Paint and suffering
Luc Tuymans's tough paintings tackle difficult subjects at the MCA.
When Luc Tuymans tells me he worked as a bouncer for several years before he started making a living from his paintings, I’m not surprised.
The 52-year-old Belgian artist is average height and soft-spoken, but chilly and intimidating. He doesn’t give a shit about being interviewed: It takes two trips to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where his retrospective “Luc Tuymans” is on view through January 9, to track down the man whom curators Madeleine Grynsztejn (the MCA’s director) and Helen Molesworth (chief curator of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art) describe as “one of the most dominant and influential artists of his generation.” I eventually find him smoking on the MCA Terrace.
Tuymans has plenty to say about his exhibition, which includes about 75 paintings created between 1978 and 2008, arranged chronologically. “I started out as a nonformal painter, believe it or not,” he tells me. “I started to get away from abstraction because I found out that figuration is much more abstract than abstract art. Abstract art is too emotive for the way I’m put together.” The artist’s paintings are representational but unrecognizable. They’re adaptations of images from photos, films, TV and the Web, which Tuymans alters in subtle but significant ways and renders in muted, off-putting colors.
Der Architekt (The Architect) (1997), an oft-cited example, depicts a fallen skier who sits in the snow, looking over his shoulder at the viewer. The artist paints the man’s face as a white blank—so without a cheat sheet, you’d never know the skier is Hitler’s architect Albert Speer.
Though Tuymans has become famous for obliquely addressing the Holocaust (see Schwarzheide, pictured) and other painful historical subjects, such as Belgian colonialism and the Bush administration, his success wasn’t immediate. In the 1980s, unable to afford adequate art supplies, he painted on cardboard and reused his canvases. At the press preview for this exhibition, Grynsztejn announced there are “eight or nine” paintings beneath some early works.
By 1995, however, Tuymans had an international reputation strong enough for a solo show at the Renaissance Society. That’s where he met his wife, artist Carla Arocha, he informs me, (almost) smiling, later telling me that Arocha introduced him to the iPhone, which replaced the Polaroid camera he once used to gather source materials. The artist spends months making studies and researching pieces but completes each painting in just one day.
In 2001, Tuymans represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. “Mwana Kitoko,” the series he showed there, appears at the MCA. Because its paintings address Belgium’s impact on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the 1961 assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, the series made front-page news in his home country. At first glance, it’s unclear why “Mwana Kitoko” caused an uproar. One painting, derived from a documentary Tuymans saw as a child, depicts Belgium’s King Baudouin during his 1955 visit to the Belgian Congo. Another is a portrait of Lumumba, looking pensive. The inspiration for Chalk (pictured left, 2000) is, admittedly, horrific: After Lumumba was killed and before his body was burned, a Belgian police officer extracted and saved two of the Congolese leader’s teeth. Still, no one can guess that story from the painting. Why doesn’t Tuymans choose more confrontational images?
“I’m a big believer in what Fritz Lang always did,” he says. “Fritz Lang never showed violence. He showed the consequences of violence. [In The Big Heat] with Lee Marvin, you see the girl. You see the coffeepot. You hear the scream. You know what happened. That’s more suggestive and interesting.” (The cinephile artist curated a film series for the MCA, which begins November 27 with Eyes Without a Face and There Will Be Blood. He’ll return to the MCA next month to paint a mural in the atrium, inspired by statues from the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy.)
While I’m surprised by how little context the MCA’s wall texts provide, Tuymans insists you don’t have to know the origins of his paintings to appreciate them. “I don’t want to force, to say to people, ‘This is what you have to see in it,’” he explains. “When some people from the Guggenheim saw [‘Mwana Kitoko’] at David Zwirner, [the gallery] got a phone call that ‘they liked the man in uniform’ and asked if it was Pinochet. Which is in a way not that far off.”
Helen Molesworth speaks about “Luc Tuymans” at the MCA Tuesday 26.