Mr. System and Dr. Death


Luc Tuymans’s work can be romantic and repetitious; his enthrallment with hot-button subjects can make him seem opportunistic; some of his latest paintings lack ambiguity. Even so, Tuymans deserves tremendous credit for a farsighted decision he made 25 years ago that not only changed his art but altered the way painting looks and is talked about today. By now the wan, blurry, brushiness of Tuymans’s work is so paradigmatic and influential that it’s possible to speak of the Tuymans-esque as one would the Kafkaesque.

Tuymans’s decision appears obvious today; in the early 1980s it seemed absurd. Rather than following the bombastic strategies of Kiefer, Baselitz, and Schnabel, Tuymans turned to that cool customer, brooding Dr. Death Gerhard Richter, who claimed he was “indifferent” to his subjects and once wrote that “art is a wretched, cynical, stupid, helpless, confusing mirror image of our spiritual impoverishment.” Kiefer and company are red-hot missionaries who paint in manifestos: Their work is declaratory, individualistic, primal, and freighted with a quasi-religious edge. For them painting is a call to arms. Tuymans is the exact opposite: He paints in systems. Like Giacometti, who said, “Let me know how to make only one and I will be able to make a thousand,” Tuymans renders everything in the world through the same shadowy scrim: gas chambers, pillows, and dictators are interchangeable. Instead of being hierarchical and hysterical, Tuymans’s work is indexical and detached. Kiefer et al. are magicians of the earth; Tuymans is a machine. He’s Mr. System.

All these artists are infatuated with the weight of history (what is it with guys and history?). Tuymans paints heavy things in a light, Whistlerian way. He gets gravity, memory, and beauty to do a hypnotic dance of life and death. Dealing in what Richter called “deadly reality, inhuman reality,” Tuymans’s work, like Turner’s before him, is rife with atmospheric effects and a morning-after-the-flood feel. But where the air is propitious in Turner’s world, it’s turbid in Tuymans’s.

Tuymans is so formulaic that his art can get boring. Yet every show contains paintings that pop. Here, Tuymans, ever on the prowl for timely issues, turns his attention to the end of empire. It has been said that civilizations often crumble from spending themselves to death and spates of bad luck. As theoretician Manuel De Landa has observed, the downfall of the Ottoman Empire began with massive overspending, incurred from maintaining far-flung territories, and ended with “13 bad sultans in a row.” The United States is now nearly $8 trillion in debt. It is also in the midst of having 13 bad sultans in a row: The Vietnam-scared sultanate of Johnson, two Nixons, one Ford, a Carter, two Reagans, the first Bush, the two horny sultanates of Clinton, and now Bush twice. That’s 12. In 36 months the United States will elect the person who could become the 13th bad sultan.

Tuymans gives us the eerie oscillation between empire and its end. Painting latency, sublimation, and the shadows of fate, his work exists in the smoldering fissure formed by abstraction, memory, reality, and the sheer alchemical power of paint. The press release says “Proper,” as this show is titled, is about “fragile America and the crumbling state of current affairs.” The exhibition is bracketed by two commanding paintings: Secretary of State, a small portrait of a prominent Bush administration figure, and Demolition, a seeming abstraction that lies near the psychic core of the peculiar period we live in.

Secretary of State is a likeness of Condoleezza Rice that those in the Bush administration would deem earnest and complimentary and those opposed to it would find ironic and ominous. It’s a modern Mona Lisa—a picture of a cipher. The canvas is small but Rice’s head is massive within it. She looks simultaneously imposing, pinched, irritated, and isolated. Full-size she’d be a monster. Brackish shades of ocher and mauve dance across her cheeks and jaw. The composition and the psychology are askew. The left side of Rice’s face seems outer directed; the right side oddly introspective. But while the subject of this jarring painting is explicit, the content that Tuymans paints is willpower, race, constriction, and solitude, as well as the thing that separates the way the two worldviews view this painting: paradox.

This divergence seethes in Demolition, one of the best paintings Tuymans has ever made. A viscous powerhouse of billowing smoke conjures the luminescent tactility of Brice Marden’s early monochromes as well as the ravishing physicality of Manet and Degas that inspired Marden. Demolition is simultaneously an image of something you’ve never seen and can’t forget, and that never existed. A tiny lamppost in the corner of the painting may cause many to flash to September 11. Demolition might only be an image of a construction site, but it’s a reminder that all clouds contain traces of what we saw that morning: a glimpse of the end.

In 10 years the picture of Rice could come off as dated as an Oliver North portrait would today. Nevertheless, it and Demolition are utterly public paintings that should be installed together in an American museum where viewers could glean what D.H. Lawrence meant when he wrote, “There are terrible spirits and ghosts in the air of America.”