Luc Tuymans: Exhibitions at David Zwirner, 1994–2012

Luc Tuymans, Me, 2011, oil on canvas, 43 1/2 x 53 5/8".

OVER THE YEARS, I’VE SEEN many of the shows that Luc Tuymans has done at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. I always go with friends, but we never chat in front of the paintings: Tuymans’s art is quiet, and it radiates a gloomy calm. The Belgian artist—once a savvy player in the ’90s resuscitation of figurative painting—is now an influential fixture in the art world, known for his subdued, often sickly palette, his strangely cropped compositions, and his withholding of expected details like facial features. Such formal idiosyncrasies are brought into relief by the luminous patina of his works. “There is a certain kind of light that comes out of a screen and you can find that light in your paintings,” Zwirner remarks to Tuymans in the conversation that introduces this survey of their eleven exhibitions together in New York and London. “It’s almost scary when it comes back at you from a little layer of oil on canvas.” Zwirner is referring to the artist’s paintings of digitally mediated images—even Tuymans’s depictions of quotidian objects and nondescript interiors are lit by a certain sinister glow. Exhibitions at David Zwirner explains the historical sources of his imagery and the topics he has addressed in his shows, such as the Holocaust, American right-wing extremism, and Belgian colonial crimes in the Congo. In addition to reproductions of more than one hundred works, the catalogue includes conversations between writer Lynne Tillman and members of the art world, such as critic Peter Schjeldahl and abstractionist Brice Marden.

While these interviews do much to elucidate the artist’s oeuvre, none directly addresses his surprising recent show “The Summer Is Over,” his first to depict objects and scenes from his immediate surroundings. Jacket, 2012, is a painting of the artist’s gray jacket. While the cropped view of the garment and its larger-than-life scale give the painting a graphic quality from afar, up close you can see the horizontal brushstrokes that fill in the sleeve’s shadow. Other paintings in the exhibition included images of a wall, a building facade, and a view of Tuymans’s own leg. Unlike much of his earlier work, in which seemingly innocuous images bear a terrible significance, here his subjects are suspiciously benign. This marks a thematic departure, but the artist’s famous creepiness remains in place. Speaking of the self-portrait featured in the show—also a first for Tuymans—he drily suggests, “It will explore that tired, romanticized idea of the artist looking at his work.” And it does: The image, solemnly elegant, shows Tuymans regarding something blankly—his work? a screen? the viewer? Among the many questions it raises is one that Tuymans can always be counted on to provoke: “Is something wrong?”