Sunday, February 07, 2010
Putting the Wrongs of History in Paint
By DOROTHY SPEARS
Published: February 3, 2010
DURING a visit to New York late last fall, the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans sat on a couch in the dimly lighted lounge of the Bowery Hotel and recounted a disturbing childhood memory. One evening when he was 5, he said, his family was gathered around his paternal grandparents’ dinner table. His mother’s brother was leafing through a picture album when a photograph of one of his father’s brothers — his own namesake, Luc — fell to the floor. The photo, Mr. Tuymans said, showed this uncle as an adolescent performing the Hitler salute.
“This was totally unexpected,” said Mr. Tuymans, 51, explaining that his mother’s family had been active in the Dutch resistance and in hiding refugees. For the first time, he said, his father admitted to her that two of his brothers had trained as Hitler Youth in Germany. After that, the artist said, the issue “was always looming” in his parents’ home. The marriage was not a happy one, and with his mother more and more outspoken on the subject and his father increasingly introverted, Mr. Tuymans said, “I learned to eat very fast and get away from the table.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Tuymans — whose first major American retrospective opens this weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, after an initial showing at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio — has become known for examining the visual residue of trauma and the collective desire to forget. Some of his best-known paintings deal with the Holocaust, the post-9/11 social and political climate in the United States and the legacy of the Belgian colonization of Congo — and with the ways such things linger, or don’t, in the collective consciousness.
“Luc’s paintings call us out on our relative amnesia around important issues,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, a co-organizer of “Luc Tuymans,” as the current show of 75 works is called, and the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where it is scheduled to arrive in October. “They shame you into looking.”
Mr. Tuymans is particularly interested in how the contemporary experience of history — through Web sites, for example, or the media — often involves bits and pieces of the historical record presented out of context. Even as the widespread availability of information has made this “a time when we’re re-evaluating moments of historical importance,” he said, “I am quite distrustful toward ‘evidence’ as such.” His art, he said, aims to “make people reconsider what they’re seeing.”
One way he tries to do this is by studying his chosen subjects in depth, even as he collects samples of fragmentary evidence in images culled from the Internet, television, films, photographs, old postcards and his own drawings.
“Luc embarks upon these huge, almost archival, research projects,” said Helen Molesworth, the other co-organizer of the exhibition, who was recently named as the next chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. “He knows massive, massive amounts about the subjects he paints.” But once he has digested the research and settled on the assortment of images, she added, he paints each work in a single sitting. Referring to his renowned 1986 painting “Gas Chamber,” based on a watercolor Mr. Tuymans made while visiting the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, she said, “It’s almost as if he’s compelled toward a traumatic site, then just as quickly repelled away from it.”
Mr. Tuymans’s paintings, rendered in a restrained palette with fleet brush strokes of wet paint on wet paint, can sometimes seem almost frustratingly detached from their themes, not only because of the evident speed of their production but also because of their oblique, even cryptic imagery. In 2001, for example, when he represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale, his installation “Mwana Kitoko (Beautiful White Man)” dealt with the end of the Belgian colonial presence in Congo using paintings of, among other things, Belgium’s former King Baudoin, black cars cruising through thick green foliage and a leopard-skin rug.
To have a sense of Mr. Tuymans’s take on the period — which had to do with Belgium’s presumed complicity in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s first democratically elected leader — it helps to know that the portrait of King Baudoin, whom the Congolese knew as “beautiful white boy,” was based on footage of the king’s first visit to the colony in 1955; that the mysterious black cars came from a documentary (broadcast on Belgian TV in the 1990s) that traced the hours before Lumumba’s killing; and that the leopard skin referred to a Congolese tribal tradition reserving such rugs for the feet of chiefs, which the Belgians adapted in honor of King Baudoin’s visit.
This mediation through obscure mass-culture imagery may make the work hard to interpret, but it packs a punch precisely “because we have seen the same images and glossed over them or just been indifferent to them,” Ms. Molesworth argued. And in a context like the Biennale, Mr. Tuymans’s coolly elliptical approach can be forceful enough to have an impact. Adding to a book and a movie about Lumumba’s assassination that had both come out shortly before the Biennale, Mr. Tuymans’s paintings helped produce a popular groundswell that led to an official apology from the Belgian government in 2002.
If the art addresses political issues with subtlety and indirection, the same can’t be said of the artist. With his deep-set blue eyes, severely cropped hair and surly, irreverent humor, Mr. Tuymans comes off less as a diplomat and more as a cynic with a bone to pick. A compulsive cigarette smoker, he enjoys his Jack Daniel’s, tossing back three whiskeys at our first interview and tapping his own dedicated bottle under the bar at the Wexner opening. He also loves mouthing off.
During a two-hour interview, the word fascist arose often in reference to President George W. Bush. Citing “homeland security, restrictions on travel, the lack of privacy and pre-emptive strikes” as examples of Mr. Bush’s abuses of power, he pronounced Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice — whose face he immortalized in a scowling portrait from 2005 — “the true American fundamentalists.”
And Mr. Tuymans’s rants are not limited to politics. During the same interview he deemed the exhibition space of the Wexner “horrific,” adding, “I hate the building; I cannot defend it,” on account of a wide ramp running beside the galleries, which impeded the flow of the show. (By the time of a second interview, long after the Wexner show had a positive review in The New Yorker, his opinion had changed. “I was ultimately really happy with the installation,” he said. “I was very afraid initially because of the difficulty of the building, but in retrospect it may end up the most beautiful installation of all.”)
Born in the outskirts of Antwerp in 1958, Mr. Tuymans was “a very quiet kid,” he said, who learned early that making art was “a way to be accepted.” When his childhood propensity for drawing knights evolved into an interest in depicting landmarks like Antwerp’s domed railway station, zoological gardens and port, he also began to think of drawing “as a way of getting out of things.” On trips with his parents, he said: “I’d be drawing the whole time. I didn’t care what was going on around me. I was completely immersed.”
His enjoyment of drawing led to a keen interest in art history and an almost worshipful admiration for the 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, whom he still considers “the most important painter ever, period,” and whom he credits with introducing realism — and the outside world — into an art form that was still under “the cloak of religious dogma.”
At 19 Mr. Tuymans encountered a series of El Greco paintings in Budapest while working as a guard for a European railway company. Having “always hated El Greco because I’d only seen him in a book,” he then became fascinated by El Greco’s use of warm and cool tones of color to create depth. He also admired the complexity found in El Greco’s shadows. “A gray tone is never just gray,” he said.
These early lessons, supplemented by an extensive training in art history and fine arts at universities and academies in Brussels and Antwerp — and by five years in the ’80s dedicated to making minimalist films — eventually gave Mr. Tuymans the formal skills and detachment to probe the political concerns that had been simmering in him since childhood.
His first show, in 1985 — a one-day event in the empty swimming pool of a decrepit Ostend spa — failed to attract any visitors. Several years later, he said, after a couple of shows and some networking, he approached Frank Demaegd, owner of a gallery in Antwerp, with 15 snapshots of new paintings and a list of 15 collectors who would buy them. “I told Frank, ‘The show’s going to be sold out,’ ” Mr. Tuymans recalled. “And of course it happened.”
In 1992, when his paintings were included in the prestigious Documenta IX art show in Kassel, Germany, Mr. Tuymans said he was wooed by a host of prominent dealers eager to exhibit his work. In addition to Mr. Demaegd, he agreed to show with the then-fledgling New York dealer David Zwirner. Since his first solo show with Mr. Zwirner, in 1994, his paintings have been granted shows at major institutions like the Tate Modern in London and the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. They have also earned him what is arguably the most elusive honor of all: the admiration of fellow artists.
“Luc’s small paintings control big spaces, and his paint strokes all connect,” said the realist painter Alex Katz, a longtime fan. “They relate as much to each other as they do to the subject.”
Yet for Mr. Tuymans, subject is everything. “In my book,” he said, “art is not derived from art. Art is derived from reality.”
Geplaatst door anonymous op Sunday, February 07, 2010