Major museum retrospectives usually occur in the last years of an artist’s life or the first years thereafter. To be the subject of one as a “mid-career” artist is a rare, honorable distinction. But for Luc Tuymans, it seems overdue.
Tuymans, born in 1958 in Belgium, is a preeminent European painter informed by post-war politics, the language of cinema and the photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter. His work demands high prices on the international art market and high regard in critical journals.
More than 70 of his works are on display, filling up each gallery of the Wexner Center.
In a reductive sense, Tuymans’ work drives to undercut the authority of the image. His paintings aim to make clear the tangle of ideology beneath the innocent façade of a skier or a rabbit, a wax seal or an empty room.
But once one realizes the empty room is a gas chamber or the anonymous skier is the Third Reich’s favorite architect, the inner logic of the show is unlocked, and each subsequent piece becomes less surprising. Around the third gallery, listless apprehension sets in; no longer can you comfortably rest in the nook of an intriguing color scheme or contemplate a minimal composition. These paintings become impossible to process aesthetically because the question of what they actually represent is continually brought to the surface.
This discomfort is due to Tuymans’ success in raising difficult questions about how we negotiate the meaning of Western civilization’s baggage. What isn’t questioned is the life of these paintings outside of his concept and aesthetic: Is producing a representation of an atrocity to sell for millions of dollars ethical? Is it still ethical if one’s buying audience is of the same ruling classes that initiated the colonial and genocidal policies he seems to condemn?
Artistically, Tuymans only runs into problems when his references are too obvious. His portrait of Condoleezza Rice is too direct to lead the American viewer into a dialogue. Likewise, when he introduces collage or text to his muted oils, an element of mystery is lost. It becomes too clearly connected to the outside world.
He is at his best in a series concerning the colonial past of the Belgian Congo. Dueling portraits of rival leaders, one ruling on behalf of Belgian interests and the other a symbol of anti-colonial independence, set off a room of incendiary associations that plays like the visceral imagery of a film trailer.
Following crowd-pleasing exhibitions of Andy Warhol’s Marilyns and William Wegman’s Weimaraners might lead to a perception of this show as being inaccessible or severe. But with a little patience, a little context and some discussion, the rewards of Tuymans are likely to be more nourishing.
Co-curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth, the Wexner Center’s former chief curator of exhibitions, the show will travel to San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and Brussels, Belgium at the end of its run here Jan. 3.