Preening Disaffection: The Art of Luc Tuymans


Luc Tuymans, Me (2011), oil on canvas, 43-1/2″ x 53-5/8″; courtesy David Zwirner

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The following review was originally published in the November 7, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Luc Tuymans; The Summer is Over at David Zwirner (until February 9).

A well-known maxim advises us not to judge a book by its cover, but can you judge an art show by its press release? In the case of Proper, the exhibition of paintings by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans on display at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, absolutely.

Mr. Tuymans’ recent efforts offer, we are told, “a critique of America that is intended to be subconsciously constructed.” Stop puzzling for a moment over how anything subconscious could be constructed intentionally and let the press release ramble on: “The exhibition’s title, Proper … refers to a seemingly requisite order determined by society at large [and] simultaneously suggests the opposite—improper—and therefore subverts …. ”

You already know you’re in deep trouble, and then the word “subverts” rears its ugly head. Here we enter the well-trodden path of transgression, wherein art is valued not for itself but for any number of extra-aesthetic ambitions. It doesn’t matter what’s being subverted as long as subversion takes place.

Reading further, we discover that Fred Astaire, Ann Miller and the Nicholas Brothers are—didn’t you just know it?—role models for flag burners the world over. What else are we to conclude upon learning that Mr. Tuymans’ ruminations on “a fragile America and the crumbling state of current affairs” have been “incited [?] by war-time musical films from the 1940s.”

If it seems unfair to dwell on the words surrounding Mr. Tuymans’ art, realize that the paintings are nothing without them. They’re barely anything with them.

Mr. Tuymans’ paintings are vaguely cinematic in composition and wan in coloration. His depictions of a table setting, a canopy bed, a bedroom mirror and—the sore-thumb centerpiece of the exhibition—Condoleezza Rice are characterized by a deadpan caginess, a knowing refusal to convey meaning or principle.

This indifference is reiterated by Mr. Tuymans’ cursory approach to painting: He completes each canvas in a single setting. This approach would seem to guarantee an alla prima spontaneity, yet the products are listless and fussy, bleached of life, incident and interest. True, they’ve been purposefully manufactured to “fully contest optimism,” but that’s a cheap out favored by artists with nothing to say.

Mr. Tuymans presumably has something to say; he’s garnered international attention for tackling subjects like the colonial history of Belgium and 9/11. But the vacuousness of the work contradicts that reputation. Is preening disaffection really the benchmark for major art? Mr. Tuymans is neither a herald of the failures of history nor a significant painter. He’s a symptom of the fecklessness of official culture and, as such, to be deplored.

© 2005 Mario Naves

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  • Gabrielle Jones  On January 27, 2013 at 5: 05 pm

    So glad to see someone tackling “art speak” – the kind that obfuscates rather than enhances understanding. As an artist, I am not always sure what my work means but allow the subconscious to have its way – I have an inkling about the whole concept, but need NOT to understand it fully in order to not make it predictable. Can’t we just look at the paintings and make our own minds up? After all, it’s a visual art, not an essay

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