After days of historic high water and watching Venice’s warren of shops and restaurants struggle to survive, it was a relief to enter the graceful Palazzo Grassi and view Luc Tuymans’s La Pelle [The Skin.] It was as though we had left Tintoretto behind, left the damp over-decorated churches with their flooded floors, and the rotting palazzi strung out along the Grand Canal. But of course, that past is not past: Venice’s problems are due in large part to civil corruption, mass tourism, and the climate crisis, all of which are no less a part of the contemporary world than Tuymans’s drained meditations on the image.
Arshile Gorky, who often joined lefty demonstrations, once described proletarian art as “poor art for poor people.” Tuymans’s paintings could be called “second-rate art for a second-rate culture,” and it’s a description which he might well condone. Most of his painting, though not all, could be described as lazy. Tuymans reduces the image, not to its essentials, but to something close to what is inessential. Walking (1989), for instance, is based on a photograph of Nazi leaders strolling together near Berchtesgarden, Hitler’s vacation home. After stripping most of the detail from the source image, Tuymans’s painting could well be a faded Breughel-like scene of persons walking in the snow. A painting of a tooth from one of the extermination camps is so reduced, it wouldn’t be recognizable without the title and commentary. It is what the artist Pierre Dorion once thought the times required, an “evacuated painting.” The idea of evacuation seems true, too, of Tuymans’s style of painting, which by comparison with Gerhard Richter, Ross Bleckner, Wanda Koop, David Reed, or Carol Wainio, is routinely a merely adequate manner of applying paint. Tuymans is obviously aware of this dull competence. In titling the show The Skin, the film of paint is made to be the issue in every work. Why aren’t the paintings better, then? It is a truism of art that the work has to be done in exactly the way it has to be done – not worse, but also not better than it requires. And Tuymans is often exactly right.
With Conceptual Art came the expectation that a work be accompanied by commentary; the work no longer “spoke for itself.” Maybe that was never true, but Tuymans’s paintings are more than usually dependent on commentary to supply meaning for the vacant painting. Still Life (2002), for example, is very large; the apples, the pitcher of water blown-up to such a degree that they begin to feel tissue-thin. The text that accompanies this yawn-worthy work reminds us that this painting was shown in Documenta 11, which was the first Documenta after 9/11, and that the painting therefore must have something to do with the terror attacks. “Almost suspended in the heart of the painting and considerably enlarged – on the scale of an American city, or the impossible facts, or the enormity of the terrorist act? – each fruit states its presence not through realistic representation but with a physicality that slowly emerges from the depth of time, space, air, emptiness and breath.” This of a still-life with a glass jar and fruit, one distinguished by the scale of a history painting and a subject which fails at that scale: dilute and unconvincing.
Shouldn’t the painting contain its concerns instead of having them supplied from outside? Yet this exaggerated claim points to just how blank the paintings often are, how incapable of standing on their own without a prosthetic. Tuymans tosses an image into the public domain, knowing that someone will fill in the (relative) vacuum with their verbiage. The exhibition pamphlet states, of his group of three paintings, Investigations (1989), that “the apparent lack of expressiveness is humiliating” for the artist. This seems appropriate, though I think the failure is not his alone.
Sometimes Tuymans appears genuinely to allude to some large subject – the Nazi death camps, for example. He then deliberately closes the work off from the ostensible subject, as though to say that painting cannot go near it. Fair enough. Others, such as Intolerance (1993), with its Morandi-like candle sticks; the diptych Against the Day (2008), with its alienated figure of a man digging in a walled garden; or Peaches (2012), with its bleached-out fruit, all seem to carry in them the charge of a genuine investment. Each offers an example of a slightly different kind of painting, where Tuymans’s typically impoverished, dashed-off surfaces give way to a richer application of paint. The norm, though, is a type of painting which seems to have surrendered its subject matter along the way – that has collapsed or fatigued into an impoverishment.
It would be easy to dismiss his work for this reason, but I’ve grown convinced by it. In part, it’s the light of Tuymans’s paintings, which is distinctive, and in the context of Venice, quite striking. A drained version of what once would have been transcendence, it sometimes represents the veiled light of a candle; at other points the blaze of a nuclear explosion. If it often seems exhausted, I find it difficult to blame the work. Instead, I see a response within painting to an exhaustion in the larger culture than surrounds it, the daily life in which we are immersed. It doesn’t seem entirely cynical but rather a sort of wearied admission that, after the death camps and more recent genocides, in the midst of the climate crisis, we have learned nothing. That we are mesmerized and regulated by the flow of images, and that painting has no capacity to oppose this.
In 1970, during the period of California’s “Finish Fetish,” Robert Overby wrote in his sketchbook, “Art’s slickness today is a precious affectation of a time when polish had something positive to do with the quality of life.” That observation shows how far we have moved in the last half-century. “Something positive” no longer seems possible, and we can see in the tossed-off quality of Tuymans’s painting something negative about the quality of life.
Rilke, the great German poet, loved Venice. By 1920, the year of his last visit, he saw clearly how the First World War and mass tourism had affected both the city and aesthetic experience. What he wrote then about travel could function just as well as a statement about painting, especially painting as revealed by Tuymans. “In the future it will ‘become empty’, which naturally will not stop many from continuing to pursue it, without registering how used up an enterprise it is.” He continued, broadening his scope. “I believe that all aesthetic contemplation that has no direct purpose will henceforth be impossible, – it will be essentially impossible, for example, to ‘gaze at pictures’ in a church … You would not believe how different, how different the world has become, the task now is to understand.”