We have a loose circle of artist friends who meet Friday afternoons at SFMOMA in the rooftop café. One cold February day a discussion burst out about the Luc Tuymans show in the gallery next to the café. I had not seen the show and had never heard of Luc Tuymans. But after listening to all the impassioned comments, I got up and did a quick tour of the exhibit. My opinion: Tuymans evokes the history of the 20th century, from Belgian colonialism in the Congo to Auschwitz right up to Condolezza Rice with a portrait of this statesperson.
“The Secretary of State”, 2005, oil on canvas, 18” x 24 ¼ inches Luc Tuymans
The paintings tend to gray and monochromatic but they are still 'painterly.' It is an intellectual body of work that expresses thoughts, historical facts, commentary on public events. It is probably meant to evoke feelings in the viewers related to their responses now, or in the past, to these events. I felt it was interesting but an intellectual experience rather than an emotional one. Although the show didn't interest me a whole lot, I still think Tuymans is an important painter who is taking on the conscience of the Western Colonial and asking us to think about what we've done.
In the following days such a lively discussion of the show, its reviews, and the artist followed among us on Facebook. I am not using the names of the speakers because I don't have their permission. They can comment on this blog entry if they wish to be identified.
The Facebook discussion began with reference to San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker's review of the Luc Tuymans show at SFMOMA.
February 6 at 3:04pm The start of the discussion:
He [Kenneth Baker] can't resist those zingers to us: "Artists in the Bay Area may benefit by the confrontation even more than the rest of the art public will."
February 6 at 3:04pm
First comment, an artist's response to comment about Baker:
February 6 at 3:56pm
That is a really stupid article. No surprise.
February 6 at 5:03pm
Yeah, I think words are limited. Was that an insult to Bay Area Artists or just that the public won't benefit because his art is less palatable to the general public? After Baker's unreasonable critique of Chihuly, I just can't read his stuff. Though he did give my friend a great review when he showed at Limn.
February 6 at 5:37pm
Both Baker's article and Tuymans' work are non inspirational. They make a good team.
February 6 at 7:42pm
Oh, and I am sure that we are all suitably put in our place - either we "engage" with Tuymans aka Baker or we walk away "unfed." What's this - now we are supposed to chomp or maybe lick on a painting to actually "get it. " When I compare his writing to that of Thomas Albright, our late and much respected art critic, I could scream.
February 6 at 8:42pm
With the current exhibition of Luc Tuymans' work SFMOMA is trying its best to kill the art of oil painting.
February 7 at 12:40am
Uhhh, let's see.... bad painting, bad color and diffuse subject matter. And it rates a review. And positive? Provokint? comments??? I am not benefiting from this "confrontation" promulgated by Kenneth Baker. Hot Air there, that's all. And let's NOT have any craft in painting; it is after all, a trap, right?!
“Gas Chamber”, 1986, oil on canvas, 24 x 32 inches Luc Tuymans
February 7 at 12:50am
Was mann nicht malen kann, das muss man nicht malen wollen. Ha Ha from article on Luc Tuysman
More about the show by Dorothy Spears from the NYT
Nancy Ewart's review of Tuymans at SFMOMA in The San Francisco Examiner
February 9 at 8:37am
I find "political" art to be usually second-rate (Guernica and some Goyas excepted) since it is not about painting, and politics is hard to encompass in a manner that can be appreciated more than a few years after the event. This whole nonsense about the death of painting and now its being saved by this shadow of a painter is such hype. Too much about nothing in my opinion.
February 9 at 11:17am
In an interview with Tuymans, he said he considers Jan Van Eyck (not Grunewald but close!) to be the greatest artist of all time. I went through the whole show without reading any of the text panels and only a few of the labels. The show seemed to me to be a commentary on 20th century history. It is cool and intellectual (unlike Anselm Kiefer) but there is a long history of intellectual painting (Poussin and Leger for example) along with emotional painters (Rubens, Bacon). The intellectual painters are still good painters but I prefer the emotional. It's a good column in the Examiner with lots of information and your own view clearly expressed. I only wonder what you did in there for a whole hour?
February 9 at 12:49pm
I am ambivalent about Tuymans …I DO like some of his pieces; the close-up portraits are powerful, even without the text. I feel that it's important for me to engage with all kinds of art… while I don't "like" his work and the hype is a turn off, there's enough "there there" for a serious look. It makes sense that Tuyman's prefers Van Eyck who is cool, intellectual and whose paintings are full of symbolism. But the comparison with Gruenwald was more telling.
February 9 at 5:46pm
I thought the comparison to Grunewald was excellent.
February 10 7:55am
I think you hit the crux of the issue with the question "is the heart of darkness white?"
February 10 at 8:00am
I think Tuymans perhaps would be the first to agree that his paintings cannot possibly convey the actual sense of horror of colonialism - in the BBC interview he talks about his work being "borne out of a genuine distrust of imagery, distust in terms not only comprehending it but also making it." I think that is at the heart of the discomfort I feel in looking at his work - there is nothing physical to hang onto or even launch from - images are not to be used/trusted as a starting point, sensual, gestural paint use is gone, color is sharply reduced (I agree it is still there though so it does evoke a powerful mood). in a sense to me then these are not close to "paintings" at all nor even close to photographs really! For me, the whole exhibit becomes a contemplation on the impossibility of truly understanding history. I agree that in the end this is the use of a visual work to impart something that might have been as powerfully conveyed through language, through an essay, book or even through a film!
“Himmler”, 1998, oil on canvas, 53 x 40 1/8 inches Luc Tuymans
February 10, at 8:09am
You say "For me, the whole exhibit becomes a contemplation on the impossibility of truly understanding history." I think if the show did that, it is a successful art exhibit that words would not convey!
February 10, at 10:18am
I think it is successful to what his intentions were however I'm not entirely sure that words cannot convey similar ideas - certain works of fiction might do that or films.
One thing that sticks with me after seeing the show is that I cannot imagine owning a Tuymans piece and gazing at it many times in my living room whereas I definitely would want to own say a Joan Mitchell painting and it would never lose its interest for me. For me, I think that sense of continual satisfaction and delight emanating from a piece is the essence of good painting.