Painting the Unseen

Luc Tuymans: Still Life, 2002, oil on canvas, approx. 11 by 16 feet.Courtesy David Zwirner, New York and London, and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.


Peter Ruyffelaere, ed. On & By Luc Tuymans
Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2013; 240 pages, $24.95 paperback.

Unlike the critics, none of the artists I know has ever accused me of being a painter. The question isn’t whether painting is alive or dead, either—that’s a completely demented debate. Like every medium in art, painting has a specific significance, that’s all there is to it. 

It’s the rhetorical flourish of “completely demented” that makes the above Luc Tuymans quote so enjoyable. Taken from a conversation with Udo Kittelmann, director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, it’s representative of the informal brio to be found throughout this engaging volume, which comprises 25 interviews and texts “by” the 56-year-old Belgian artist and seven essays “about” him by writers ranging from Museum of Modern Art, New York, curator Laura Hoptman to artist Takashi Murakami. To consider Tuymans’s work, readers soon realize, is to consider the problem of contemporary painting in general: its relation to photography and electronic imagery, its commodity status, how it transforms what it represents and what it can represent at all.

In 2002, Tuymans shocked Documenta 11 visitors, who had expected him to deliver paintings alluding to the global political convulsions following the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Instead, he presented the gigantic Still Life (2002), depicting not quite identifiable fruits set on plates or tucked into fabric folds. (The apples are fairly easy, but it’s harder to tell what the yellow balls are meant to be. Grapefruits? Cheeses? The taupe object on the left could be a potato or a small bunny.) A pitcher, containing water or milk, is centered close behind, towering over the scattered fruit. The objects are seen head-on, as though our chins were resting on the table, which has itself disappeared into the muted blue-gray/white haze of the tablecloth merging with the background. So the eponymous “still life,” though still monstrously large, floats listlessly. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is not far from our minds, since it, too, is being burlesqued.

The affront offered by this painting was also an assertion of value, suggesting that the chief struggle of an ambitious painter is to paint the unrepresentable: “I asked myself,” Tuymans tells Swiss artist Jean-Paul Jungo, “what can you do, in the wake of this destruction, so intensely planned . . . this image . . . you can’t get beyond it. . . . This is what gave me the idea of proposing something totally different-on a notion of the idyllic.” Tuymans defied expectations in Documenta 11 precisely because his audience had grown used to his oblique portrayals of sociopolitical catastrophe in washed-out image fragments derived from photography, film and television-the rag-and-bone shop of technical reproduction.

Our New Quarters (1986), for example, is a washy, sickly warm grisaille rendering in elegantly loose perspective of the interior courtyard of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Its source is a photograph on which a prisoner has written “our new quarters.” In his 1991 essay, “Disenchantment,” Tuymans writes that on viewing the stark picture, “I had a sense of apathy, something that radiates only the absence of life.”  The image prompts a grim realization: “the power of depicting something produces nothing but helplessness.” Tuymans paints under the duress of his understanding that, in a secular world, the only pictures worth painting are those that reveal social and political ambiguities, not only in events but also in the way pictures themselves function.

It’s actually a double duress, because Tuymans is also laboring under a passion for painting and painters. He admires Goya, Velázquez, El Greco and Caspar David Friedrich. Turning to contemporary artists, he is especially taken with Kerry James Marshall, whose African-American figures are cast into complex narratives on a monumental scale and with a gravitas that draws on Giotto and Piero. Above all, van Eyck is a touchstone for Tuymans, not only because both are Flemish but also because he regards van Eyck as the apotheosis of what painting in a time of religious certainty might give us. He tells Kittelmann:


At that time all knowledge was answerable to a religious dogma and van Eyck was the first to detach the picture from the picture ground and to heighten reality. Although this heightening of reality led to an individualizing of the image, and in principle secularized its iconographic settings, he didn’t really step outside that religious world picture.

Later he adds:

Every form of memory, every capacity of imagination is ultimately determined by reality, not the other way around. Van Eyck took that to an extreme that makes it impossible to come anywhere near. As a Belgian painter you’re traumatized from the beginning. To tell the truth, you might as well forget wanting to paint. We’re not talking about an artist like Caspar David Friedrich here, we’re talking about the best painter that probably ever existed in the western hemisphere.

Tuymans isn’t simply geeking out over van Eyck, though there’s that, too. Van Eyck marks a never to be surpassed limit of skill at a moment when a common notion of truth in things and the ability to make it appear in paint agreed as well as they were ever going to. And, simultaneous with offering a crystalline topography of the world within reach, the artist is representing painting itself-as intensely as the Gospel set in Renaissance dress and architecture.

Painting loses van Eyck’s magic as the real ceases to be magic. In the secular world, the painter’s task is to see through those malicious fakirs who still use enchantment to manipulate crowds. Hence, Tuymans’s iconic cropped portrait of Condoleezza Rice, The Secretary of State (2005), from a photograph that captures her squinting against a tarmac glare but cuts her expression off from any context in the surrounding world: a face on a newsroom monitor. The ultimate failure of the real to hold together seems to haunt Tuymans, plunging him into an agitated relationship with painters with whom he has affinities, most obviously Morandi. His short 2013 piece on the tall Bolognese saint of painting (“My Name Is Nobody: On Giorgio Morandi”) bristles with fascinated irritation over the artist’s self-recusal from the political crisis enveloping his country:

The blatant apolitical stance of Morandi’s paintings, their non-positioned disposition, and the sheer physical size of the painter of these small paintings, induce the element of the coward. The painter, pondering away in some sort of escapism, which he then would call his own, truthfully experienced perception. His own figure and ground.

Perhaps the giant pitcher in Still Life is a partial exorcism of Morandi’s sensitive plasticity, which Tuymans knows like “the back of my hand.”

And yet painting has its own daemon, far older than the painter, or the artist who might claim only to make paintings. The damn things seem to re-enchant themselves in spite of Tuymans’s insistence upon working within the constraints of “disenchantment.” The fact that they are not photographs, that in the process of coming into being they acquire the visible residue of an historicized conversation with the medium of paint, converts them in an artist’s hands into something that stands for itself as much as for anything it pictures. This is a tractor beam that won’t let go no matter how much the painter tries to wrench free. It’s what makes even seemingly lighthearted paintings feel tragic, ironic and sexy (in a dead sort of way): painting is a predicament as much as a process and a formal mode of presentation.

In his essay “Monstrance,” art historian Joseph Leo Koerner describes this condition as it appears in Tuymans’s 1992 series The Diagnostic View”:

The canvases . . . exhibit, beautifully and horribly, painting. Painting erases and replaces the symptom with paint. Built up on the canvas like sores, blisters and tumours erupting on the skin, oil-based pigments exhibit the incremental formation of images as if they were signs of an underlying pathology. . . . Painted, the symptom (the image) becomes the sickness itself. Photographs, film and television cannot show this.

Nor, I would add, can the Internet. Something there is in us that desires the image to be more than merely a meme. We want it to be a tangible thing.

STEPHEN WESTFALL is an artist who writes about art.