. Can the uber-cool convey the horror of the concentration camp, as portrayed in the piece below?

Luc Tuymans, Gaskamer (Gas Chamber) 1986; oil on canvas; 24 x 32 1/2 in. (61 x 82.5 cm); The Over Holland Collection. In honor of Caryl Chessman; © Luc Tuymans; photo: Peter Cox, courtesy The Over Holland Collection

Is the heart of darkness white? Can white and gray-white adequately convey horror?

One of his psychic ancestors would be the 16th Century painter, Matthias Grünewald whose often grotesque religious paintings showed Christ presiding over the suffering world. But unlike Grünewald's world, we do not share a common religion or painterly symbolism.  In Tuyman's world, there is no Christ, there is no redemption. To use Hannah's Arendt's famous phrase, there is only the banality of evil - except that the pieces are often so obscure that it is impossible to recognize what evil is being portrayed.  Much of the  work is often visually weak and meaningless without the text.There are exceptions - the close-cropped portraits of Rice, Ben Laiden, Loyola are an unflinching look at the faces of those who wield power without regard for ethics or compassion.

Schjeldahl claims Tuyman's work dramatizes the fallen state of painting since the 1960s. But,  I don't agree; there are a dozen painters whose work I respect - Saville, Dumas, Freud, even Richter. Their work is more painterly, the effect doesn't depend on text and the paint engages you.

Luc Tuymans, Lumumba, 2000; oil on canvas; 24 3/8 x 18 1/8 (61.9 x 46 x  cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, fractional and promised gift of Donald L. Bryant Jr., 2002; © Luc Tuymans; photo: courtesy David Zwirner

Some of the portraits like that of Condi Rice or Patrice Lumumba show real skill in handling paint. One of his earliest pieces up, titled "Hands" shows a painterly facility. But there is far too much concept and too little painting: I got bored after about an hour. Now, it was interesting to hear him talk about his process but then, I always like to hear articulate artists. When I walked out of the Kiefer exhibit, I was emotionally exhausted. Even if I didn't get at first all the historical references, I was deeply touched and fascinated. When I left Tuyman's exhibit, I was not the slightest bit engaged. Now, I appreciate the historical references. A lot of people don't know about King Leopold's oppression of the Belgium Congo and a lot of other people are far too ready to forget or ignore the concentration camps and the "medical research" that was done on millions of people.

 But reaching the heart of darkness is not done by paintings of blasé images, surrounded by acres and acres of text. I always have "problems" with painting that needs comprehensive text to make it approachable. If you aren't interested or disagree politically, you won't go - and if you (or the public) don’t go, what is the point? If you don't know about Nazism or the history of the Congo or even contemporary American politics, his grey on white pieces lose two thirds of their power. Since that's the case, why not write a good history book? If he lived three hundred years ago, he would have been a history painter with a whole list of rules and the painterly ethic to go with it. He might have even worked with Rubens in making a case for the legitimate rule of Marie De Medici. If not that, then he would have been covering acres and acres of palace walls with 17th century political propaganda, kings as gods, conquering all for the glory of the Bourbons or the Hapsburgs or the Stuarts.

But, living now, there are no rules, there are no standards - but there is, for a certain type of ambition - building the career. What is good painting in the post-modern era? The critics don't know. Look at the frequent declarations that "painting is dead." If you want to look at passionate and deliberate "bad paintings" that are also a critique of racism, look no further than the late Robert Coldescott. If you want post-modern art, the story starts with Duchamp and stretches into the future. Where Tuyman's work will end up is anybody's guess.


Liz Hager said...

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.

namastenancy said...

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.

gage opdenbrouw said...

thanks, Nancy, interesting article, and interesting conversation. i think i'll be going to see it next week, will be interesting to go with these thoughts in mind. i'll let you know what i think!