On the Visionary Harmonic Abstractions of Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas’ work deserves a major retrospective. Perhaps the book on the use of color in painting by African-Diaspora painters that focuses on the year 1971, forthcoming this year from MoMA will begin a sustained conversation and a full-scale exhibition of her art and a richly researched and illustrated definitive catalog is forthcoming.

until then

Vincent Johnson

Artist and Writer in Los Angeles.

Curator of The Photographic Imaginary, and exhibition opening in Los Angeles in the Spring of 2017.

Museums Bring Pioneering Painter Alma Thomas out of Storage for Her First Major Retrospective in over 30 Years

Portrait of Alma Thomas © Michael Fischer, 1976. Courtesy of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

In 1972, at age 80, Alma Thomas was the first African-American woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Interviewed that same year by The New York Times, the artist, who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, before settling in Washington, D.C., said: “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”

Thomas, who achieved widespread recognition late in her lifetime for her colorful, exuberant abstract paintings, is once again in the spotlight after slipping from the mainstream art-historical canon following her death in 1978. Last year, the White House hung a newly acquired Thomas painting in the Obamas’ dining room, while the Whitney pulled another canvas by the artist from storage, juxtaposing it prominently with a Cy Twombly painting in the inaugural exhibition of its new building. “Thomas is a legend and a discovery at the same time,” says Ian Berry, director of Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, where a major retrospective of the artist’s work opens on February 6th. Berry has organized the show with Lauren Haynes, associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where the retrospective will travel in July.

The first graduate of Howard University’s fledgling art department in 1924, Thomas taught art for 35 years in a segregated junior high school in Washington, D.C., while always making her own work. In the 1950s, taking night and weekend classes at American University, Thomas shifted from representational painting to abstraction. After retiring as a school teacher in 1960, she committed herself full-time to her art. Thomas forged a highly personal style of brilliantly hued short brushstrokes aligned in dazzling vertical stripes and radiating circular compositions inspired by natural phenomena like the patterns of light in her garden and images from the Apollo moon missions. “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” the artist said in 1970.

Left: Alma Thomas, Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973. Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York. Right: Alma Thomas, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969. On loan from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift on Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. Images courtesy of the Frances Young Tang Museum.

Michael Rosenfeld, the primary dealer of her work for the past 25 years, says it took courage for black artists during the civil rights era to buck the expectation to make work representing African-American life and struggles. “Her decision to be an abstractionist was in itself a major social-political statement—that a woman of color can be part of the larger picture of American painting,” says Rosenfeld, whose Chelsea gallery had a solo exhibition of Thomas’s work last spring. Along with loaning several canvases to this new retrospective at the Tang, he has shepherded her works into the collections of numerous institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, as well as the White House.

When it opens next month, the Skidmore show will begin with a salon-style hanging of some 30 small studies and sketchbook pages working out color and form, about half of which have never been exhibited. The curators are borrowing these works (dating from 1960 on) from the Columbus Museum in Georgia, where Thomas, who never married and had no heirs, left her archival materials. (The artist also left many paintings to what is now called the Smithsonian American Art Museum.) “This first room sets up her pathway to abstraction and gives a view into her process,” says Berry, who will also include the large canvas March on Washington (1964), along with two studies for it. The only semi-representational painting in the retrospective, it shows her intimate involvement with the civil rights movement. “The signs and the faces become abstract shapes in that painting,” says Berry.

Left: Alma Thomas, Splash Down Apollo 13, 1970. Right: Alma Thomas, Apollo 12 “Splash Down,” 1970. Images courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, and the Frances Young Tang Museum.
“One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”

The exhibition will also underscore Thomas’s engagement with flowers and nature distilled in large-scale canvases, such as Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968). These works, highlighting Thomas’s signature style, bristle with broken stripes of almost every color in the spectrum, with different hues peeking through the top layer of color. Another room will focus on paintings influenced by imagery from early space flights, including Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (1970) from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The orange orb brimming with rows of staccato brushstrokes, balanced perfectly inside an atmospheric square field of paler orange, is both minimal in geometry and maximal in optical effects.

The final gallery will show paintings from the mid-1970s, when Thomas’s brush marks start to deviate from their ordered lines to form rhythmic webs and mosaic patterns. “She’s in her 80s and making her most confident nature-inspired images,” says Berry. In the final painting included, Hydrangeas Spring Song (1976), Thomas’s deep blue marks fall free-form like wedges and commas through white space, breaking apart as they tumble.

For the curators, who are pulling together many works never or rarely exhibited, “it’s the kind of show where you feel like you’re really adding something to the telling of art history,” says Berry. While the Smithsonian put on a major Thomas exhibition in 1981, three years after her death, this is the first museum retrospective since a 1998 show organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana. “As museums start pulling their Alma Thomas works out and showing them more, people almost unanimously are moved by them,” says Berry. “All these paintings that we’re borrowing from great museums, maybe when they get them back they’ll put them up rather than back in storage. That’s definitely a hope and a goal.”

Alma Thomas, Deep Red Roses Chant, 1972. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, and the Frances Young Tang Museum.

—Hilarie Sheets

“Alma Thomas” will be on view at the The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, Feb. 6–Jun. 5, 2016, and at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, July 14–October 30, 2016.


A small but wondrous Alma Thomas retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem put me in mind of a desert plant that spends all year as an innocent cactus and then, in the middle of the night, blooms. Thomas, who died in 1978, at the age of eighty-six, was a junior-high-school art teacher in Washington, D.C., whose own paintings were modernist and sophisticated but of no special note until she retired from teaching, in 1960, and took up color-intensive abstraction. Her best acrylics and watercolors of loosely gridded, wristy daubs are among the most satisfying feats (and my personal favorites) of the Washington Color School, a group that included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and others associated with the prescriptive aesthetics of the critic Clement Greenberg: painting shorn of imagery, the illusion of depth, and rhetorical gesture. Wielding brushes, Thomas eschewed the group’s signal technique of working strictly with stains of liquid paint on raw canvas, proving it inessential to an ordered glory of plangent hues. She seemed to absorb in a gulp the mode’s ideas—rational means, hedonistic appeals—and to add, with no loss of formal integrity, a heterodox lyricism inspired by nature. The boldly experimental work of her last years suggests the alacrity of a young master, but it harvested the resources of a lifetime.

Thomas, who was African-American, was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her father was a businessman, her mother a dressmaker. She had three younger sisters. In 1907, the family moved to Washington and took a house in a prosperous neighborhood, in which she lived for the rest of her life. She concentrated on math in high school, and dreamed of becoming an architect. Unsurprisingly, given the time’s odds against her race and her sex, in 1914 she found herself teaching kindergarten. In 1921, she enrolled at Howard University as a home-economics student, but gravitated to the art department, newly founded by the black Impressionist painter James V. Herring, and became the school’s first graduate in fine arts. Later, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College and studied painting at American University, where she encountered Greenberg’s doctrines.

Though she initially hung back from a studio career, Thomas was active in Washington’s cultural circles, including a “little Paris salon” of black artists, in the late nineteen-forties, which was organized by the educator and artist Lois Mailou Jones. Thomas’s modern-art influences included Vassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse, especially after she saw a show of his paper cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1961. Recognition came slowly but steadily. When she became the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum, in 1972, she told the Times, “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there.” She added, “Look at me now.”

Thomas said that she was moved to paint abstractions after studying the shapes of a holly tree in her garden, and that she based her color harmonies on her flower beds—or on the way she imagined them looking from the air. Space exploration fascinated her. A painting of a disk in reds, oranges, and yellows is titled “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970)—a whimsy that seems meant to deflect any hint of mysticism. Thomas was not sentimental. Nor, after painting some semi-abstract, resonant oil sketches of the 1963 March on Washington, was she political. She said, in 1970, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” She did so with panache in such works as “Wind, Sunshine, and Flowers” (1968), which deploys touches of hot, warm, and drenchingly cool colors in vertical columns. Intervals of white canvas align here and there to form horizontally curving fissures: wind evoked with droll economy.

Thomas suffered increasing health problems, but her work developed apace. She closed the gaps between her surface strokes with underlying colors in the darkling “Stars and Their Display” (1972) and in the shimmering “Arboretum Presents White Dogwood” (1972). A startling late work, “Hydrangeas Spring Song” (1976), heralds a new style, with swift patches, squiggles, and glyphs (crosses, crescents) in two blues, energetically scattered on white. It feels quite as up-to-date, for its moment, as anything being painted then in New York or Cologne, where abstraction was sprouting representational marks and references on the way to revived figurative styles. The uncompleted arc of her talent makes her a perennial artist’s artist, consulted by young abstract painters even now. Thomas didn’t change art history, but she gave it a twist that merits attention, respect, and something very like love.



Arts in Review

Art Review

Alma Thomas’ Review
Alma Thomas was an underappreciated artist who immersed herself in a lifetime of learning and beauty
By Judith H. Dobrzynski
March 1, 2016 4:50 p.m. ET

Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Hanging in the last gallery of “Alma Thomas,” a large evocative abstract painting titled “Cherry Blossom Symphony” (1973) seems to place viewers amid hundreds of the delicate pink flowers. Or hovering above them, looking down on a sea of pink. Composed not of discernible petals, but of rosy-hued daubs of paint piled on under-layers of blues, greens and reds, it’s a marvel, the conceptual equivalent of a warm spring day.
Alma Thomas
Tang Teaching Museum

Through June 5

“Cherry Blossom Symphony” is one of several wonders here at Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum, which has gathered 18 paintings and 27 works on paper to showcase the talent of an underappreciated artist. Inspired by nature and influenced by Matisse and Kandinsky, Thomas (1891-1978) created exuberant works long on pattern, rhythm and, most of all, color. As she once said, “color for me is life.”

Thomas was African-American, but that was no play on words. Though she sometimes touched on racial matters, her identity did not define—or limit—her work. She also said, another time, “through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

Thomas was born in Columbus, Ga., during what some historians have called the most oppressive decade of the Jim Crow South. Her family departed in 1907 for better lives in Washington, D.C., where Thomas seemed to flourish. She earned a teacher’s certificate and taught art for a few years. Then she attended Howard University, graduating with the first degree in fine arts it ever conferred, and went on to earn a master’s in art education from Columbia University Teachers College. Returning to the capital, she took a job teaching art at Shaw Junior High School, where she remained until she retired at the age of 69.

Having always dabbled in making art, Thomas now started to take painting classes at nearby American University. She joined the Washington art scene, associating with Morris Louis, Sam Gilliam and other members of the Washington Color School, though she was not really one of them. Their art was about formalism (line, color, and other purely visual elements of a composition); hers had more life. Franz Bader, one of the most prominent and influential dealers in Washington, gave her numerous exhibitions and sold many of her paintings.

In 1972, a dozen years after her retirement, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented a solo exhibition of her work—its first-ever show devoted to an African-American woman. (From it, the museum bought “Mars Dust,” from 1972, a beguiling red with blue work structurally akin to “Cherry Blossom Symphony” that was on view when the Whitney inaugurated its new building last year with a celebration of its permanent collection.)

The Tang exhibition opens with some early works. Two abstract canvases, “Yellow and Blue” (1959) and “Untitled” (1960), hint at her way with color, but are derivative and undistinguished. If Thomas had stopped there, she would not have merited this exhibition. But three figurative paintings nearby show her coming into her own.

In “March on Washington” (1964), Thomas deployed blocks of color as protest signs and loosely rendered protesters, whose featureless faces are much like the trademark daubs she would later use in her abstract works. The two other figurative works (c. 1964) are oil sketches for “March on Washington” that show her experimenting with space: One devotes more of the canvas to the signs, the other to the people. In the final version, the people won.

It’s all uphill from there. Her evolution takes place before your eyes in the trove of works on paper in the next gallery (c. 1960-1978). In them, Thomas experiments, working out spatial and structural issues. Many can stand alone as sumptuous watercolors.

Thomas painted abstractions of what she saw, often from the windows of her home. Her “earth” works, four on view here, generally look like grids of vertical stripes in bright colors. They are actually shimmering, aerial abstractions of rows of flowers in her garden, which she considered a relief from daily indignities she and her neighbors suffered.

Thomas was also enthralled with space exploration, so she imagined the cosmos seen from space. Still mostly abstract, still latticed in structure, her visualizations are hotly colored visions of the heavens and the earth. Perhaps the best, “Starry Night and the Astronauts” (1972), reveals just a corner of light—a blood red, orange and yellow sunset—on a deep blue-black canvas.

The last gallery contains, for me, her finest works. Alongside “Cherry Blossom Symphony” there is the similarly patterned, equally subtle “Arboretum Presents White Dogwood” (1972), softly colored in white and blue. “White Roses Sing and Sing” (1976) and “Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish” (1976) are brighter in color and bolder in pattern. They are her “mosaics,” fashioned from irregularly shaped “tiles” of paint.

“Alma Thomas,” which will move to the Studio Museum in Harlem this summer, shows her to be a spirited artist who got better and more innovative with age.

Ms. Dobrzynski writes about culture for many publications and blogs at http://www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts.


The Changing Complex Profile of Black Abstract Painters

by Hilary m. Sheets, ART news, June 04, 2014

Donald Judd didn’t have to explain himself. Why do I have to?” asks Jennie C. Jones, an African American abstract painter who has grappled with the issue of how her work can or should reflect her race. “Fred Sandback can make this beautiful line and not have to have it literally be a metaphor for his cultural identity.”

Jones, 45, sidestepped the debates around multiculturalism that were raging when she was in school in the 1980s and gravitated toward Minimalism. Yet over the last decade, she has forged a conceptual link in her work between the histories of abstraction and of modern jazz in America—“black guys in the 1950s taking jazz into the concert hall and making it this bluesy hybrid with Bach,” as she puts it.

In her recent show at Sikkema Jenkins in New York, an atonal sound environment accompanied her monochromatic paintings that had acoustic panels attached to the canvases. Strips of fluorescent color painted on the edges of the canvases bounced off the white walls and created a sense of movement, rhythm, and vibration. “This art and music juncture,” she says, “gave me the permission to point to something in the room that said, ‘I didn’t fall out of the sky.’”

The contributions of African American artists to the inventions of abstract painting have historically been overlooked, or else fraught with the kind of questions faced by Jones. “Generations of black abstract painters never seem to be celebrated,” says Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where she recently organized “Black in the Abstract,” a two-part exhibition that focused on the history of African American painters working in abstraction. She placed younger artists, including Jones, Shinique Smith, and Angel Otero, in dialogue with members of the older generation, such as Felrath Hines, Alma Thomas, and Romare Bearden, who were producing seminal works in the 1960s.

“You find these artists being marginalized on both ends of the spectrum,” Cassel Oliver continues. “There was this manifesto with the Black Arts Movement that you did work that reflected the beauty of that community in no uncertain terms,” she says, referring to a group that coalesced in the 1960s to promote social and political engagement in art and literature. “Oftentimes abstract painting is not as celebrated as more figurative work by the black community. From the mainstream art world, it’s just the sense of not being preoccupied with what black artists are doing, period.”

The 1960 canvas Strange Land, included in the Houston show, would be unrecognizable to most viewers as a work by Bearden. It wasn’t until 1964, when he started making collages inspired by the rituals and rhythms of African American life, that he achieved acclaim. Bearden and his contemporary Jacob Lawrence, whose subject matter was similar, were the most renowned African American artists of their time. Their sensitive portrayals of black families were the kind of works many thought were needed and that they expected from black artists. Yet Bearden, in his 1946 essay “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma,” bristled at the tendency to critique work by blacks on “sociological rather than esthetic” merits. His extensive experimentation with Abstract Expressionism from 1952 to 1964 has gone virtually unnoticed. The first exhibition devoted to this lost decade of his work is being prepared by the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York.

“It took a lot of integrity and a lot of courage for an African American artist to be an abstractionist in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s even,” says Michael Rosenfeld, who organized “Beyond the Spectrum: Abstraction in African American Art, 1950–1975” at his Chelsea gallery earlier this year. The show brought together what Rosenfeld calls the first-generation African American abstract artists—Charles Alston, Harold Cousins, Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, and Hale Woodruff—and the second generation, including Frank Bowling, Edward Clark, Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, Al Loving, Howardena Pindell, William T. Williams, and Jack Whitten.

Rosenfeld points out that Norman Lewis (1909–79) participated in the landmark symposium organized in 1950 by Robert Motherwell and Lewis’s friend Ad Reinhardt and held at Studio 35 in New York, where the artists present debated what to call the new art movement. (Abstract Exressionism was the term that eventually prevailed.) Yet Lewis is routinely omitted from the narrative of this defining moment in American art. The first comprehensive overview of his career opens in November 2015 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Alma Thomas was picked up by the Martha Jackson Gallery in the 1960s and was the first African American woman to have an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1972. Yet she is not well known today.

“The African American Abstract Expressionists are part of the same movement as their white counterparts,” says Rosenfeld, “delving within themselves and trying to express something universal.”

While all these artists resisted the pressure to paint images that told stories of black experience, most were very politically engaged. “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” on view at the Brooklyn Museum through July 6, includes works by several committed abstractionists who found ways to meld their art and activism.

The 80-year-old Sam Gilliam, known for his ravishing color-field canvases that he sometimes drapes sculpturally on the wall, painted a monumental canvas stained and splattered all over with hot pinks and reds, titled Red April (1970), in direct response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Lewis’s Untitled (Alabama) from 1967 shows a crowd of abstracted angular figures in white packed into a bladelike shape slicing through a black field. The artist always disavowed overt narrative content in his work, but the visual suggestion of hooded Klansmen together with the title clearly alludes to the civil rights movement.

“Lewis became a beacon for the next generation, moving into an abstract space and saying, ‘I don’t have to put that burden of representation on my work,’” says Kellie Jones, cocurator of “Witness” and associate professor of art history and archeology at Columbia University. “Somebody like Jack Whitten makes the same decision.”

The Brooklyn show includes Whitten’s Birmingham 1964, in which a newspaper photograph of a confrontation in Birmingham is partially revealed under layers of stocking mesh and black oil paint, like a wound that can’t be covered over. The 74-year-old artist, who grew up in Alabama and moved to New York in 1960 as an art student, revered the Abstract Expressionists, many of whom he met at the Cedar Tavern. While Whitten said he felt pressure to make work about the civil rights movement in the 1960s—and wanted to do so—he made a decisive leap into abstraction in 1970.

“If I was going to get around Bill de Kooning, first of all I had to go faster than he, and second of all I had to do something much larger than he,” says Whitten, who created a 12-foot-wide tool he called the “developer” to drag paint in a single gesture across the entire picture plane. (This was a decade before Gerhard Richter began his heralded abstract paintings using a similar technique.) Whitten, who shows at Alexander Gray Associates in New York, will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in September.

As a graduate student at Yale in the mid-1960s Howardena Pindell, 71, also found inspiration in the work of the older generation of abstractionists —namely Ad Reinhardt’s paintings of close-value colors and Larry Poons’s Op art canvases of circles and ovals. Throughout the ’70s, Pindell experimented with color, surface, and texture. She cut out hundreds of tiny paper dots with a standard hole puncher, collaged them onto cut-and-quilted canvases, and smothered them in layers of acrylic, dye, sequins, glitter, and powder. One of them, the pale, luminous Untitled #20: Dutch Wives, Circled and Squared (1978), was included in “Black in the Abstract.”

“I remember going with my abstract work to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the director at the time said to me, ‘Go downtown and show with the white boys,’” says Pindell, adding that William T. Williams and Al Loving met with the same kind of response. “We were basically considered traitors because we didn’t do specifically didactic work.”

Pindell, who just had an exhibition at Garth Greenan in New York, says her conscious intention was to explore the esthetic possibilities of the circle when she started on those works. Then she was startled by a childhood memory that came back to her. On a car ride through Kentucky in the 1950s, she and her father, who lived in Philadelphia, stopped at a root-beer stand and were served mugs with red circles on the bottom.

“I asked my father, ‘What is this red circle?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘That’s because we’re black and we cannot use the same utensils as the whites.’ I realized that’s really the origin of my being driven to try to change the circle in my mind, trying to take the sting out of that.”

Odili Donald Odita, 48, says that he feels indebted to the persistence of the older generation of black abstract artists who asserted personal freedom in the face of an art market that rewarded cultural and political stereotypes. In the early 1990s, as a young artist out of graduate school at Bennington College in Vermont, where he studied the work of mainstream abstract painters such as Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland, Odita got a job at Kenkeleba House in New York, owned by the painter Joe Overstreet, who collected and showed work by African American artists. Stunned that he had never heard of these artists, Odita began a project to interview abstract painters from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Pindell, Loving, Edward Clark, Frank Bowling, and Stanley Whitney. Odita’s research grew into a series of talks he has given at universities over the years.

“Any kind of formal invention in the work of black artists was seen as, if not second rate, then something done the second time around,” says Odita, noting that Clark laid claim to making the first shaped painting—before Frank Stella—and that the king-making art critic Clement Greenberg regularly visited Bowling’s studio but never took the opportunity to write one word in support of his work. “In the competition of the avant garde in modern art, these older-generation African Americans felt disenfranchised and marginalized in the race to advance art.”

Odita didn’t want his own work subsumed under the standard narrative of Stella and Noland, and all this information helped him navigate his path as an abstract artist. Because his family fled the civil war in Nigeria when he was a baby and settled in Ohio, he grew up with the duality of African traditions at home and American pop culture in school. In 1999, he started making geometric paintings in which shards of vibrant colors zigzag and abut in compositions that suggest colliding cultures and emotions.

“I wanted people to identify the trope of Africa with this structure and color and see the patterns of one world and another world pushing into the space of the painting,” Odita says. He draws on the palette and designs of African textiles, TV test patterns, the Nigerian landscape, and suburban wallpaper in his work, which he shows at Jack Shainman in New York. “If it’s successful, it doesn’t end in that trope. Then people start engaging with other things that are occurring—texture, color, the dynamic of the composition, light, what the space creates, how it relates to your body and mind,” he says.

James Little, 60, also has an affinity for color, design, and structure in his hard-edge abstract paintings that are strongly influenced by jazz. “I’ve figured out ways of suggesting movement, rhythm, speed, and how to shift color,” says Little, pointing out that de Kooning and Piet Mondrian were also responding directly to jazz. “I felt that abstraction, coming from my background, which was a very segregated upbringing in Tennessee, reflected for me the best expression of self-determination and optimism and freedom. I’ve had to do an uphill battle in a lot of ways in the art world on both sides, amongst the blacks and whites, but I’ve just really stuck with what I believe in.” His canvas Juju Boogie Woogie (2013) was included in “Black in the Abstract.”

June Kelly, whose gallery represents Little, has noticed a positive shift in the art world at large toward black abstract painters. “There’s a wonderful group of collectors who are more receptive to the work of black abstract painters now,” says Kelly. “As they read more and look, they see the need to open up their collections. The writings and exhibitions of black historians and curators such as David Driskell, Kellie Jones, Richard J. Powell, Lowery Stokes Sims, Judith Wilson, and Valerie Cassel Oliver are making a difference.”

Jennie C. Jones is thrilled by the large number of black collectors who are now interested in her work. She credits, in part, Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, who has organized such shows as “Energy/ Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964–1980” in 2006.

“Over the last 20 years, she has been really educating black collectors to step away from focusing on the WPA era,” says Jones, who will have a solo show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in October. “I have black collectors today who say, ‘I’ve always been in love with Russian Constructivism, and now I feel I can have something close to that but reframed in a new context.’”

Inside the superb: SFMOMA


The newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Credit Henrik Kam/Sfmoma

SAN FRANCISCO — Inside the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one of the most startling sights is the absence of works on the towering walls flanking the main zigzagging staircase.

The blank walls are awaiting the arrival of a pair of paintings next year by Julie Mehretu, the Ethiopian-born, New York-based artist. “She’s working on the commission,” said Gary Garrels, a senior curator, climbing stairs with the ease of someone who has given many museum tours. “The paintings are so large that she has to use an old church in Harlem as her studio.”

When the museum officially reopens on May 14, after a three-year closing, a $305 million addition by the architecture firm Snohetta and a campaign that elicited some 3,000 works of art from donors, it will have bragging rights on many fronts.

Spanning a full city block at its widest, with a dynamic white structure that resembles a cruise ship, the museum will be the largest in the Bay Area. It will have more exhibition space dedicated to photography than the Getty in Los Angeles, and more gallery space than the current Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

It will also have extraordinary concentrations of 20th-century art: Calder mobiles, Warhol silk-screens, Richter paintings and LeWitt wall drawings across three floors, thanks to a 100-year loan by the Gap founders Don and Doris Fisher that necessitated the expansion.

But curators at the museum, who don’t want it to be seen as the Fisher Museum of Modern Art, are already working hard behind the scenes to bring the museum into the 21st century, with major commissions like Ms. Mehretu’s, as well as lesser-known discoveries. They are seeking to bring a visual and cultural diversity to the museum that the Fisher collection, rooted in blue-chip work of the white male art world of 1960s America and Germany, is lacking.

“S.F. MoMA has always had a commitment to the emerging, the experimental and the new, but that has waxed and waned over the decades,” Mr. Garrels said. “It’s more important than ever that we strongly commit to being engaged with contemporary art in its global dynamics.”

“Global contemporary” is a buzz phrase heard in museum board rooms throughout the country. “It will be interesting to see: What’s going to set them apart from every other museum in every other city that has contemporary ambitions?” said Ian Berry, who runs the Tang museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and was an early visitor to the Snohetta building. (He called it “a great achievement.”)

Among the contemporary initiatives underway are film programs, community-driven projects and residencies for performance artists. The museum’s director, Neal Benezra, plans to hire a curator this fall to focus solely on contemporary art “across all collecting categories,” shaking up departments long organized by medium: photography, media arts, architecture and design, and — Mr. Garrels’s area — painting and sculpture.

Mr. Benezra has earmarked one large lobby for new art, once the Fishers’ 214-ton Richard Serra sculpture is removed in a couple of years. “It will be like our version of Turbine Hall,” he said, referring to the Tate Modern’s vast and enormously flexible space.

Elsewhere in the building, signs of the museum’s commitment to the hyper-contemporary and geopolitically diverse are already visible. A project room on the fourth floor has a new Bauhaus-inspired installation by the Berlin-based Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes, while the seventh floor (the top floor for visitors) has a survey of recent donations: major pieces by Ai Weiwei, Mark Bradford and Mark Grotjahn, as well as some less predictable choices.

One surprise is Brad Kahlhamer’s 2014 hanging wire sculpture “Super Catcher,” which looks like dream catchers caught in an archaic fisherman’s net, studded with small bells. “The rattling makes me think of native dance rituals,” said Mr. Garrels, who placed the work in a new gallery exploring “issues of cultural identity.”

Another standout is a vibrantly patterned and painted collage, by the Nigerian-born Njideka Akunyili Crosby, that depicts her own cross-cultural wedding. She kneels in traditional African dress and offers her American husband, who wears jeans, the ritualistic palm wine. “We bought it straight from her show at the Studio Museum, before she even had a gallery,” Mr. Garrels said.

Katie Paige, a trustee at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and whose father, Charles Schwab, is board chairman), has started a contemporary-art support group to organize studio visits with artists, trips to biennials and fairs. It’s meant for new collectors, including the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors whom everyone in cultural philanthropy seems to be chasing, with little success.

The guests at the first event, a March conversation between Mr. Garrels and the artist Carol Bove at Ms. Paige’s home, included the Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger; his wife, Kaitlyn Trigger; and the venture capitalist Anthony Schiller, who works with the longtime museum patron Dick Kramlich.

“Maybe we can’t compete with L.A. or New York in terms of the depth of museums or galleries or community of artists,” Ms. Paige said. “But we certainly compete very strongly on the collectors’ end. And this group is a way for the museum to reach a new generation, a younger donor base.”

A long-running group affiliated with the museum supports Bay Area emerging artists; this newer one has a more global focus, in line with the curators’ expanding interests.

“I think their big challenge,” said Mr. Berry, the Tang Museum director, “is to be attentive to their local audience and community of artists while simultaneously finding the time and resources and energy to get out and see as much as they can in the larger world of art making.”




SFMOMA’s reopening: a ‘game-changer for San Francisco’ – and contemporary art

With its newly acquired collection of Richters and Warhols and a multi-million dollar renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is aiming to join the top rank of galleries. Ahead of its reopening, Paul Laity takes a tour

Grand entrance … Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006), in the Roberts Family Gallery at at SFMOMA.
Grand entrance … Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006), in the Roberts Family Gallery at at SFMOMA. Photograph: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

For years, workers at the San Francisco HQ of the clothing chain Gap walked past an enormous piece of fruit. At the entrance to the company cafeteria sat the 8ft-high Geometric Apple Core by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen – the “Gapple”, a classic of contemporary art. Though held in great affection, however, the sculpture was, in those offices, rather commonplace. Art was everywhere, including a 1963 silver Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol, a roomful of monumental Chuck Close portraits and an array of dazzling Ellsworth Kelly abstracts.

Gap’s founders, Donald and Doris Fisher, used their millions from the 1970s onwards to amass 1,100 works of prestigious mid and late 20th-century art – including 21 Warhols, 23 works by Gerhard Richter and 45 Alexander Calder mobiles. It was recognised in art circles as a hugely significant collection, but, outside their firm, was kept largely under wraps.

All that changed in 2009 when, just two days before Don died, a longstanding agreement (unusual in the art world) was reached to show the collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for at least 100 years. It was a momentous occasion for SFMOMA, which began to plan a major expansion to accommodate the new treasures. Having been closed for nearly three years for the redevelopment, the museum – now doubled in size, with three times the gallery space – reopens on 14 May.

An external view of Snøhetta’s expansion.
An external view of Snøhetta’s expansion. Photograph: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

Alongside 260 pieces from the Fishers – the first trawl – will be not only the old permanent collection but hundreds of new works donated by the region’s art collectors, as part of a special campaign led by the museum’s director, Neal Benezra. The new SFMOMA is about to join the very highest rank of galleries of contemporary art in the world.

The museum, which opened in 1935, got its own building 60 years later – the postmodern structure by Mario Botta, recognisable by its stacked boxes of red brick and central cylinder wrapped in zebra stripes of black and white stone. This exterior has been left alone, but wedged around it is a distinctive new building on seven floors, created by Norwegian architects Snøhetta: its white rippled facade, we’re told, evokes the waters of the bay surrounding San Francisco and the rolling in of the city’s famous fog.

The interior has been designed to merge the two buildings seamlessly. Benezra and I walked around as the installation of the art was in its final stages, and only a few pieces were left in crates or cellophane. Much of the ground floor is near-complete: a huge Richard Serra sculpture, Sequence – two spirals of weathered steel transported to the museum on 11 flat-bed trucks – has long been in place at one glass-walled gallery entrance; a dozen people had just lifted a 26ft-wide Calder mobile to help in its suspension over the main atrium.

The director talks of the reopening being a “game changer for San Francisco”, but is careful to emphasise that the museum is now world-class in “contemporary” art – work, that is, from the last four decades of the 20th century and since – rather than “modern”. “I define modern art as going up through abstract expressionism,” he explains, “then with Warhol and Lichtenstein and the pop artists, Johns and Rauschenberg, there is a return to the visible world in one way or another. And to me that’s … contemporary art.”

When the Botta building opened in 1995, reviews noted how “spotty” or “skimpy” the museum’s permanent collection was: its highlights include Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau and works by Paul Klee and the Mexican masters, but it has no examples of futurism or Russian constructivism and no significant Picasso. There are plenty of first‑rate pieces to fill the galleries now, but SFMOMA still has a different, less historical, story to tell than its New York equivalent, the core collection of which comes from the early 20th century.

Gerhard Richter’s Geäst (Branches) (1988).
Gerhard Richter’s Geäst (Branches) (1988). Photograph: © Gerhard Richter

So there is not much in the way of cubism, but plenty of pop art and minimalism – as well as postwar German masters (Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys) and the works of such California painters as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and Joan Brown. There is a whole room of Calders, a sun-filled gallery devoted to modern British sculpture (by Anthony Caro, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Richard Long and many more), and a new centre that, Benezra hazards, “might just” make SFMOMA the most prominent photography museum in the US.

Benezra offers no apology for where SFMOMA’s strength lies, and as we tour the galleries his excitement at the remarkable bounty of the new museum is obvious. “You’ll be hard pressed to see a better room of Warhols,” he says, pointing out celebrated new acquisitions including Silver Marlon, with Brando on his Triumph motorbike from The Wild One, and the Triple Elvis, as well as the museum’s own famous study of Elizabeth Taylor on horseback, National Velvet. There is also a “museum within a museum” of 26 works by Kelly, who became a good friend of Doris Fisher. These include the jazzy arrangement of rectangles Cité from 1951, and the vivid stripes of Spectrum I, as well as the sliced shapes of Red Curves (1996) and Blue Panel (1985). The Kelly rooms, Benezra says, are “strikingly beautiful”: “We expect our colleagues in other museums to be green with envy.” Geometric Apple Core proudly sits on the fifth floor (after a special party was held at Gap HQ to say farewell).

The Fishers collected certain artists, among them Kelly and Calder, in great depth. Partly in consequence, according to Benezra, the new SFMOMA “runs counter to normal museum practice these days. Most museums – the Tate is a pretty good example of this – are working more thematically. You’ll go to a gallery and … the curator has authored an idea and the pictures illustrate that idea. We’ve done something just the opposite, and terribly old-fashioned … we’re refocusing on the artists and letting each one speak. The curators are not imposing their will on the paintings at all … You work with what you have, and with artists in such depth, why would we do anything else?”

Benezra talks of how big public art galleries have changed their role, from being “good stewards of the works of art in their custody” to more popular and fully public institutions, places where people come to meet and spend time. To reflect this, the new museum has more free-access space: the architects have knocked out the forbidding stairwell that dominated the old atrium to create a brighter entrance – where two enormous Julie Mehretu murals will eventually adorn the walls – and built a new wood, cantilevered “grand stair” that leads to an admission-free “art court”. The architects’ buzzwords include “reaching out” so that the museum becomes “more extroverted”.

Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis (1963).
Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis (1963). Photograph: © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Allied to this now obligatory inclusiveness is Benezra’s desire to explode the cliche that contemporary art is difficult. “For me,” he says, “if you want something really hard to understand, you’ll stand in front of a multipanel Renaissance altarpiece – you have to know who all the saints are, and why they’re there.” Contemporary art such as minimalism is, in contrast, much more accessible, and people shouldn’t think it esoteric because of its simplicity – gallery goers “should feel very confident about what they bring to the work”.

There are several new welcoming features at the museum. One is the vivid green “living wall” that lines a courtyard on the eastern side and comprises nearly 20,000 plants, all California native species. This triumph of vertical gardening involved planting in huge sheets of porous felt. Another is the expanded restaurant, called In Situ, run by chef Corey Lee, who Benezra calls, with a straight face, “our curator of food” – the idea being that, as well as serving up his own dishes, Lee will “borrow recipes from chefs around the world” much as “a curator putting on a Picasso exhibition would identify and borrow the best pictures”.

To help with the design of the galleries, an astonishing, tiny replica of SFMOMA has been constructed: over the past four years, a model-maker has made maquettes – detailed, accurate and some as small as half an inch long – of at least 2,000 artworks, which have been moved around by the curators to see how effective different hangings are, and what connections between pieces are suggested from different viewpoints.

Benezra calls the gifts recently acquired in the “campaign for art” an “outpouring”: news of the museum’s expansion “enabled us to tap more fully into the energy all around us, in a region known for its special creativity” and philanthropy. Much of this campaign involved approaching known collectors: “We tried to be as specific as possible with our requests”, asking for work by a particular artist or from a critical period in an artist’s career. “We know who owns what.” Before recent efforts, for example, SFMOMA had almost no works by Beuys: now there are drawings, a vitrine, a blackboard. Other donations include major works by Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Pollock, Cy Twombly and Brice Marden.

A sculpture by Alexander Calder beside a living wall on the Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace.
A sculpture by Alexander Calder beside a living wall on the Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace. Photograph: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

The campaign shines a fascinating light on how a major American art gallery such as SFMOMA operates; it is also the latest chapter in the story of how the museum has been transformed by the tech-led boom in the Bay Area. One aspect of this is the neighbourhood, SoMa, in which the museum stands: as recently as the early 90s it was, Benezra points out, “not a place where polite company would go looking for culture. Today it is one of the centres of the tech industry, dynamic and lively.” Another aspect is the availability of great wealth. “Entrepreneurship is a big thing in San Francisco, and the visual arts are particularly amenable to it,” investment mogul and chair of the SFMOMA board Charles Schwab said in 2000. “The art world moves … quickly … It reflects our changing society.” According to Benezra, the city has, outside of New York, “the greatest body of private collectors of contemporary art” in the US.

On SFMOMA’s board are real estate magnates, venture capitalists and the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer. The museum’s trustees have dug deep into their pockets and it has benefactors that represent really big money – the families behind the Hyatt hotel empire, for instance, and Levi Strauss retail. And when the museum held a party to celebrate its 75th birthday, Mark Zuckerberg came along.

The Fishers are, of course, the most obvious embodiment of immense wealth combined with a loyalty to San Francisco and an intense desire to collect art. The LA Times has described their collection as “very 1980s … big, brash, expensive, even vaguely avaricious in tone. Call it Dynasty-style acquisition” focused on “big-ticket artists … born of the American art world’s first, big, market-driven era”.

Dan Flavin’s untitled (to Barnett Newman) two (1971).
Dan Flavin’s untitled (to Barnett Newman) two (1971). Photograph: Don Ross/Katherine Du Tiel

Yet the quality and range of Fisher pieces on show at SFMOMA, from David Hockney to a Louise Bourgeois black spider, speaks for itself. At one end of the fourth floor is a hexagonal Rothko-type chapel of superb near-monochrome minimalist works by Agnes Martin. When I ask associate curator Sarah Roberts to choose a few favourites, she mentions untitled (to Barnett Newman) two by Dan Flavin, a rectangle of red, yellow and blue fluorescent tubes; the coils and drips of Note 1 by Twombly; and Bracket by Joan Mitchell, a 15ft-wide late-career work.

Perhaps the best instance of an artist the Fishers collected in depth is Richter, the world’s most revered (and expensive) living painter. He is also the practitioner of contemporary art par excellence thanks to the famed plurality of his output. “The whole set of assumptions about modern art was that it was incumbent on an artist to define for him or herself a particular signature style, something that was indisputably their own,” Benezra explains. “So Jackson Pollock poured and dripped paint, and so on. But with contemporary art you don’t allow yourself to be boxed in.”

On the sixth floor of the new museum it’s possible to see Richter “in all his conceptual glory”. The variety of his work is immediately evident in one room, which juxtaposes the conventional-seeming grey-blue Seascape with the “near-abstract aerial view of a city” titled Townscape Madrid and 256 Colours, one of his canvases based on paintshop colour charts.

Nearby is the well-known, Vermeer-influenced study of Richter’s wife, Sabine, The Reader, and – yet another contrast of style – examples of his big abstractions made using a squeegee. Propped against a wall, waiting for hanging, is the Richter work Benezra describes as perhaps the most important for the Fishers in their entire collection: the delicately blurred Two Candles, which the family took off the wall and slipped into the back of their car twice a year, as they moved back and forth between their house in San Francisco and their place just south of the city, on the Peninsula.

The top floor of the museum leaves the Fisher collection behind and brings the museum’s holdings up to date, by showing media arts and works made since 1980. “We wanted it to be the most contemporary space,” Benezra says: instead of a ceiling, the ductwork has been left exposed for a rather predictable touch of industrial chic. We walk past a Jeff Wall light box not yet switched on, and pieces by Ai Weiwei, Matthew Barney and Richard Prince.

Perhaps the most noteworthy piece for the reopening, however, is Sleeping Woman, a solid stainless steel sculpture by Charles Ray of a clothed black woman, clearly homeless, asleep on a bench. With the influx of tech money, the homeless situation in some neighbourhoods of the city has become acute: it’s a “powerful piece for San Francisco”, Benezra comments.

Strenuous efforts are being made in the marketing of the new museum to link it to all parts of the local community. (One initiative is free admission for under-18s.) Benezra expresses the hope that San Francisco remains “not just a great consumer of culture but also a producer of culture”. That’s “a big challenge” because it’s increasingly “hard for people of ordinary means to live” in the city, and those “who produce culture” – the up-and-coming artists themselves – “are often-times doing so on a shoestring”.

With its Calders, Warhols, Richters and Kellys, SFMOMA is about to rise high up the table of art museums and become an unmissable attraction on the west coast. Without doubt this achievement is in part a product of the money-fuelled transformation of the Bay Area – and the gallery’s expansion is unlikely to silence the increasingly loud talk of how the tech industry has stripped San Francisco of its culture and its soul. Yet both the Snøhetta building and the augmented collection will surely continue to please and impress after any number of Silicon Valley bubbles have burst. And as its director reflects: the new museum represents something that simply “would not have been possible in another place at another time”.

SFMOMA reopens on 14 May at 151 3rd Street, San Francisco. sfmoma.org.



Contemporary art in America

Going public

The biggest contemporary-art museum in America will be unveiled next month. Building it took ingenuity, persuasiveness—and a lot of money

IN MANY countries rich art-buyers are deserting public institutions in favour of building their own private museums. Not in the Bay Area, where some 200 collectors have been persuaded to donate over 4,000 works of art to the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). As if that were not enough, they have also contributed generously to a new $305m building designed by Snøhetta, a Norwegian firm, and to a healthy endowment of $245m. When it opens on May 14th, SFMOMA will be the largest museum of modern and contemporary art in America.

Five years in the making, the new SFMOMA reflects the confluence of old money from the American West and new wealth from Silicon Valley. And it proves, in a way that few other projects could, how important collecting contemporary art has become as a measure of wealth, taste, ambition and civic duty.

Nearly three-quarters of the works on show in the inaugural exhibitions are recent gifts. Neal Benezra, the director, engineered a “Campaign for Art” in which the museum cherry-picked works from important local collections. “We did not just drop a net to see what we could catch,” he explains. The museum has focused on filling gaps in its collection and bolstering areas where it is already strong.


Robin Wright, a lifelong philanthropist and vice-chair of the board, helped SFMOMA solicit gifts. She gave the museum a list of the works in her collection; the museum chose 36 pieces, including a rare Ed Ruscha painting from 1973 entitled “Evil” and made with the artist’s own blood. “It’s hard to imagine dying,” says Ms Wright. “And who could be a better guardian of your art once you’re gone?” Collectors can enjoy knowing that their art pieces are (literally) museum-worthy, and that they will return home when the museum changes displays. It all, says Mr Benezra, contributes to “great estate planning”.

A decade ago, many donations to American museums were “fractional gifts”; collectors could benefit from tax write-offs on a proportion of the changing (often increasing) market value of their works. When the rules were changed by the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the practice became financially unattractive and art donations fell.

Another system known as “promised gifts” began to take precedence. SFMOMA has done a good job of spelling out the psychological and social benefits of this form of philanthropy. Just as it was confirming Ms Wright’s gift, Charles Schwab, chairman of the board, and his wife Helen made an offer of their own—27 works, including stellar paintings by Fernand Léger, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon. Soon afterwards, seven other important collectors pledged over 100 more works.

By far the largest contribution came from Donald and Doris Fisher, co-founders of Gap, a clothing chain. In September 2009, just before he died, Mr Fisher shook hands with Mr Benezra on a deal which granted SFMOMA a 100-year loan of 1,100 works, including 25 by Alexander Calder, 22 Gerhard Richters, 18 Andy Warhols and 18 Ellsworth Kellys (some of which can be seen pictured).

Fascinated by the creative process, the Fishers had bought “in depth”, sometimes following an artist’s career over several decades. “In many museums, you see one of this and one of that,” says Bob Fisher, the eldest of three Fisher sons who is president of the SFMOMA board. “You gain an understanding of what Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism is, but you aren’t given the chance to appreciate the mind of an artist.” Neither the Fishers nor the museum will disclose the value of the collection, but experts suggest it is worth well over $1 billion.

The partnership of SFMOMA and the Fishers is unprecedented, and it comes with strict rules. Every ten years, the museum must put on an exhibition that focuses exclusively on the Fisher collection. At other times, the museum can mix the Fisher works with those from its own and other collections. SFMOMA will also take care of conserving and promoting the art. In return, the Fishers contributed an undisclosed “very generous” sum towards the new building and its endowment.

The challenge of presenting this onslaught of gifts to the public has fallen principally to Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture, who spent three years contemplating scale models of the museum’s seven exhibition floors and has been installing the works since December. The museum decided to include at least one work from each of the campaign’s 231 donors, so the installation will offer a portrait of the Bay Area collecting community rather than an art-historical narrative.

Visitors can enter the museum through the elegant new Snøhetta structure into the sort of grand light-filled space that has become a standard requirement of art museums (Tate Modern, which will open its own new extension a month after SFMOMA, will have one too). In San Francisco the space will be filled with a classic rusted-steel sculpture by Richard Serra; upstairs in the atrium is an uncharacteristically joyful, blue-and-white wall drawing by Sol LeWitt entitled “Loopy Doopy”.

What will make SFMOMA unique is the enfilade of rooms offering mini-retrospectives of individual artists. Thanks to the bounteous gifts the museum has received, these are so good they will become destinations in themselves. One has an exuberant range of mobiles and other sculptures by Calder, who went to the same San Francisco high school as Donald Fisher. Another, nicknamed “The Chapel”, is an octagonal room with a suite of seven serenely geometric paintings by Agnes Martin.

San Francisco is the Wall Street of the West, but it is also the historical hub of hippies, gay liberation, the farm-to-table movement and digital culture. It is a creative city that sprang from nothing in 1848, when the Gold Rush hit. Its citizens know all too well that culture does not just happen; it has to be made, underwritten, nurtured. “One thing I’ve learned through this fund-raising process,” says the museum’s director, “is that this community loves a big idea. They are willing to take chances and risk failure, but they want the next awesome idea.”

Jun 6, 201602:27 PMPoint of View

In Detail: Snøhetta’s SFMOMA Expansion

In Detail: Snøhetta's SFMOMA Expansion

All images courtesy Paul Clemence

Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta, compares libraries and museums to theatres and cinemas—people go to experience the magic (not observe the nuts and bolts of making). With the expanded SFMOMA, however, the Norwegian-based firm has made explicit the increasingly collaborative relationship between artist and community, art and public, and visitor and architecture. The architecture both privileges and exposes the vital act of dialogue. And the magic, albeit slightly demystified, is still there.

Despite a challenging and constricted urban lot, the architects came up with an intriguing solution: a voluptuous volume whose shape is both a functional and aesthetic gesture. “The bows allow for extra gallery space without the extra volume having to go all the way to the ground of the building,” says Dykers. “But it also helps us manipulate the scale relationship with the neighboring buildings and the city fabric.” Interestingly, this play of curved void & volume also appears in a sculptural installation of Richard Serra’s “Sequence,” which will be occupying the ground floor gallery facing the street (with only a glass wall separating it from the sidewalk, this gallery will be free and open to the public).

For the facades, the architects developed undulating cement and polymer fiber panels (less than a quarter of an inch thick) produced by a high tech robotic system that makes unique panels more cost-effective than repeated ones. The resulting effect adds even more movement to the building’s design. “The rippling façade gestures towards the identity of San Francisco – the fog, the bay waters, all pull together into the shaping,” explains Dykers.

Inside, the transitional spaces, hallways and staircases become opportunities to engage the visitor. In Dykers words, “We wanted to create an experience of architecture where people could feel they owned their moment, whether alone or in a crowd. When you invest personal energy into using a building—and when you invest in something you feel you own—this is kind of like a handshake with the design.” Staircases become exercises in transparency, with views in different directions, hallways act as breathing spaces, and the façade opens up to generous open vistas to the city.

For an even more guttural connection to the surrounding cityscape, a long open terrace on the fifth floor gives visitors a broad, perched urban overview. From this terrace, visitors will also be able to peek through glass walls into the room where the SFMOMA team and visiting artists will be busy at work planning, producing, conserving or even creating the pieces that later will appear in the galleries.

7 x 7

Art + Design

First Look: Inside the Newly Transformed SFMOMA

It’s been nearly three years since SFMOMA shut its doors with the promise to return much bigger and better in 2016. On Saturday, May 14, the celebrated art museum will finally unveil its richly expanded collection in a striking new home.


(The views from the new museum are just as wonderful as the art.)

SFMOMA’s gorgeous new home will have social media buzzing for months. In 2010, SFMOMA tapped international firm Snøhetta to design a new structure to exhibit the museum’s expanded collection and seamlessly meld with the existing building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta in 1995. The new 10-story structure rises above SoMa like a futuristic edifice from the planet Hoth. The facade is comprised of 800 unique panels that appear to ripple and shift with the light, a literal reflection of our famously foggy climate. Made of a lightweight material embedded with sand from around the Monterey Bay, the 235,000-square-foot addition actually weighs less than the original 225,000-square-foot building.

(A Richard Serra sculpture greets guests as they enter on Howard Street.)

Guests now enter on Howard Street, catching sight of ghost signs that were exposed when a fire station was removed to lend space for SFMOMA’s expansion, as they walk in. Visitors are greeted by a gargantuan Richard Serra sculpture of burnished metal and a bold patterned wall painting by Sol Lewitt dubbed Loopy Doopy. As part of the museum’s commitment to community access, the first two floors — nearly 45,000 square feet — are free to the public. The museum will also offer free admission to everyone 18 and under. Director Neal Benezra stated, “We want to mean more to more people than ever before.”

(The largest living wall open to the public graces the third floor terrace.)

Guests are sure to swoon for the third floor outdoor terrace, anchored by a dramatic 150-foot living wall — the largest public one in the U.S. — whose stretch of green looks like a mini Golden Gate Park affixed to the building. Another terrace on the seventh floor offers invigorating views of the downtown cityscape. Craig Dykers, lead architect and founding member of Snøhetta, encourages visitors to take the stairs. From the spectacular Roman Steps on the ground floor to the floating staircases of the upper floors, each unique stairway functions as its own sculptural objet d’art lending strong incentive to bypass the elevators.

Even restrooms delight with a shock of of monochromatic color — a different hue for each floor — that wouldn’t be out of place at the clubby W Hotel next door. As arresting as the art and interiors are, some of the best visuals are outfacing via huge wood-framed windows that offer glimpses of SoMa’s hidden rooftops and busy alleyways. With so much visual info to digest, museum fatigue is real. Bleary-eyed patrons can seek refuge in smartly designed “palate cleansers,” a series of composed spots to rest, reflect and mind your Instagram feed.


When SFMOMA moved to their new South of Market location in 1995, the museum possessed 12,000 pieces of art. Today, the number has grown to 33,000, thanks to over 1,000 pieces made available from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection — a remarkable assemblage of masterworks that began as decoration for bare Gap walls — in addition to the museum’s Campaign for Art which committed 3,000 works from over 230 individuals associated with the museum.

The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection is a boon for the museum with postwar and contemporary works from artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, and Gerhard Richter. The inaugural shows feature beautiful galleries of some of the Fisher’s favorite artists. For the late Don Fisher, big powerful works by Anselm Kiefer, and for Doris, serene paintings by Ellsworth Kelly whom she maintained a close friendship with until the artist’s death.

The new SFMOMA also aims to be an epicenter of photography and film. Occupying most of the third floor, the Pritzker Center for Photography is the largest gallery and research space devoted to photography among art museums in the nation. Plus, a new partnership with the San Francisco Film Society means a new film program, Modern Cinema, exhibited in the newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater

Aiming to embody a 21st century art museum, SFMOMA also premiered a new app that guides guests through galleries with commentary from a wide range of personalities including Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani of HBO’s Silicon Valley as well as players from the SF Giants.


Corey Lee, chef-owner of the Michelin three-star restaurant Benu and Monsieur Benjamin, is opening the museum’s destination eatery. In Situ will present a rotating menu of dishes contributed by an all-star list of 80 international chefs including Rene Redzepi, David Chang, and Alice Waters. The restaurant is expected to open in June. For more casual fare, Cafe 5 will serve a contemporary cafe menu adjacent to the sunny fifth floor sculpture garden. And San Franciscans will feel right at home at the museum’s Sightglass outpost, a hip mini coffee bar carved out on the third floor.


SFMOMA is offering free admission on opening day but all visitors must have a ticket via online reservation system and the museum is currently sold out. Still, eager fans can join ribbon-cutting festivities with city dignitaries at 8:30am that morning.

SFMOMA will be open to the public seven days a week from 10am to 5pm through Labor Day, with extended hours until 9pm on Thursdays. Admission ticket prices are: General admission $25, Seniors (65 & older) $22, Ages 19-24 $19, Ages 18 & Under Free. Membership starts at $100. // SFMOMA, 151 Third Street (SoMa), sfmoma.org

Art Basel 2016 articles and images collection


Top 10 Most-Anticipated Highlights for Art Basel 2016

  • Davide Balula Burnt Painting
  • El Anatsui Gli Wal
  • Cindy Sherman
  • Mira Schendel
  • Scarlet Cheng
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Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, is now the granddaddy of all modern and contemporary art fairs, drawing over 98,000 visitors and featuring about 286 international art galleries and museums from 33 countries. They bring the works of modern masters, as well as emerging art stars, to one of six main show floors, works meant to wow fairgoers and help add to their collections. Things kick off with a grand vernissage (by invitation only) on June 15, followed by public viewing days June 16 through 19. Tickets are priced from $29 to $124. Below are 10 of the most-anticipated highlights. (artbasel.com)

Bergamin & Gomide (São Paulo, Brazil)

This Brazilian gallery will feature works by Mira Schendel. Known for her drawings and sculpture, she is one of the most important Latin-American artists of the 20th century. The gallery will showcase works from the important phases of the artist’s career.

Fondation Beyeler (Basel, Switzerland)

Every year, this museum presents something special to coincide with Art Basel, and this time it is a retrospective of the man who made mobiles famous, Alexander Calder. The exhibition features 75 works spanning 4 decades of his productive career, juxtaposed with the collaborative work of contemporary artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Blum & Poe (Los Angeles and other locations)

In the Parcours sector, Blum & Poe galleries will present Sam Durant’s installation Labyrinth (2015), a large-scale steel structure made of chain-link fencing materials. The work was developed by working with prisoners at State Correctional Institution—Graterford near Philadelphia, Penn., and designed as a space for reflection on issues of freedom and imprisonment, movement and stasis. The gallery booth will feature a smaller version.

Gagosian (New York and other locations)

Gagosian will showcase the work of Davide Balula, both as part of its gallery presentation and as part of the Unlimited sector (in conjunction with Galerie Frank Elbaz). At the latter, Balula’s Mimed Sculptures employs mimes “shaping” the air with their hands over empty plinths, recreating canonical sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth, and others.

Goodman Gallery / Marian Goodman Gallery (New York / Johannesburg, South Africa)

The galleries will feature noted South African artist William Kentridge, whose bold freehand drawings are often used to make stop-action videos. Both his dynamic and often stream-of-consciousness drawings and videos will be shown at Art Basel.

Kukje Gallery / Tina Kim Gallery (Seoul / New York)

In the Unlimited sector, the galleries will present a major installation, Sol LeWitt Upside Down—Structure with Three Towers, Expanded 23 Times, Split in Three, by leading Korean contemporary artist Haegue Yang. The work is made up of stacks of open cubes with Venetian blinds inserted into them.

Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, Filmmakers

Their new documentary film Burden (2016) will present a special screening as part of Art Basel. The subject is pioneering avant-garde artist Chris Burden, whose career spanned early performance art to large-scale installations, including Urban Light, which graces the entrance pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Metro Pictures (New York)

Metro Pictures will showcase the newest body of work from iconic American photographer Cindy Sherman—her first since 2012. In this series Sherman transforms herself into movie-star heroines in the style of 1920s publicity stills—heavily made up and in stylized poses.

Regen Projects (Los Angeles)

This leading American gallery will be presenting a selection of works in various media by gallery artists, including art stars Doug Aitken and Anish Kapoor. Born in Bombay, Kapoor has worked in London since the 1970s, and the gallery will feature his radiant Mirror (Laser Red to Oriental Blue) (2016).

Jack Shainman Gallery (New York)

Located in the Unlimited sector, the gallery features El Anatsui’s Gli (Wall) (2010), five hanging curtains made of recycled materials, coming together to create a large contemplative enclosure. El Anatsui is internationally famous for refashioning humble material into monumental sculpture.


Art Basel: Politics as Unusual

The world’s leading contemporary art fair broadens its reach—sort of

Art Basel, in Basel, Switzerland, 2016.

Art Basel, in Basel, Switzerland, 2016. Courtesy Art Basel

Going to an art fair always brings to mind the great song by the 70s LA punk band Fear, “New York’s All Right If You Like Saxophones,” which we amend in this case to “Art Basel’s All Right If You Like Julian Schnabel’s New Purple Paintings.” Even if it’s the big apple of art fairs, in other words, we’re going to pretend to hate Basel (which wound up on Sunday), or at least complain about all those big galleries and all that money everyone was throwing about, from the $4.5 million for Paul McCarthy’s goofy, Mr. Potato Head-inspired Tomato Head (Green) to the $8.35 for two scoops of ice cream at the Mövenpick kiosk.

Meanwhile, in nearby Zurich, Manifesta 11 (the ‘nomadic European biennial’) was getting underway with the organizing theme of “What We Do For Work.” If that isn’t a sly poke at Art Basel by the exhibition’s curator, Berlin artist Christian Jankowski, it should be.

In any case, don’t believe any of the stories that suggest that the 47th Art Basel—with 286 very commercial galleries in attendance—was political in nature. A few politically savvy installations in its Unlimited section doesn’t mean the fair wasn’t about what it always is: money, those who have it and spend it, those who benefit from it, and the rest of us who come along to check out the action and wind up thoroughly exhausted, overwhelmed by the commerce as much as by the art, but at least partially enriched in the process because there’s actually so much worth seeing. Finding it amid the trudgery—yes, trudgery—along with the mental space to enjoy it, is both the challenge and the occasional pleasure.

It proved to be even more of a challenge at Liste, the adjunct fair for young galleries and emerging artists, which seemed to be Liste-ing with Godawfulism. Notable, happy exceptions included the clean, bold paintings of Cornelia Baltes at Limoncello (London); Erika Voigt’s exuberant knife paintings at LA’s Overduin & Co; the funny cellar installation by the now-surely-post-emergent Liz Craft (Truth & Consequences, Geneva); and Yuji Agematsu’s tiny beautiful-ugly assemblages at Real Fine Arts (Brooklyn). Agematsu, a Japanese artist living in Brooklyn, gathers street detritus daily into a cigarette box, then makes a sculpture from it and places it inside the box’s vitrine-like cellophane wrapper. Straddling Art Basel and Art Brut, Agematsu was for me one of the real pleasures of the entire fair.

In the main hall the next day, when I came across a small red match-box sculpture by the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, at Alison Jacques Gallery, it felt like an echo, as did the miniature inks-on-paper by Wilfredo Prieto at Annet Gelink Gallery.

With the world’s top galleries in attendance, such beautiful works abound—two small Morandis that sold for $1 million apiece at David Zwirner, others from Günther Förg, Etel Adnan, Eva Hesse, Dorothea Tanning, Albert Oehlen, Hélio Oiticica, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Ryman, Otto Piene, Martin Kippenberger, Sigmar Polke ($6.5 million! again by Zwirner), two incredibly lovely Richard Tuttle pieces on wood (I think). Gavin Brown showed some great little rough-hewn Alex Katz studies, a welcome relief from the artist’s usual neat-freak control.

Inside the Basel Messe, it’s a sort of upside down Downton Abbey affair: the super rich are downstairs—here a Hauser, there a Wirth, everywhere a Schimmel—with a few moderns thrown in for an occasional reality check, while most of the edgier contemporary personalities are found upstairs. It didn’t hurt Gavin Brown to be positioned just at the top of the escalator, where he leaned six large new Kerstin Brätsch marbleized paintings, all of which sold to museums and foundations at $60,000 apiece, according to the gallery. From there, depending on your level of exhaustion (or checking account), it is either an amazing smorgasbord of leading contemporary artists or one massive, eye-and-brain-numbing exercise in wishful thinking, aesthetically and otherwise.

Dan Finsel at Ramiken Crucible in the Statements section, Art Basel 2016.

Dan Finsel at Ramiken Crucible in the Statements section, Art Basel 2016. Courtesy Art Basel

Some respite is afforded along the edges, where galleries in the curated Features and Statements sections are situated; some might say exiled. Feature galleries on both floors focused on established or “historical” (read: dead) artists. Among the most interesting were Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner and Jay Defeo (all dead) at frank elbaz, filmmaker Pat O’Neil (still kicking) at Cherry and Martin, and the very much alive Sadie Benning’s sumptuous paintings on cut-and-inset wood at Susanne Vielmetter. Memorable in the Statements section for solo projects by emerging artists were L.A.-based Dan Finsel’s large organic pods at Ramiken Crucible and the Baloise Prize-winning videos of Sara Cwynar and Mary Reid Kelley at Foxy Production (New York) and Arratia Beer (Berlin) respectively.

Allan McCollum at Galerie Thomas Schulte, Parcours section at Art Basel 2016.

Allan McCollum at Galerie Thomas Schulte, Parcours section at Art Basel 2016. Courtesy Art Basel

Outside the main hall, things got a bit more Documenta-ish, and socially aware. In the Parcours section, a mildly engaging series of site-specific installations, interventions or performances in the old town area along the Rhine, Sam Durant erected a prison-like labyrinth of chain-link fencing meant to represent the lines between freedom and captivity, movement and immobility. (These notions seemed lost on a group of small children running through it happily.) The New York-based Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar offered visitors to the Münsterplatz a small blue box, The Gift, inside of which recipients found means to donate to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)—the gift of giving. The question is, how many people at a short-lived art fair have the time or energy for a walking exhibition, especially in the rain. My guess is: not many.

Tracey Rose of Goodman Gallery in the Parcours section, Art Basel 2016.

Tracey Rose of Goodman Gallery in the Parcours section, Art Basel 2016. Courtesy Art Basel

Better attended was the nighttime performance by Anne Imhoff at the Kunsthalle, which featured several young performer/dancers interacting in various guises, including amusing/horrifying contempo-fashion runway striding, as well as a falcon and several cans of Pepsi. Does this sound intriguing? It was a come-and-go affair over five hours, and most visitors did just that, at times seeming to be part of the performance—or the performers seeming to be part of the audience. Some of the intrepid, those who stayed till the midnight end, were later seen at a bar called Kaschemme, listening in a tiny smoky dungeon to a young woman playing cello with three guys fiddling sonic dials. Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel were nowhere in sight.

Unquestionably, the most interesting aspect of the fair—for the non-buying audience at least—is Unlimited, featuring a who’s who of top artists: El Anatsui, James Turrell, Dieter Roth, Tracey Emin, William Kentridge, Tony Oursler, Julie Mehretu, Jannis Kounellis, Francis Stark, Anish Kapoor, Frank Stella, Laurie Simmons, Wolfgang Tillmans, Pope L., Kader Attia, Allison Knowles and Isa Genzken. Set in a giant, otherwise empty hall, and curated once again by the New York-based curator at large for the Hirshhorn, Gianni Jetzer, Unlimited affords generous space to exhibit work unshowable in an ordinary fair context. And yes, that meant yet another oversized (and over-conceived) piece by Ai Wei-Wei, who may as well be known as Ai Wei-Wei-Too-Much.

Unlimited at Art Basel 2016.

Unlimited at Art Basel 2016. Courtesy Art Basel

But it also meant a suite of Martha Rosler’s incisive “Bringing the [Vietnam] War Home” series, House Beautiful; Mike Kelley’s 1989 Reconstructed History (which Skarstedt sold for $1.5 million); and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Zoom Pavilion, which offered entrants insight into surveillance and social media creepiness. There was also a wonderfully understated and pedestrian piece by Christo called Five Storefronts. When a friend photographed it, a woman said, “How can you take a photo of that?” Too real, too ugly, not fun! Somewhere in the main hall was a selection of Ed Ruscha’s old banality projects—on gas stations and every building on the Sunset Strip, etc. But it was another L.A. artist, Khalil Joseph, who with his stunning 2014 short film m.A.A.d., set in the less-than-serene streets of Compton, brought a serious dose of gritty “reality” to the otherworldly life cushion that is Basel, or at least Art Basel.

Then it was outside again for some more $8 ice cream.

Ocula Report

A blended mass: A report from Art Basel 2016

Stephanie Bailey Basel 24 June 2016

Image: Gerwald Rockenschaub at Unlimited, Art Basel 2016. Courtesy Mehdi Chouakri, Galerie Vera Munro, Galerie Eva Presenhuber. Photo: © Timothée Chambovet & Ocula.

It was both a conservative and global year for the 47th Art Basel, as Scott Reyburn reported for The New York Times. Volatile markets—and politics—explained the wealth of historical pieces featured amongst more contemporary installations in Gianni Jetzer’s Unlimited section, this year with a record number of 88 works in total from an impressively global list of artists (including, as Jetzer noted, ‘three of the most important contemporary female artists from India’: Archana Hande, Prabhavathi Meppayil and Mithu Sen). There was a monumental 1970 painting by Frank Stella, Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation I), and a historical 1993 piece by Vlassis Caniaris, In Praise: a cube of vintage cement sacks wrapped with Greek flags presented by Galerie Peter Kilchmann (in collaboration with Kalfayan Galleries). In one room, visitors were able to experience the 1968 work Microfoni by Gilberto Zorio courtesy of Galleria Lia Rumma, in which microphones hung within the space for visitors to participate in a spontaneous, sonic symphony.

Image: Frank Stella at Unlimited, Art Basel 2016. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, Dominique Lévy Gallery, Sprüth Magers. Photo: © Timothée Chambovet & Ocula.

Newer works presented at Unlimited offered an overview of contemporary practices that engage in the world cross-cartographically. Nina Canell, brought to Unlimited by Barbara Wien, presented Shedding Sheaths (2015): sculptures produced for the Swedish artist’s first institutional Asian show at Arko Art Center, in which Canell presented a series of gutted—and deformed—fibre-optic cables based on her research into cable recycling facilities located on the outskirts of Seoul. Stan Douglas presented, with the support of Victoria Miro and David Zwirner, a single-channel video projection titled Luanda-Kinshasa (2013) that explores the African origins of the early 1970s New York music scene through the prism of historical migration and cultural synthesis. In the case of William Kentridge’s excellent Notes Towards a Model Opera, produced in 2015 as part of the artist’s solo exhibition at UCCA in Beijing and presented here with Goodman Gallery, we see a globalised reading of the political and social history of modern China, namely the Cultural Revolution and its operatic ballets, through a prism of, as the artist has stated, ‘cultural diffusion and metamorphosis’ placed within ‘a history of dance that spans continents and centuries’.

Image: Nina Canell at Barbara Wien, Unlimited, Art Basel 2016. © Art Basel.

Meanwhile, Davide Balula offered a more tongue-in-cheek homage to the weighted history Art Basel offers not only in terms of the fair’s identity as one of the first of the modern art fairs, but also as a fair that emphasises a certain kind of historical canon. In Mimed Sculptures, placed at the entrance to Unlimited, performers mimed the forms of various canonical works, from Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure: Hand (1979) to Barbara Hepworth’s Curved Form: Bryher II (1961), and Louise BourgeoisUnconscious Landscape (1967-8). Approaching the notion of the canon in a different way was Samson Young’s impressive performance piece, Canon, which appropriated a Long Range Acoustic Device, normally used as a sonic weapon to disperse crowds, to capture distressed birdcalls. These sounds were transmitted into the Unlimited hall, and within a prison-like room, presented in Unlimited by team (gallery inc.) and Galerie Gisela Capitan (and featuring Young dressed in a Hong Kong policeman’s uniform).

Image: Samson Young at Galerie Gisela Capitain, team gallery inc, Unlimited, Art Basel 2016. © Art Basel.

Tellingly, Canon comes with project statement that makes a note of the fact that in music, a ‘canon’ refers to the technique of imitative counterpoint—that is, a sound that is at once inter- and in- dependent. It is a way of exploring existence—and expressions of it—from a complex grid, made up of crosshatchings and inter-weavings that are at once singular and part of a larger whole. The ambiguity of such an expansive position, underscored in the connection Young makes between state apparatuses (LRAD, for instance, and the police who deploy it) and the art world, is punctuated further with razor-sharp ambiguity in the so-called Zoom Pavilion by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Presented at Unlimited with Carroll / Fletcher, the work consisted of a room in which the faces and scenes captured from within the exhibition space were projected from the lenses of 12 surveillance cameras. To this end, though curator Jetzer made a concerted effort to create a truly global frame, there remained a sense of unease when it came to thinking about the supposed globalism of the art world, and who gets to define it.

Image: Sadie Benning at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Features, Art Basel 2016. © Art Basel.

This blended—and inescapably contradictory—complexity seeped into Art Basel’s Hall 2, where some 286 galleries from 33 countries presented works by a cumulative number of more than 4000 artists. At Features, 32 galleries offered a series curatorial projects, many of which with historical leanings, from Sarah Benning at Susanne Vielmetter, Jannis Kounellis at Luxembourg & Dayan and Mira Schendel at Bergamin & Gomide, to Braco Dimitrijevic at espaivisor—an artist who last showed at Art Basel during the fair’s inaugural edition in 1970. Balancing out Features’ history-heavy showings was Statements, in which 18 galleries introduced an exciting crop of young artists in solo booths, from Sara Cwynar (with Foxy Production) and Lantian Xie (with Grey Noise), to Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme (with Carroll / Fletcher), and Piotr Łakomy (with Stereo).

Image: Piotr Lakomy at Galeria Stereo, Statements, Art Basel 2016. © Art Basel.

As always, Hall 2’s first floor was reserved for the blue chip galleries dealing in the kind of names one would expect to see in the two environments created for Unlimited that spoke specifically to the market context: Hans Op De Beeck’s creation of an ashen Collector’s House, and Elmgreen and Dragset’s Secondary, which saw two auction lecterns placed on either side of block of chairs arranged in rows, the recordings of auctions playing from each. Among this global spread were staples of canonical art history, including a breadth of Fontana works, from canvases to ceramics, to some choice Basquiats (including one commemorating the Chinese year of the boar). There were canvases by Robert Mangold at Pace and The Mayor Gallery, a 1997 example of Kusama on canvas at Greta Meert, a fantastic collection of works by artists including Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray at Natalie Seroussi, and a focus on ZERO artists in a number of spaces, including Galerie Thomas, who also showed some beautiful Peter Halley works on paper. Meanwhile, James Cohan offered some remarkable plastic panels created in the 1960s by Robert Smithson; Landau Fine Art featured Chun Kwan Hung’s abstract surfaces created from Korean mulberry paper wrapped around block shapes; and Kukje and Tina Kim Gallery offered an excellent selection from the Dansaekhwa movement.

Image: Installation view, Tina Kim and Kukje Gallery at Art Basel 2016. Photo: © Timothée Chambovet & Ocula.

Across the main Galleries sector, there was a trend for a kind of blended curatorial, which offered both a balanced scope of practices from around the world, as well as a mix of abstract works and more overt, political gestures. At Galerie Lelong, abstract pieces by Zilia Sánchez and Hélio Oiticia were presented next to two lightboxes by Alfredo Jaar capturing interventions the artist staged in New York’s Times Square, A Logo for America (1987–2014) (2016), in which ‘THIS IS NOT AMERICA’ is written over the image of North America in one image, and ‘AMERICA’ is written over the entire Americas (North, South, and Central). Meanwhile, at Mehdi Chouakri, a cross-eyed portrait of Karl Marx by Hans-Peter Feldmann stood out amidst abstract works by artists including Charlotte Posenenske, John M. Armleder, and Gerold Miller, not to mention a haunting installation featuring Japanese lanterns by Saâdane Afif. More Feldmann was on view over at Galerie Hans Mayer, where a cross-eyed portrait of Lenin added to the many historical faces that were being remembered throughout the fair floor. These included Indian ink portraits of Fanon and Patrice Lumumba by William Kentridge, showing at Goodman Gallery, and brightly coloured busts of such figures as Simon Hawking, Yuri Gagarin, Nicolaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton fastened to the ends of long metal rods arranged into various configurations as part of the “International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation” by Goshka Macuga, showing at both Andrew Kreps and Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle (the former also showing Andrea Bowers and Hito Steyerl, among others).

Image: Installation view, Galerie Lelong at Art Basel 2016. Photo: © Timothée Chambovet & Ocula.

In all, walking through Art Basel 2016 felt like—to borrow the words of a Lawrence Weiner presented at MAI 36 Galerie—being ‘between; and ‘beneath’ a ‘resolved mass’, in which a kind of emerging globalism has taken firm root. That is, visual languages appear to be coming together, intermingling, and developing in tandem. This was most evident in some of art history’s most common tropes, such as the colour spectrum a la Gerhard Richter’s colour panels of the 60s and 70s, or Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance 1 from 1951. Damien Hirst showed Spectrum (Oil Paints, Studio Colours) (2015), at White Cube: a canvas of various colours that recalled Henryk Stazewski’s Relief No.30 from 1969, presented at Starmach (a small canvas presented a colour spectrum divided five by five), and Manuel Espinosa’s Los ciclopes, la taberna de Barney Kiernan from 1977—a black canvas offering a similar colour spectrum to Stazewski’s relief. Bringing the notion of colour blocking into the present was Colour Test (182) (2015) by Spencer Finch showing at Stephen Friedman: an LED lightbox that presented blocks of colour transparencies overlapping; as well as Zheng Guogu’s Fortune No. 9 (2009) showing at Chantal Crousel, in which colour blocking was re-mixed into a mass of brightly-coloured text scrawled over in oil paint over black silk. (Funnily, the use of colour against a dark backdrop was invoked in Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s characteristically sinister—yet colourful—installation at Giò Marconi).

Image: Installation view, Stephen Friedman at Art Basel 2016. Photo: © Timothée Chambovet & Ocula.

Yet, despite the quality of the works on show in both halls, it was the exhibition that took place outside of the Messeplatz that offered the real experience of the year. Parcours, this year curated by Samuel Leuenberger, offered a meticulously planned route from the Wettstein to Mittlere Bridge. Nineteen site-specific installations included entry into the garden of a stately home on Rittergasse, where Alberto Garutti presented a series of benches on which sculptures of various dogs rested, modelled after those that belong to the families of Trivero, and the perfect installation of Bernar Venet’s cluster of large steel curves—Effondrement:Arcs (2015)—in the courtyard of Ramsteinerhof, Rittergasse 17. Walking the Parcours route, Leuenberger’s knowledge of Basel—he is the curator of SALTS at Birsfelden—as well as his affection for the city, became palpable in the precision of each work’s placement. This included the installation of an outdoor toilet by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov—what felt like a ruse to draw visitors down the stairs from Münsterplatz in order to walk along the rushing river that defines so much of Basel’s character, and to connect with the city beyond the confines of Art Basel itself.

Image: Bernar Venet at Parcours, Art Basel 2016. Courtesy von Bartha. © Art Basel.

Of course, when it came to thinking about the world beyond the fair, and indeed, beyond the city and its location, Alfredo Jaar offered a clear link, both as part of the conversations programme and Parcours, for which Jaar distributed ‘gifts’ to whomever crossed the paths of those carrying blue cardboard boxes in large sacks. These boxes were offered to passersby as a gift, with instructions to turn them inside out in order to reveal a message inside—a link to make a donation to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The address is: http://www.moas.eu/donate. —[O]

Art Basel 2016

Art Basel puts photography in the frame

Wolfgang Tillmans to get Beyeler’s first show of photos, as collectors buy major works at the fair

by Julia Halperin  |  16 June 2016
Art Basel puts photography in the frame

Cindy Sherman’s exhibition opened at the Broad in Los Angeles at the weekend, making her the first artist to get a solo show in the new museum. Her works dominate Metro Pictures’ stand at the fair. Photo: David Owens
Move over painting and sculpture: the definition of blue-chip is expanding. As the International Center of Photography prepares to reopen in New York next week and the new Pritzker Center for Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art welcomes its first visitors, dealers at Art Basel are dedicating extensive (and expensive) wall space to photography, which is being embraced by a new generation of collectors.

Meanwhile, the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, near Basel, is planning its first major solo show dedicated to a photographer. We have learned that an exhibition of works by Wolfgang Tillmans is due to open next year (27 May-1 October 2017). At the fair, his inkjet prints sold at Maureen Paley for $180,000 (Greifbar 29, 2014) and David Zwirner for $80,000 (mid-air flap movement, 2013).

“Photography is part of the family; it’s at the table alongside painting and sculpture,” says Andreas Gegner of Sprüth Magers. The medium has prices to match. The gallery sold a print by Andreas Gursky (Aletschgletscher, 1993) for €450,000 and a work by Cindy Sherman (Untitled #108, 1982) for $250,000.

Not so long ago, photography was considered niche. “In my lifetime, it wasn’t even allowed to be exhibited at Art Basel,” says Genevieve Janvrin, Phillips’ head of photographs, Europe. Photography dealers were marooned in a dedicated section of the fair until 2002.

The line between photography and contemporary art began to blur well before the market acknowledged it, says Eva Respini, the chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. From the 1960s, Bernd and Hilla Becher—whose images are on show with Fraenkel Gallery and Kicken Gallery—influenced a younger generation to look beyond the history of photography for inspiration, while technological advancements enabled artists to create works on the same huge scale as their painter peers.

Although the market for photography took off in the 1990s, the medium still offers a chance to get a brand name for less. “People come in and buy a $35,000 photo and say, ‘We got off easy today,’” says the dealer Edwynn Houk. The most expensive photograph sold at auction last year (a film still by Sherman) made nearly $3m, but 85% of photographs sold for less than $10,000 in 2015, according to Artprice’s annual report.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, many are keen to cultivate photography’s crossover potential. “There are artists who are included in photography sales and contemporary sales, but most artists we know would prefer to be in the contemporary art sale,” says Robert Goff of David Zwirner. This autumn, the gallery will present large-scale prints by William Eggleston, who joined its roster earlier this month.

Even so, “there is still a bias towards painting because it has a much longer history”, says the art advisor Todd Levin, the director of the Levin Art Group. “If you are looking at an exceptional painting and an equally exceptional photograph, the painting is going to outperform.”

See the major photo shows, buy the works in Basel

László Moholy-Nagy, Die Schlemmer-Kinder (1926). Image: Galerie Berinson, Berlin

László Moholy-Nagy, Die Schlemmer-Kinder (1926). Image: Galerie Berinson, Berlin

László Moholy-Nagy, Die Schlemmer-Kinder (1926)

This vintage print at Galerie Berinson (€450,000) is unusually large for Moholy-Nagy, whose survey is on show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (until 7 September).

Wolfgang Tillmans, New York Installation, PCR, 525 (2015). Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Wolfgang Tillmans, New York Installation, PCR, 525 (2015)

Tillmans, who will have solo shows at Tate Modern (15 February-11 June) and the Fondation Beyeler next year, takes over a room in Unlimited with an installation featuring portraits of activists from around the world ($1.2m, presented by David Zwirner).

Stephen Shore, Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974 (1974).  Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places, The Complete Works, (New York: Aperture, 2004).

Stephen Shore, Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974 (1974)

New York’s Museum of Modern Art is planning an exhibition of work by the early adopter of colour photography, who also has a retrospective at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam (until 4 September). An example from his Uncommon Places series is at Edwynn Houk ($40,000).

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967). Photo: David Owens

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967). Photo: David Owens

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. (1966)

Ahead of a presentation of early works by the US photographer at the Met Breuer in New York (12 July-27 November), Fraenkel Gallery sold this prime example ($575,000). “When you say Arbus, you think twins,” says the gallery’s Frish Brandt.


Art Fairs

10 of the Best Artworks at Art Basel 2016

By Andrew M. Goldstein

June 15, 2016

10 of the Best Artworks at Art Basel 2016

A view of Art Basel 2016

This year’s edition of Art Basel is, on the whole, not a place to find something you didn’t already know—go to LISTE for that. Instead, it’s best approached as a repository for new quirks in the accepted canon, little progressions of the art-market battleships to the left or the right. Here are some works that stood out in the vernissage, with a focus on the fair’s more contemporary second floor.


Untitled (Wall of Ice) (2016)
Galerie Hans Mayer (Düsseldorf)
Around €400,000

ROBERT LONGO Untitled (Wall of Ice) 2016 Galerie Hans Mayer (Düsseldorf) at Art Basel

For the last decade or so, Robert Longo has been synonymous with his dark, brooding, chiaroscuro-heavy large-scale drawings of epic imagery—shark attacks, terrorist incidents, mushroom clouds—all at the point of culmination. Now, with this latest body of work, Longo seems to be stepping into the light. Inspired by a trip to Iceberg Alley in Newfoundland, these grand charcoal drawings of sheer cliffs of ice are like the photo negatives of his darker works, and also recall the photography of artists like Sebastião Salgado and Thomas Ruff. On display at Art Basel, the series was debuted at the much-in-demand artist’s recent show at Thaddaeus Ropac Galerie in Paris and will be included in his upcoming show at the Garage in Moscow.

Push Papers (1986)
Luhring Augustine (New York) 

CADY NOLAND Push Papers (1986) at Luhring Augustine (New York) at Art Basel

This is the moment for Cady Noland. An artist who for decades has been examining the ugly gunk on the bottom of the American Dream, Noland makes work that captures the anger, the pathos, the desperation, the violence, and above all the scary, fascistic tendencies of the country’s white underclass. Look at this 1986 piece, and all the cues are there: the fetishistic tools of authority, from the badge to the cuffs to the life-altering pencil, and the copy of Guns & Ammo, with a schlubby man in glasses relishing the power of a gun on the cover and the magazine opened to an article boasting that “this highly accurate and reliable assault rifle represents real ‘state-of-the-art’ among military hardware.” It’s Trump Nation she’s talking about here, 20 years ago.

Untitled No. 7 from the “Yosemite Suite” (2010)
Annely Juda Fine Art (London)

DAVID HOCKNEY Untitled No. 7 From the Yosemite Suite (2010) at Annely Juda Fine Art (London) at Art Basel

It’s been three years since David Hockney debuted his iPad paintings, and it’s worth savoring these marvels every time they make an appearance. Hockney is 78—a youthful 78, but still—and he stands as the paragon of a historical kind of painting, one that goes back through the Modern era to the Impressionists to Gainsborough and Corot to Rembrandt. For him to be the one to accept the iPad (and its digital ilk) as the successor of the plein-air palette has a certain symbolic heft, a bit like when Degas picked up the camera. Interestingly, Hockney started out making art on his iPhone, embracing the clumsy limits of the drawing program as not a bug but a feature, but now uses it primarily as a sketching tool while the iPad serves as his painting canvas. This series, the “Yosemite Suite,” will go on view in full at Annely Juda’s London space on June 28th.

Untitled (2016)
Metro Pictures (New York)

CINDY SHERMAN Untitled (2016) at Metro Pictures (New York) at Art Basel

In her 2008 “Society Portraits” series, Cindy Sherman took an arch view of the artificially preserved patronesses of the upper class—a milieu she knows well from her collectors—and caught some flack for her portrayal of them as pure vessels of vanity. Too cold, too mean, too unsympathetic. Her latest series, shown in its tender glory at Art Basel, is a corrective: again portraits of women of a certain age, these lived-in portrayals are not satires but celebrations, showing beautiful women whose lined faces tell of struggles and laughter, and whose postures are not brittle but calmly self-assured. Based on publicity stills of 1920s actresses like Louise Brooks where the artist has run the age clock forward, the photographs are most telling as candid portraits of the artist herself, particularly this one set against the backdrop of Sherman’s own backyard in her Long Island home.

Self-Portriat for the Cat (2006) and Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (2016)
Galerie Gisèle Linder (Basel) 
5,500 CHF for the video, 13,000 CHF for the cat

LUZIA HÜRZELER Self-Portriat for the Cat (2006) at Galerie Gisèle Linder (Basel) at Art BaselLUZIA HÜRZELER Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (2016) at Galerie Gisèle Linder (Basel) at Art Basel

Ten years ago, the Swiss artist Luzia Hürzeler made a sculpture of her head out of cat food and filmed her cherished cat as it licked away at her face, eventually munching off her nose. She called the video—which of course suggests a more animal-involved version of Janine Antoni’s 1993 Lick and Lather—Self-Portrait for the Cat, which is a double-entendre because of the German slang term where to do something “for the cat” means to do it for no good reason whatsoever. This year, the cat died, so Hürzeler had it taxidermied to display her pet at the fair next to its artistic claim to fame. The video comes in several editions, a gallerist helpfully explained, but its accompaniment “is an edition of only one, because this is the cat.” Art is a many-feathered thing.

Labor Day (2016)
David Kordansky Gallery (Los Angeles)

KATHRYN ANDREWS Labor Day (2016) David Kordansky Gallery (2016) at Art Basel

After driving again and again past billboards of provocatively posed American Apparel models hawking skimpy undergarments, the Los Angeles artist Kathryn Andrews hired the same models and took them to her studio. She gave them each garments of her own design and asked them to pose individually with oversized cardboard tools, then printed these images and displayed them underneath replicas of the front doors to American Apparel stores. The result is dripping with indignation: young women wearing ridiculously phallic cartoons while posing sexily with symbols of their own capacity as tools for Dov Charney’s notoriously misogynistic corporate brainchild, imprisoned within the store’s commercial setting. Eight of these ripostes were made in total, and they’re far more effective than a simple angry honk on the car horn while driving past an ad.

Diane & Acteon (1990)
Cabinet (London) 

PIERRE KLOSSOWSKI Diane & Acteon (1990) at Cabinet (London) at Art Basel

The older brother of the artist Balthus, Pierre Klossowski is known primarily as the author of such philosophical texts the La Monnaie vivante and Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, which were major influences on the work of Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari. He was also a collaborator of Surrealist paragon George Bataille, and a lifelong draughtsman who worked out many of his literary concepts, and the themes for his fiction writing, as large-scale drawings that he would then describe in print.

Later in his life, he met a fabricator who was able to transform his art into three dimensions in resin and wood, and this monumental work—of a sculpture joined with the backdrop of a painting—brings to life a particularly twisted telling of Ovid’s myth of Diana and Actaeon. Here, the rapacious hunter is becoming a stag just as he grapples for the virginal forest goddess, licking her armpit with his cervine tongue while one of his dogs licks at Diana’s genitals and another bites at his ankle, preparing to devour his ensorcelled master. Taking plentiful cues from Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, the work has the psychological layers, muted palette, and relished perversity of one of the artist’s brother’s paintings.

Seated sculpture (2016)
neugerriemschneider (Berlin) 
Low six figures

PAWEŁ ALTHAMER Seated sculpture 2016 at neugerriemschneider (Berlin) at Art Basel

Celebrated for his gloopy Venetians installation at the 2014 Venice Biennale, featuring portraits of that island city’s denizens made from extruded gray plastic, Paweł Althamer is best when he places his plausibly lifelike creations in theatrical settings, like life-sized dioramas of humanity. This sculpture arises from one of those environments, a recent installation at neugerriemschneider’s Berlin gallery that placed this self-portrait of the artist—sitting cross-legged while carving a sculpture of his mother from a piece of wood—in an ancient mise-en-scène of mud, vegetation, and live birds, like some squalid, smelly patch of prehistory. Fabricated from plaster in the Pergamon Museum, which is famed for its stellar collection of antiquities from the Near East, the sculpture’s ancient affect is undercut by the contemporary tattoos the artist burnt into his ersatz body.

Irish Cock (2016)  
The Approach (London) 
Around £19,000 

ALLISON KATZ Irish Cock (2016) at The Approach (London) at Art Basel

Living in London for the past several years, the American painter Allison Katz has gained an enthusiastic following among collectors, curators, and critics alike for her fresh and exuberant paintings of all manner of things, but especially for her irresistible portraits of monkeys and birds. The paintings tend to express personal themes from the artist’s life, though not in an overt way, and the viewer does not need to know that Katz recently got married to appreciate this heroic, vivacious view of an Irish Cock showered with handfuls of real rice. (Previous paintings in the series have featured rice as well.) Katz will have her next solo show with The Approach in September, so watch out for it.

Untitled (2016)
Petzel (New York)

WADE GUYTON Untitled (2016) at Petzel (New York) at Art Basel

In 2014, Wade Guyton used Art Basel as the staging ground to launch a retaliatory salvo against Christie’s following its sale of one of his fire paintings for $6 million—a price the artist thought smacked of pure speculative frenzy—by giving an identical painting to each of his five dealers at the fair, New York’s Friedrich Petzel, Cologne’s Galerie Gisela Capitain, Milan’s Gió Marconi, Paris’s Galerie Chantal Crousel, and Zürich’s Galerie Francesca Pia. Revenge, if you can call it that, was sweet: each sold the $350,000 painting in the early hours of the vernissage.

Guyton evidently enjoyed that, because he’s done it again this year, and then some: each of his dealers has come to the fair with a brand-new oversize piece from a new series that he made, this one an inkjet print of a photo he took of the floor of his Brooklyn studio, showimg his foot in the lower left and patches of blue tape throughout. Recalling both Jasper Johns and Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Planers, the piece—at nearly twice the size and price as last time—is actually a diptych, since the printer couldn’t do the whole width in one go, and the series will go on view in Dijon later this year.


Soft Film (2016)
Foxy Productions (New York)

Special reports

Art Basel’s Unlimited section is one big party

Curator Gianni Jetzer says that organising the show is like party planning—and with a record 88 works this year, he has pulled out all the stops

by Julia Michalska  |  15 June 2016
Art Basel's Unlimited section is one big party

A detail from Mithu Sen’s MOU (Museum of Unbelongings) (2016). Photo: David Owens
Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer. Photo courtesy of Stefan Holenstein

Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer. Photo courtesy of Stefan Holenstein

“It’s like organising a birthday party,” says Gianni Jetzer of overseeing Unlimited (until 19 June), Art Basel’s special section dedicated to large-scale installations. “The cake is the foundation, but as the curator, I have to add the icing, the candles, the cherries and some music to celebrate.” Jetzer, who is also curator-at-large at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, has brought together a record 88 works for Unlimited in this, his fifth year, including four performance pieces. “Performance art is part of the 21st-century museum,” Jetzer says. “It addresses the public in a completely different and more direct way.” Amid his party planning, Jetzer tells us about six key works.

Davide Balula, Mimed Sculptures (2016). Photo: David Owens

Davide Balula, Mimed Sculptures (2016)

“Around 20% of the works in Unlimited are new productions and this is one of them. There are seven ‘sculptures’ on show—by artists including Henry Moore, David Smith and Louise Bourgeois—but they’re invisible as long as they’re not activated by the hands of mimes. The work draws on the theories of two art historians: Herbert Read and Clement Greenberg. The artist did a huge casting for the mimes, and there was lots of training involved. They are dressed in white and wear pink gloves, which really emphasises their hands. The market for performances is still quite difficult: production is costly and prices are still very reasonable.”

• Galerie Frank Elbaz (Paris) and Gagosian Gallery (Paris)

Mithu Sen, MOU (Museum of Unbelongings) (2016). Photo: David Owens

Mithu Sen, MOU (Museum of Unbelongings) (2016)

“There are three female Indian contemporary artists in the show this year. This work is comprised of [Mithu Sen’s] collection of fetishes, curios and souvenirs, much in the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities. Basel has beautiful cabinets of curiosities because it has such an old university and has a long history of collecting. In India, the artist was unable to show this work in its entirety because of its allusions to homosexuality, religion, mixed marriage and all kinds of matters that are impossible to speak about publicly. When she had an offer to show a redacted version, she turned the curator down, saying that it would be like cutting off one of her arms. This work is an exhibition within an exhibition, almost like a Russian doll.”

Chemould Prescott Road (Mumbai), Galerie Krinzinger (Vienna) and Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Paris)

Chelpa Ferro, Jungle Jam (2010). Photo: David Owens

Chelpa Ferro, Jungle Jam (2010)

“This Brazilian collective, made up of three men, often works with musical compositions. Here, they are using blenders, ordinary household items that are reconfigured as musical instruments. Each one is attached to a MIDI controller, a digital steering device that activates the blenders. The work is like an orchestra of plastic bags and the MIDI controller is the invisible conductor. The plastic bags are from various stores, most of them Brazilian but some European. Chelpa Ferro have not had many museum shows in Europe, so it’s great that they’re included this year, as so many international curators come to Unlimited. It’s really exciting to work with artists who are still relatively unknown.”

• Sprovieri (London)

Hans Op de Beeck, The Collector’s House (2016). Photo: David Owens

Hans Op de Beeck, The Collector’s House (2016)

“[The Belgian artist] Hans Op de Beeck is a regular at Unlimited. This year’s work is brand new and is having its premiere here. It’s a re-creation of a collector’s house in an almost Stanley Kubrick way; everything is intensified and over the top, like the pond in the middle of the living room. The work reflects the neo-bourgeois culture that comes with collecting. On the other hand, it looks almost like a 21st-century Pompeii, as if an ash rain has come down on this home and frozen it for eternity. Time and colour have been sucked out.”

•Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York), Galleria Continua (San Gimignano), Galerie Krinzinger (Vienna)

Koji Enokura, Untitled No. 11, 12, 13 and 14 (1978). Photo: David Owens

Koji Enokura, Untitled No. 11, 12, 13 and 14 (1978)

“[Koji Enokura] is relatively unknown, but I think he’s very important; I’ve always loved his work. This particular piece was created for the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1978. He uses a wooden plank that has been dipped in used oil to produce the images on the four canvases. He omits the frame and just hangs the fabric directly on the wall, showing all the irregularities, the staining and the creases. The leaning wooden panel has a long art-historical tradition. It builds a bridge between the floor and the wall, between three-dimensional and two-dimensional space. This work has more to do with reduction than accumulation. Unlimited is itself an accumulation of works by 88 artists, but this work creates an oasis in which you can almost refresh your mind.”

• Taka Ishii Gallery (Tokyo)

Elmgreen & Dragset, Secondary (2015). Photo: David Owens

Elmgreen & Dragset, Secondary (2015)

“This piece shows a mirrored auction room with two auctioneers bidding in parallel. It is titled Secondary, which is a reference to the secondary art market. Auctions have become a form of entertainment; there’s an excitement around them. They have a formula that pops up in movies and novels; everybody knows what it feels like to be in an auction. But, like in Hans Op de Beeck’s work, all the colours and imagery have been left out, which in turn triggers the images that we have stored in our mind. At a time when auction records keep being broken, this work seems very timely. It also addresses the relationship between secondary and primary. Unlimited is a platform for sales, but it’s a primary one—so here the secondary is infiltrating the primary.”

• Galería Helga de Alvear (Madrid)

Lucy McKenzie, Lina Mouton (2016). Photo: David Owens

Lucy McKenzie, Lina Mouton (2016)

“Lucy McKenzie is a Scottish artist who went to a decorative painting school in Brussels, the Ecole Van Der Kelen, to learn how to paint faux wood and marble, so this technique forms a large part of her work. Here, she turns the furniture, which is all hand-painted, into a three-dimensional canvas. It’s kind of Lucy’s take on Richard Artschwager, showing the tension between representation and decoration, 2D and 3D. It also reminds me of Claes Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble from the 1960s. There is no personal element in this work; she has removed the bedding and the linen. It has also been created especially for Unlimited.

Galerie Buchholz (Berlin) and Cabinet (London)

Best New Bars in Los Angeles 2016

MOVOTO website

1. Best Wine Bar

Best Bars in Los Angeles


Malibu Wines is amazing for tasting new California varietals and they almost always have live entertainment like stand-ups or music in a variety of genres. Open-aired and nestled in the mountains, it makes for an excellent day outing in the spring.

Malibu Wines

31740 Mulholland Hwy

(818) 865-0605

Yelp: 4 stars, 625 reviews

2. Best Beer Bar

Best Bars in Los Angeles


A huge selection of local brews makes Golden Road Brewery quite a draw for locals, and its especially prized for the seasonal varieties of beer. Open-air seating and decent food all add to its charm as a good hang-out spot.

Golden Road Brewery

5410 W. San Fernando Rd.

(213) 373-4677

Yelp: 4 stars, 1368 reviews

3. Best Sports Bar

Best Bars in Los Angeles


Barney’s Beanery has a few locations, but the best is in West Hollywood. Go to watch a game, get some chili or play table shuffleboard. The vibe is relaxed and makes you feel like seeing your favorite team win is the only thing on the agenda.

Barney’s Beanery

8447 Santa Monica Blvd

(323) 654-2287

Yelp: 3.5 stars, 629 reviews

4. Best Whiskey Bar

Best Bars in Los Angeles


Located in Silverlake, The Thirsty Crow is a small bar with inventive drinks and tasty whiskeys. Go for the buzz, hip clientele and knowledgeable bartenders.

The Thirsty Crow

2939 W Sunset Blvd

(323) 661-6007

Yelp: 4 stars, 583 reviews

5. Best After-Work Drink Spot

Best Bars in Los Angeles


There’s an Asian-American culture clash happening at Good Luck Bar with its Chinese lanterns, comfy leather booths and a fusion menu of cocktails. The decor and lighting can take your mind off whatever’s happening outside those walls so you can sip and savor your next drink.

Good Luck Bar

1514 Hillhurst Ave

(323) 666-3524

Yelp: 3.5 stars, 408 reviews

6. Best Dive Bar

Best Bars in Los Angeles


Brennan’s Pub is not the fanciest bar on the list, but the word ‘dive’ can sometimes be used affectionately. This space offers you a chance to bet on the speed demons in the animal kingdom: turtles. Every Thursday night, you can bring your own or wager on your favorite.

Brennan’s Pub

4089 Lincoln Blvd

(310) 821-6622

Yelp: 3.5 stars, 269 reviews

7. Best Cocktails

Best Bars in Los Angeles


It’s possible that the quality of the food at B.S. Taqueria may be clouding this particular pick, but the cocktails hold their own against the fare. Order the chicarones and anything with tequila and you won’t regret it.

B.S. Taqueria

514 W 7th St

(213) 622-3744

Yelp: 4 stars, 333 reviews

8. Best Live Music

Best Bars in Los Angeles


Hollywood is full of tourists, but if you know where to look there are still some truly awesome finds like Sassafras. Check out the live music on most nights of the week and have yourself a Southern good time.


1233 N Vine St

(323) 467-2800

Yelp: 4 stars, 436 reviews

9. Bar with the Best Outdoor Space

Best Bars in Los Angeles


Trendy and hip, Perch has extremely delectable food and quite an elegant rooftop bar. Come for the 360 degree views of downtown LA and stay for comfortable seating set high atop a skyscraper, making it one of the best bars in Los Angeles.


448 S Hill St

Los Angeles, CA 90013

(213) 802-1770

Yelp: 4 Stars, 3317 reviews


New & Hot Places

14 Hottest New Bars in Los Angeles

In a city as huge and varied as Los Angeles, there really is every kind of lounge, club, bar and nightspot for imbibing. Whether it’s craft cocktails or dance-fueled party nights, or new beer or whiskey bars you’re after, you can find it. Here’s a look at the latest, from bowling alley bars to patios for bocce and wine. Plan those outfits accordingly, and be ready to call a car or bring a designated driver along for the ride.

Highland Park Bowl

NewHighland Park
This multi-purpose Highland Park bowling alley, bar and eatery is carved out of a historic building, thanks to the team behind other refurbished places (Sassafras in Hollywood, The Idle Hour in Toluca Lake); it’s full of Spanish Revival accents, vintage decor and grand wooden arches. In addition to the eight fully bowling lanes, patrons will find two bars and a dining area serving wood-fired pizzas to “Big Lebowski”-themed cocktails.

Must-order: Drinks celebrate the many lives of this space, and most are inspired by cult classics. For Big Lebowski fans, The Dude Abides, a modern take on the White Russian with housemade coffee liqueur and horchata cream, is a must.

Insider tip: Be prepared to pony up for bowling, which costs $50–70 per hour, per lane, depending on day and time. Lanes accommodate up to six people.


The hip, communal dinner-party vibe of this casual eatery fits Little Tokyo with its dining room decked out in white walls (one is used as a movie screen), black accents and dark woods. Place an order with a server, get a playing card number for the table, and feel free to move about; they’ll find you when the bottled cocktails and finger-friendly foods (like salads, pizzas, meat pies and other mezze-inspired dishes) are ready.

Must-order: Try the gin Sling Sling, made with maraschino liqueur, lime and housemade ginger beer, or a barrel-aged Tour Eiffel, with cognac, Suze Cointreau and absinthe.

Insider tip: Don’t miss happy hour with deals on all signature pizzas, arancini and draft beer and wine (4–7 PM, Monday through Friday).

Firestone Walker – The Propagator

NewMarina del Rey
The first Southern California outpost for the Central Coast brewery is built for drinking, with big booths made from stainless steel tanks, lots of wooden barrels on the walls and TVs flashing sports. The menu features a mix of beer-friendly dishes – like smoked brisket with grilled asparagus, tempeh banh mi and pork belly tacos – along with wines and the full spectrum of Firestone Walker beers on tap.

Must-order: For a taste of the wild side, try something from the Barrelworks menu, which focuses on sour ales like the Bretta Rose, a Berliner Weisse-style ale fermented with raspberries.

Insider tip: The on-site store has everything a beer-lover needs, from merch to brewing gear and a growler fill station.


This Arts District bar and restaurant features elevated bar snacks, a travel-inspired cocktail menu and subtle nods to the area’s railroad history. With Pullman train-inspired booths, a copper-clad bar and brass light fixtures, and a patio lined with olive trees, there’s room to spread out and order playful dishes like foie gras and waffles, ceviche or beet trifle.

Must-order: Paying homage to classic cocktails from around the world, drinks include the Pharmaceutical Stimulant, which is made with Aylesbury Duck vodka, espresso, and Varnelli Caffè Moka.

Insider tip: If your phone needs juice while you’re getting juiced, look for the USB ports next to coat and purse hooks along the bar. Genius!

Alexander’s Steakhouse

“How do you say ‘wow’ in Japanese?” wonder “discriminating” diners smitten by these “luxe” steakhouses with “creative Asian” “overtones”, where beef that “melts in your mouth” “like butter” and the signature hamachi shots (“a must”) are presented alongside “fantastic” wines and “rare” spirits; if you’re not a “software mogul”, you’re looking at a “splurge”, but “everything is top-drawer”, right down to “spectacular service” that waits on you “hand and foot” and brings complimentary “cotton candy upon departure”; P.S. the separate Bull & Barrel bar inside the restaurant features cocktails, Wagyu burgers – and a patio.

Must-order: The Bull & Barrel drink list is almost encyclopedic with lists of spirits and cocktails, plus it includes tips on what to drink and how to drink it. Scroll down to tequila to find things like The Monarch, made with anejo, maple, dandelion and burdock bitters, and orange.

Insider tip: The bar patio, a mostly enclosed space with twinkling lights and fire pits, is where you want to be on balmy Pasadena nights.

Miro Restaurant

This swank Italian destination brings housemade charcuterie and pastas, an excellent wine list and a hidden whiskey bar to the Financial District. Upstairs, a skylight frames Downtown’s skyscrapers in a chic, streamlined room, while downstairs, a dimly lit bar fills with an after-work crowd for drinks; others slip into an enclosed corner lounge for high-end whiskeys from Scotland, Japan, American and elsewhere.

Must-order: There’s an entire bible in The Whiskey Room featuring everyday sippers to rare ones like Karuizawa whiskey from Japan (a 2-oz. pour goes for $380).

Insider tip: If The Whiskey Room is busy, expect a $50 per person minimum. Or, just sit at one of the other two bars in the place — one upstairs, one downstairs — for a cocktail.

The Pop-Up El Chavo Silverlake

MexicanLos Feliz
With a spruced up dining room and bar — colorful murals, funky wall art and twinkle lights — the longstanding Los Feliz Mexican restaurant is now home to ceviche, cocktail-friendly snacks and lots of agave spirit cocktails. A collaborative effort between Octavio Olivas (The Ceviche Project), Freddy Vargas (Scarpetta) and Brandyn Tepper (The Cocktail Academy), the short, refined menu is a marked departure from its traditional predecessor.

Must-order: Try the Green Gloves, made with jalapeño-infused tequila, lime, celery, chartreuse and smoked salt.

Insider tip: The Taco Tuesday Grill features carnitas, pollo and carne tacos (two for $4) plus $6 margaritas and palomas.


From the team behind mixology haunts The Varnish and Seven Grand, this Downtown nightclub features outre cocktails under headings like ‘Deep Thoughts’ and ‘No Regrets’; the multiroom space is centered around a retro disco, where dance hits are played while patrons gyrate over multicolored floors (think Saturday Night Fever). PS: Next to the disco, The Deep End features an extraterrestrial design, lots of neon graphics and tiki-inspired cocktails on select nights.

Must-order: On The Deep End menu, check out the Aerolite, a juicy one made with two kinds of tequila, pear au de vie, sherry and pineapple juice.

Insider tip: The Deep End is open on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but the disco remains open Thursday through Saturday.

Bar Mattachine

Named for one of the earliest gay-rights organizations in the U.S., this bi-level cocktail lounge is swathed in black and dark wood, with a chandelier centerpiece and pops of light and color throughout. The expansive drink menu veers from classics like old fashioneds, Manhattans and daiquiris to modernized frozen drinks and hand-shaken signature creations.

Must-order: The Reconditioner is not one to take lightly. Made with three types of over-proof rum, fresh pineapple juice, Coco Lopez and a float of Amargo-Vallet Bark of Angostura, it’s poured over crushed ice and served in a hollowed-out pineapple.

Insider tip: A boozy Sunday brunch features $20 bottomless mimosas made with fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Everson Royce Bar

This intimate arts District cocktail and wine haven, also offering assorted nibbles (think dumplings, fried chicken thighs and burgers), is nestled in a long and narrow space with black banquettes along one wall and comfortable stools around the spirit-forward bar on the other.

Must-order: There are great sippers on the cocktail menu, and a fab spirits list, but the wine list is superb and reasonably priced.

Insider tip: Get a flight of three wines and some magical culinary creation from Matt Molina for $25 every Wednesday (5–8 PM).


NewWest Hollywood
Full of luxe textures — white marble, leather, bubble-light chandeliers, dark woods, leafy trees and black and white contrasts — this stylish eatery and bar offers communal tables with mismatched stools and custom-made chairs, plus low-slung sofas for a loungey vibe. The eclectic contemporary American menu trends toward seasonal, wood-grilled fare, plus oysters and charcuterie — mostly small plates with a few choice entrees to pair with cocktails.

Must-order: Quenchers tend to change with the seasons. Right now the Fuscia Fizzle (gin, ginger, sherry, raspberry, lemon and bubbles) hits all the summer notes.

Insider tip: Things like buttermilk biscuits, cinnamon monkey bread and rice porridge with crispy pork and a soft-boiled egg are hits at brunch (Saturday and Sunday, 11 AM–3 PM).


Two Mozza alums bring Spanish pinchito morunos (spiced meat skewers) and rotisserie fare – including whole marinated chicken, charred vegetables and grilled specialties – to the Original Farmers Market. The ground-floor dining room and counter surround the wood-fueled grill and bustling kitchen, and there’s an upstairs patio and vermouth bar; a Grand Central Market stall offshoot features limited counter seating.

Must-order: The Cobbler sounds like dessert, but it’s an incredibly refreshing icy drink made with sherry, amaro, grapefruit and strawberry.

Insider Tip: The Vermina vermouth, made by Steve Clifton and David Rosoff, is only $6 a glass during happy hour (Sunday through Thursday, 4–6 PM).


A fork’s throw from The Broad museum on Bunker Hill, this rustic-chic modern American restaurant is filled with natural light and accents of steel, wood, copper and ceramics. The raw and refined look mimics chef Timothy Hollingsworth’s menu offerings, which make use of the on-site garden, wood-fired grills and rotisseries.

Must-order: Classic cocktails get a unique twist here, including the old fashioned made with Chairman’s Reserve rum, tobacco, coffee and a fig leaf in the glass.

Insider Tip: The address says Hope Street, but know that the entrance is on Grand Avenue, right next to The Broad museum.

The 10 Best New Bars in Los Angeles 2015

The 10 Best New Bars in Los Angeles 2015

The Fiscal Agent

Raise a glass to 2015. The past year has been kind to cocktail, wine and beer drinkers alike (for the latter, see also 5 Best L.A. Breweries of 2015) — thanks to the debut of excellent bars that are pushing the boundaries of how we drink and socialize in our vast city. We’ve hand-selected 10 destinations where it’s worth opening a tab. Some are exploring the bartender omakase format, some are creating elegant concoctions that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or London, and some just want to be that divey joint around the corner where you’ll be welcomed with a shot and a beer. Los Angeles, of course, has room of all of them.

Editor’s note: As much as Everson Royce Bar is deserving of a place on this list, you’ll find it on our list of the 10 Best New Restaurants in L.A. 2015 instead, because, hey, the food is that good.

Chris Day at General Lee's

Chris Day at General Lee’s
Garrett Snyder

10. General Lee’s Cocktail House
It might technically be incorrect to label General’s Lee a new business, considering the space in Old Chinatown it occupies was known as General Lee’s restaurant as far back as 1878. It wasn’t until recently, however, that the former Mountain Bar space was revamped and revived as a tropical/Orient-inspired, two-story cocktail lounge complete with bamboo barstools and palm tree wallpaper. Bar director Chris Day’s current menu is themed around the eight elements of Daoist cosmology, which might seem cerebral but really just means killer drinks like the Mountain, made with mezcal, sherry and pineapple-sesame gomme. —Garrett Snyder 475 Gin Ling Way, Chinatown; (213) 625-7500.

The 10 Best New Bars in Los Angeles 2015

Now Boarding

9. Now Boarding
Now Boarding opened its doors at the end of December last year, touching down in West Hollywood with a ‘60s-era, air-travel aesthetic. The glamorous frills of a bygone era permeate everything from the walls lined with booths (the seats themselves are inspired by an old-school flight cabin) to a large mural depicting flight routes across the globe. Aviation-themed cocktails like the Fog Cutter weave zesty citrus into a rum drink spiked with orgeat, while the D.B. Cooper uses muddled watermelon and jalapeño to combat the vegetal twang of a tequila blanco. The bar’s sheer commitment to its theme makes for an enjoyable, if kitschy, evening out, but bar manager Wil Figueroa’s devotion to craft cocktails is what distinguishes this spot as L.A.’s true mile-high club. —Brad Japhe 7746 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-8447, nowboardingla.com.

Bar Bandini

Bar Bandini
Wade Design Co.

8. Bar Bandini
Echo Park is home to many bars, but few have struck a better balance between accessible and fashionable than the recently opened Bar Bandini. Bare and intimate, the interior’s exposed wooden framing lends the feeling of a garage pop-up, albeit one where you’ll find natural wines offered by the glass or on tap (there’s a good chance you’ll find an orange wine or pet-nat on the rotating list) and a solid roster of local beers. We love Bandini in part because it offers such underrated service; it’s a place to chill with a glass of Gamay and hold a conversation at normal volume. —G.S. 2150 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park. 


Lina Lecaro

7. BarToni’s
With the addition of bars like the barrel-shaped Idle Hour and the literary-themed Catcher in the Rye, the boom of North Hollywood’s craft cocktail scene was one of the year’s major developments. The most pleasant surprise, though, was bartender Aidan Demarest’s partnership with old-school Italian restaurant Little Toni’s to launch a cozy, 10-stool setup in the restaurant’s neglected bar space. BarToni’s pays tribute to overlooked ’70s cocktails like the Grasshopper and Harvey Wallbanger’s, but they know how to craft a killer Manhattan, too. —G.S. 4745 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 763-0131. 

Southland Beer

Southland Beer
Sarah Bennett

6. Southland Beer
Koreatown’s Southland Beer is a little difficult to find given there’s no street signage, and even when you pull into the lot, the door is barely marked and hiding between a beauty salon and a popular Korean blood-sausage restaurant. Once inside, however, your search is rewarded with a drinking space so intimate and dimly lit, it could easily get away with being a cozy neighborhood wine bar. Instead, the focus here is craft beer, with taps that rotate through special releases from Southern California breweries like Three Weavers, Monkish, Bottle Logic and Barley Forge. The expertly curated selection of uncommon IPAs, saisons, ciders and sours at Southland is a refreshing change of pace, especially in a city where stocking major craft beer titles is now all but a requirement of most beer bars. —Sarah Bennett 740 S. Western Ave., #112, Koreatown; (213) 908-5104, southlandbeer.com.


Interviews with Luc Tuymans



On and by Luc Tuymans: Why Painting Still Matters

25/10/2013 13:43 | Updated 24 December 2013


Luc Tuymans is not shy about admitting that he is easily one of the most influential figurative painters working today. His work – which often deals with heavy historical subjects like the Holocaust and postcolonial guilt – resists easy interpretation. So fans and the creatively curious alike will be delighted by the Whitechapel Gallery‘s launch of On & By Luc Tuymans, a collection of Tuyman’s writings (one of them is appropriately entitled, “I Still Don’t Get It”) on not only his own ideas and images, but those of El Greco, Giorgio Morandi, and Neo Rauch, to name a few. Edited by historian-publisher Peter Ruyffelaere, it also includes critical essays, dialogues and interviews by art historians, critics, and artists like Ai Wei Wei and Takashi Murakami.

I actually managed to catch Tuymans after his recent Whitechapel Gallery talk in London with art critic Adrian Searle (who also wrote On & By Luc Tuymans‘s introduction) about his work across painting, film, and exhibition making. The feted Belgian artist discussed the continued relevance of painting today – even in an age of Instagram selfies – as well as his personal reading recommendations, and why he really is not flattered by imitators.

Many describe your work as “beyond language.” So why is it important to talk, and even to write, about painting?
Luc Tuymans: My book is much more about a way of thinking, a way of approaching. I think its important to look at art. We are living in a society that is predominated by an enormous amount of visuals, but they’re not really looked at. What painting does is slow that mechanism, which is necessary, so you can also say something about it.

In your talk, you mentioned Instagram selfies. Do you want to further explore the effect of social media in painting?
LT: I already created an entire show called Against the Day that deals with developing digitised imagery. Why? Because instead of fighting it, its better to take it, and make it part of the toolbox.

Do you think the digital age makes painting an irrelevant genre?
LT: No, just the opposite. Because as I mentioned before, its about the necessity of slowing down. And painting does exactly that. For a spectator, looking at a painting is always a little bit more of a physical experience than looking at a reproduced image.


Has discussing your work changed the way you approach it – or made you more of a critic than a painter?
LT: Not at all. The’re just two different things. What remains important is the fact that when someone makes the choice to be an artist, it is a choice of conviction. When you are not convinced that you will be an artist – you will never be one.

Do you agree that you are one of the most influential painters of the 21st century?
LT: I cannot deny that I’ve had a massive influence, but that’s only regarding the topical element, the surface. Its just an aesthetic that people can monkey. I’m not really flattered when other artists imitate me actually; its annoying. I’d rather that they do something different.

Which writings from On & By Luc Tuymans would you personally recommend?

LT: First of all, you should read “Curating the Library,” a lecture I gave. And the conversation with Kerry James Marshall, which I think is among the better ones. And the last one. They give an insight into the way I think, which is more than just the work.

How do you maintain a fresh perspective as an artist?
LT: By staying sharp. By not enjoying success.

ON&BY, co-published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, is a new series which presents insightful writings by and on leadin

Quotes by Luc Tuymans – (9 quotes)

When I start to paint, it is real agony. I get nervous. The day before, I am already working up to it. Then I get to the studio and, once the image starts to emerge and come together, pleasure kicks in. And then you can see things that no other person can see. (Luc Tuymans)

An artwork should point in more than one direction, not be this sort of placating, self-demonstrating, witnessing element. (Luc Tuymans)

When you feel concentrated within the intensity of making paintings, you know exactly what you are doing. (Luc Tuymans)

All art is failure. How one fails is a different matter. (Luc Tuymans)

It is not important to convince people; they should convince themselves, they should look with their own eyes. (Luc Tuymans)

If you ask people to remember a painting and a photograph, their description of the photograph is far more accurate than that of the painting. Strangely enough, there is a physical element intertwined with the painting. It shakes loose an emotional element within the viewer. (Luc Tuymans)

Every painting has a weakness and a breaking point, where the essence of a painting lies. In my case it is never in the centre. (Luc Tuymans)

Life is politics, basically, but you don’t just go to a gallery and put the words ‘art’ and ‘politics’ on the wall. (Luc Tuymans)

Painted time is a different zone. This is why I don’t believe that a painting – although I’ve been accused of it many times now – can be truly topical. A painting’s physicality gives it a different persistence and a different perception. (Luc Tuymans)



The Painter Speaks About Commercialism In The Contemporary Art World, And The Cinematic Inspirations Behind His New Exhibition

May 12, 2016

Text: William Simmons

Le Mépris, Luc Tuymans’ exhibition of new paintings at David Zwirner Gallery, takes its evocative title from a Godard film of the same name. Translated as Contempt, the film stars Brigitte Bardot and takes on themes of art, commercialism, and gender politics. Tuymans mirrors Godard’s serious, but irreverent, take on these issues with a group of paintings that speak volumes in their quietude. Taken from Polaroids and other found imagery, Le Mépris combines mysterious paintings of a parade in his mother’s hometown, standing water in local canals, and the eponymous painting of the fireplace of the Villa Malaparte, where Godard’s film was shot. It may sound scattered, but what it coalesces into could only be described as a kind of burlesque, which shows you just enough of what you crave, and traps you in an unending search to see more.

I was struck by your relationship to cinema, which you have talked about extensively. What kept popping up for me is the part in the prologue of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) wherein Breughel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565) is the backdrop while countless dead birds fall from the sky. I see your work along similar lines—a visually based melodrama.

Luc Tuymans There’s another movie with Breughel’s work that predates von Trier, and that’s Solaris (1976) by Andrei Tarkovsky. I was shocked to be with my wife in the cinema watching this film. You see all these images of Breughel as the central character proclaims, “You don’t go to the universe; the universe comes to you,” which is a mind-blowing thing in relation to Breughel. With Brueghel, there’s an element of journalism, in that it’s the Renaissance, but it’s a different Renaissance [the Northern Renaissance]. It has to do with humanism.

So, Lars von Trier is similar. I wouldn’t say it is melodramatic, but there’s a religious backdrop. There’s that element of guilt and the fact that we have lost the idea of eros, not in the sexual sense, but in the truest sense, in society. That’s what makes Lars von Trier quite important and interesting. He can still make films like Dogville (2003) and people just leave. It’s fantastic. That was also the case with Le Mépris. They don’t make those films anymore, because they are too complicated. But they are also fabulous. Maybe there has been one epic since–There Will Be Blood (2007). In the same year, you had No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. There you could see what the contemporary art world had not yet grasped–the specific element of, I wouldn’t say cynicism, but they’re definitely sardonic. That’s a quality that should be enhanced in contemporary art.

Luc Tuymans, Model, 2015, Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 47 5/8 inches (120.6 x 120.8 cm)

That’s a perfect way to describe your work in that it is very rare to find a contemporary artist who produces such different and polarizing opinions, even though what you are doing appears at first to be understated or minimal.

LT Cruelty lies among tenderness. The best torture is very tender. I’m much less involved in the photographic image, but the moving image has always been predominant in my work, especially since I come out of the television generation. The element of pause is important. The lens gave me the right distance that I didn’t have before. You need distance in order to create imagery. There’s a great similarity between film and painting because they are both about the approach to imagery, not so much taking imagery, like photography. They are very similar mediums, so you cannot really combine them. The big difference is that painting I can do on my own, and I don’t need a crew.

What I want to discuss with regard to your work is the legacy of Warhol, and his relationship to stock images and the narrative of celebrity. If you look at some of his Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, for instance, they often decompose to the point of being unrecognizable, which seems to be a touchstone of your work–that you might miss something by passing over your heavily fraught images.

LT People should not necessarily know what they are looking at or be totally informed, because I am a visual artist and the visual takes precedence. The only problem is that I work with already-represented imagery, which requires me to know what the images mean. Painting is a very slow medium. It’s a medium that works on your brain and your memory. When I did my show at the Tate Modern, there was a curator who hated my work and came and looked at it and hated it even more. But then he started to dream about the work, and he became the biggest fan! So that is the impact. Also, I am not my work and my work is not me. It is important to make that distinction. That element of detachment and the measure of the spectator’s distance from the imagery I make is basically how the imagery is going to be enacted. I was always very open about source material, because I didn’t want to be the kind of artist who sits in a corner and once in a while says something. But that made it so that, even if I paint a chair, it is going to be political, right? People are conditioned to think that there is always something behind, which I think is fine. I was born into a poignant distrust of imagery, even my own. We are surrounded by all these things, but they are also fabrications.

Luc Tuymans, Corso II, 2015, Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 60 1/8 inches (196.2 x 152.5 cm)

How do you balance the political element of the work with the fact that sometimes you are creating paintings that are unabashedly aesthetic or beautiful? Maybe the question is–how would you want that question to play out in art history?

LT That is something for art historians to decide upon. I also studied art history as a working student. First of all, I never saw it as a science. It remains very subjective. Art historians, such as those in the October [arguably the most influential art history journal of the last 40 years] school, have often tried to make art history into a process of deduction, but that does not function anymore. These ideas were important, there is no doubt about it, but you cannot hang on to that concept. So I think it will become harder and harder for art historians to think about what kind of legacy a contemporary artist will have. The legacy will never be the same as Velázquez or Goya; it must be different now. And most of the legacy will be fabricated during the lifetime of the artist. To be an artist now is quite inhumane because the expectations are extremely high. Being a young artist right now is about the most horrible thing you could be, because, first off, it is no longer kind, and now art is super market-driven. We valorize contemporary artists, but artists are isolated. In this huge world of the Internet and Wikipedia and access, everyone is getting specialized and weakened and isolated. A lot of the discourse in the art world has to do with misreading 1980s sociology, and nothing to do with reality. You can see stupidity growing around you.

Le Mépris is on display now through June 25 at the David Zwirner Gallery: 525 W 19th St, New York, NY 10011.




LUC TUYMANS with Jarrett Earnest

For decades, Luc Tuymans’s paintings have plumbed the nature of images—charting the limits of their personal and political functions. Before the opening of his latest solo show at David Zwirner Gallery, Tuymans spoke with Jarrett Earnest about temperature in paintings, their instantaneous decay, and the balance between violence and tenderness.

Portrait of Luc Tuymans. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Scott Rudd.

Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I wanted to start by talking about color. In this exhibition the painting Model (2015), appears to be a single dark tone, but within it there is a subtle fluctuation between warm and cool, which creates a very gentle rocking across the surface of the painting.

Luc Tuymans: That is true. First of all, I don’t use black. That is important to know. I used to use a lot of van Dyck brown to get this really deep, dark color. I do that because it’s about the profoundness, the depth of the tone, which, if you use black and just mix it with white, will be flat. Therefore you’re right; in Model there are two different colors, it has been worked twice: first in the cool color, then overworked again the same day with a brown because it was too blue. When there was just one color it stuck out too much; it was not the right balance with the image.

Rail: That painting showed me something about the rest of the show, which is that they have a color dynamic that wavers between warm and cool contrasts, that are very close in tone. In the three “Murky Water” paintings (2015) I was particularly interested that they are green, which is already a mixture of warm and cool—blue and yellow. Its relationship to warm and cool is precarious, so that the rather cool green feels warm next to a blue-edged shadow. How do you approach the color temperature as structure?

Luc Tuymans, Model, 2015. Oil on canvas. 47 1/2 × 47 5/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Tuymans: The temperature of things is really important. The early works, particularly the Gaskamer [Gas Chamber] (1986), are quite warm in temperature. Throughout the years I’ve become much more cool. There is a big difference between the “Corso”flower parade paintings and the green “Murky Water”paintings—they are from different distances. They are differently painted also. That was the whole idea, to let them collide with each other, which gave me the idea of the title for the show—Le Mépris [Contempt (1963)], the same as Godard’s film. The title painting in the exhibition, which shows the fireplace of that fantastic villa where Godard filmed is the only painting in the show that deals not with temperature but with light: light that beams out—pierces, actually—and makes a hole in the wall. In producing a show there is one particular painting I make to stop it, put the lid on the body of work, and that was it.

Rail: One of the special things that color can do in painting is create light.

Tuymans: That is why I always work with tonality. It’s nice to see this show in the early afternoon, like today, with this gray light that is very luminescent; you can see much better how it’s put together. That sensibility, that light, is very particular to the region of artists I come from, there is much more tonality. I actually curated a show of Belgian abstract art, The Gap, which is still up at the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, of people from the ’50s who are largely unknown and made fantastic work—even though they are abstract, they are all related to reality, and that kind of sensibility. There is a specific apprehension of light, which is really important. That is the reason for the persistence in working with this tonality. A lot of people could say that my paintings are monochromatic but, as you correctly saw, they are not, because there is much more investment in creating a certain temperature or tonality than just a color, which is very difficult. And I mix these things. It isn’t premeditated—you put in this color and that color and it is surprising to see which colors you have to put in to get to that tonality, which is not always that self-evident.

Rail: How has your relationship to color changed?

Tuymans: In the beginning I banned it. I actually started out as a very colorful, gestural painter. When I started to work with imagery I wanted to go more for the signifier and what it meant than the aesthetics of it, which meant I had to reduce, and reduce drastically, to a point that some of the works can look pretty graphic. This has changed, of course, because I allow myself more painterly freedom now than I did twenty years ago.

Rail: Godard’s Le Mépris is one of the most perfect films ever made; how do these paintings relate to it?

Tuymans: It’s much more about the idea and the word “contempt.” There are so many elements to that film: you have a mythological element, the Greek sculptures; then you have the tricolore of France, though Godard is Swiss; then you have Curzio Malaparte, the megalomaniac Italian writer who claimed he built that Villa himself—which he didn’t, he had an architect. He’s a very interesting writer—books like Kaputt (1946) are still banned by the Vatican. In the film you can see that Brigitte Bardot understands zilch of it, she’s a total void. You have an epic aspect, and sex, jealously, and of course contempt. The film is loosely based on Alberto Moravia’s Il Disprezzo, which I also read of course, but you don’t really find that many threads in that film. What you do find is a specific space. There is also the element of the festive that goes totally wrong, like an accident. There is despair and decay—decay because the water is polluted and because the floats will immediately perish, they will be scrapped the day after the parade. All that feeling is in Godard, which is atypical of a Godard movie anyhow—it’s even something that escaped him, so to speak, and that is what makes it so fucking important. This type of film will never be made again, it’s a one-off, even for Godard. The end with Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot crushed by two trucks—fantastic. It becomes indifferent, ungraspable to a point, and that is really an achievement in cinema. Recently there were three films like that in the same year: Control (2007), the biopic about Ian Curtis, which was really good, No Country For Old Men (2007) by the Coen brothers, and then you have There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson—those three films did something which contemporary art has not yet been able to do in terms of sardonic intensity.

Rail: Twenty years ago you wrote the essay “On the Image,” which is an incredible piece of writing and thinking. I wonder how you feel the function of the image has changed since then.

Tuymans: Enormously, I suppose, seeing the tools we have now. I was never a tech guy but when I saw the iPhone touch screen I thought, I want to have that. It changes the way you perceive things, the way you can even crop and distort on your phone. Even if we don’t want to admit to it, it will change our way of looking at things—which is not a problem, it’s just what happens. I’m not going to be an idiot and reject it, why? It’s just another tool and it makes life easier up to a certain point and more complicated at the same time.

Digital technology delivers a different structure of imagery. When I received the Max Beckmann Foundation award at the Städelschule in 2007, I curated an exhibition for the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. They wanted me to go through the collection of five thousand works and create a show, but they also wanted it to have work of mine. I had a diptych, one part of which was in China and the other one was in my studio, that shows a guy shuffling in my garden next to a tree—actually quite like Millet, it could be a 19th-century image. I decided to hang that specific painting, Against the Day (2008), next to a painting by Fernand Khnopff, The Game Warden (1883), which shows a hunter with his gun. The contrast was shocking—the light was totally different, and mine clearly came out of a digital age. My painting had nothing to do with the 19th century even though the imagery was the same, which means every age has a specific quality to it that you will be able to retrace via the visual itself. Against the Day was the first from a large body of work about digitalized imagery.

Rail: One of the things I loved about your essay on the image is that you describe the static image as disappearing as soon as it’s made.

Luc Tuymans, Murky Water I, 2015. Oil on canvas. 92 3/4 × 92 3/4 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Tuymans: Because it’s in decay. A painting as an object in the world is decaying. It is interesting doing a show where you get works back from thirty years ago, and you see that they are aging—the colors are deepening or yellowing—even though they’re in fairly good shape. Some of these paintings traveled a lot and there is a weariness in the paintings, like they are tired, and in a way it deepens them. When you get to put recent work next to old work you can see how they function—and they do function, no problem—but they are very different experiences.

Rail: One of the reasons I’m interested in color is because it is the least stable part of an image—the colors change at different rates and for different reasons. I’ve started to think of color as always temporal—a blooming flower—color as a rupture and movement through time. You can also move through paintings because of color.

Tuymans: If you see the first flower float painting in the show, you’ll see there is a darkened area of the flowers—more contrast and a different depth. This is what you can do with tonality and color: you pick the point where it breaks and that is the entry. Van Eyck is so perfect, everything is so held down, and maybe he’s the only one that gets away with it, which is why he’s a real motherfucker. I’ve often said that after van Eyck we’re all dilettantes. In that sense, there has to be something off-balance, which is the point where you get into the image. That is really important with static imagery because that is the point where it moves.

Luc Tuymans, Corso I, 2015. Oil on canvas. 98 3/4 × 72 5/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Rail: You’ve said that one distinction between painting and photography is that people can remember a photograph better than a painting, but that painting loosens an emotional dimension.

Tuymans: Painting is far more detailed. It’s more physical, and therefore very difficult to remember.

Rail: Where does that put photographs of paintings?

Tuymans: A good painting is a bad painting in a photograph. Whenever your paintings look better in reproduction you should get scared because something’s wrong. The reproduction should remain the reproduction. That is a totally different ball game, and that is why I still paint.

Rail: I’m interested in the places where you’ve gestured toward painting’s emotional function. How do you see the relationship between emotion and form?

Tuymans: It is rather collateral damage, accidental to a point. A couple of days before the show opened, the first batch of collectors arrived and one elderly woman burst out crying in front of the paintings and came up to me saying they’re so beautiful, and I’m like really? I’m not like Rothko who wanted people to cry in front of his paintings. But they do that—they danced in front of the paintings at the Wexner, they sang in front of them—all totally ridiculous. That may be too harsh: it’s beautiful and nice, but it’s not true. It can’t be true, it’s an image. So the emotion is really an element of perversion, and it’s also a construction of culture. Torture comes from tenderness. The balance between violence and tenderness is the most efficient way to torture anything or anybody. That’s what it’s about and I’ve clearly been into that power game from the start—my imagery is clearly built on an interest in that power.

Luc Tuymans, Le Mépris, 2015. Oil on canvas. 44 1/4 × 56 1/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

But I cannot devoid myself from the fact that whenever I finish a painting I’m still amazed that it worked—there is a magical moment. What is unexplainable, even to me—and I’ve been working at this for more that thirty-five years so I know all the tricks—is that I’m still very nervous when I start, not totally secure. By the middle of the painting the security comes in because it starts to work, and then the total amazement when you stop, because something has left your body, has become a total entity in opposition to what you are, because it’s an image. In the studio they mostly hang tacked and un-stretched on the wall, then they get put on stretcher bars. When they are not on stretchers you see much more. When they are stretched you see less—it becomes more diffused, it becomes an object, gets a width—it’s really weird, like a different skin that comes over it. That is always an important point because that is when you see how it really works.

Rail: It makes me think of something Fassbinder said in an interview: “The theme of my films has remained the same, and always will: the manipulability, the exploitability of feelings within the system that we live in.”

Tuymans: Well, he enacted that with the actors in his group, he really abused them. Of course he is also a genius filmmaker, an amazing character.

Rail: In an interview with Juan Vicente Aliaga, you said: “Violence is the only structure underlying my work.” I wanted to know more about that, because you never represent an actual act of violence.

Tuymans: Fritz Lang didn’t show violence; in The Big Heat (1953)you hear the scream, you see the coffee pot, you make a deduction. The same with M (1931), you see the balloon pop and you know the kid dies. The best way to represent violence is not to show it. That is one thing.

With violence as a structure, as an idea: if you take happiness as anthem, what are you going to paint? There is no fucking consequence to any form of happiness. You’re going to be happy for what, thirty seconds, then what? There are many more consequences with violence— there is psychological violence, physical violence, and all types of violence and abuse that create images. I’m constantly looking at those ISIS videos of people dressed in orange jumpsuits about to be decapitated: what are you going to do with that? I went through and saw the whole decapitation—to see a whole decapitation is something completely different, because it’s really horrific. Are you going to paint that? You can’t. It doesn’t have the same function. Of course there have been many depictions, the best being the Caravaggio’s self-portrait David with the Head of Goliath (1610), which is after the beheading.

Rail: In arguments around violent images there is one side that believes those kinds of images proliferate violence, and another that believes it is important to show exactly what happened as a way of confronting the reality of the violence. How do you relate to that discussion?

Tuymans: It is still ambiguous and remains problematic, because I don’t think it will solve anything to decide either way. The repetition of these images is obviously propaganda. It’s terror, but it’s also like a Hollywood production—these guys have good equipment, good lights, and that makes you wonder. In a sense, the premeditation of the production is itself part of its violence. I’m more interested in the moment before or after than the act itself, because I think these things are much more evocative. They are positions, like borders and frontiers, and when they are connected with other imagery they are bound to influence each other.

Rail: When you talk about the influence of film on your paintings, it is mostly through the grammar of cinematic language. But thinking of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977), the scrims with rear-projections, cutouts, manikins, and dolls all seem to relate to imagery and effects of your early paintings.

Tuymans: It was a really big shock when I saw that movie in 1978. I first saw Hitler at my parents’ and they still had a black-and-white television. I saw it over two nights, so my reception of the film was black-and-white, not color, and it was far later that I saw the film in color, which is totally different—less cinematic in a weird way, and less epic, because the black and white adds an epic quality. But still, even that way it was a masterpiece. What is interesting is the way that Syberberg seeks to identify with Hitler, and that he goes at it through culture, which is really important because the big difference between German and Italian fascism in general is that German fascism was culture—the culture of Hitler was the first European project. What Syberberg was actually showing was that the Nazis destroyed a great deal of their culture, and they didn’t understand. This was very important because it was exactly the way I was going at it, and he personified that in words as well as imagery.

Rail: One of the best things about right now in painting is that no one is fighting battles between abstraction and representation. When did you feel that change in the discourse around painting?

Tuymans: Well, first of all I came out with my paintings at the exact wrong moment. When I started showing, it was a gallery where they only showed post-conceptual work. Immediately, my paintings weren’t “painting” but were treated like conceptual images, which makes a very big difference. Now there is no need anymore for any of that—modernism, or postmodernism, or post-postmodernism—all those ideas are totally obsolete. Now you can sayit’s relevant or not, but it’s not about fitting art into some theoretical structure. You cannot have October now, which made sense when they did it in the 1980s—that was a different era. Unluckily for the art world, most artists are now isolated by the market. There is a profound need within a generation to find each other, which is more difficult now because there is this specialized mechanism, this art market, and the professionals who are formed there. You end up with discourse like the sociology of the ’80s and misunderstandings of Habermas. So right now there is a grave need for different, intelligent interactions because otherwise art doesn’t really mean much, which is why I’ll probably take some money and do a three-yearly prize on the world level for people who write about art.

Rail: The volume of your writing and interviews ON&BY Luc Tuymans (2013) is very impressive, and I had no idea you’d written so much.

Tuymans: Me neither! And I hate it. I have so much respect for people who write but it’s so difficult, it’s such a slow medium. But moreover, the most important thing in writing is how you formulate things, which is a nightmare for me.

Installation view: Le Mépris. David Zwirner, New York, May 5 – June 25, 2016. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Rail: I assumed you were writing to create a framework to help others understand what you were doing. A lot of the artists I know who are verbally articulate about their work get to a point where they feel imprisoned by the way critics endlessly repeat the terms they’ve set up.

Tuymans: Problematic, but it was my mistake. It was a necessary mistake because when I started out it was all about contextualization—you could not just hang a painting on the wall. You had to say what the source material was, what it meant, etc. Of course the critics loved that because they knew what to write about. Then they all turned on me, Mr. Tuymans you cannot explain it all to us. The damage has been done, but I’m very secure that in time these things will evaporate—I will die and the works will remain, so totally different things will crop up. We’ve already talked about different things today, like color, which is interesting because that is something you can see. It’s important that the visual becomes more central to the discussion.

Rail: The things I was bringing up about your paintings are not just things you can see, but they are the things that you see in person. We have to move toward writing that is more grounded in physical experience.

Tuymans: People are not educated in looking now. They look fast. How long will people stay in front of a painting at a museum, twenty seconds? There are some that really look, but they are the patient people, they look differently. There is a culture of looking that is disappearing because of the fact that you have all these possibilities, overload, and little time to pause.

Rail: You conclude “On the Image” with this thought: “The question is: for and by whom is the information centralized? Who keeps track of it?”

Tuymans: That is what we are living now, and that is the danger. The values have been turned upside-down: what used to be the most valued was the most scarce; what is most valued now is the most accessible thing, but controlling it is the most valued thing. A totally different world.

Rail: One thing about the nature of looking today is that attention itself has been reduced; people have trouble paying attention for long periods of time, so to paraphrase your question, I’ve been asking myself: For and by whom is attention being degraded?

Tuymans: Even in the art world, we have the dominance of the corporation, which monopolizes and makes uniform. There is a great need for differentiation; you have to differentiate room for things in the middle, which is now nearly gone. Today you have to look at all this information, and that is not even the work: it doesn’t have to do with whether the work is good or bad; virtually nothing can be done in art now without the fucking packaging. And that is why a lot of artists are opening their apartments, and trying to run spaces, which I support. But that creates another problem, whether it’s too provincial, or too small, too specific, and too nice.We’ll see what happens, maybe one day the bubble will really explode.


Jarrett Earnest JARRETT EARNEST is a writer living in New York. He teaches and is faculty liaison at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU), New York’s freest art school, where his classes have included “Object Relations,” “Color Feelings,” and “Emotional Formalism.” From 2012 – 13 he ran the alternative art space 1:1 in Manhattan.



luc tuymans

a misunderstanding


From 1976 to 1982, Luc Tuymans (° 1958) studies painting at diverse academies in Belgium. He could have spared himself the trouble, for it soon turns out that he had been misled by his teachers: nobody seemed interested any longer in the medium they had learned him to master. Probably to get a broader view on the problem – but also because there is something of an intellectual in him – he proceeds to study Art History from 1982 to 1986, equally in Brussels. Meanwhile, he remains also active as an artist, although in a more contemporary medium: film. In 1985, however, he returns to painting. Especially since a new wind began to blow from Germany: with the exhibition ‘Zeitgeist’ (1982), the uncomplicated joy of painting broke through on the European scene with the ‘Neue Wilden’, painters like Georg Baselitz Jörg Immendorf, Markus Lupertz, Sigmar Polke, Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf and Salomé. For Luc Tuymans’ first exhibition ‘Belgian Art Review’ in the Palais des Thermes in Ostend (1985), on the other hand, there was not the least interest. But after some exhibitions in ‘Ruimte Morguen’ and ‘Zeno X’ in Antwerp, Jan Hoet (the curator who became famous with ‘Chambres d’Ami’ 1986), buys his ‘Body’ in 1990. In 1992, the same Jan Hoet selects his work for the Documenta. Soon, there are exhibitions in diverse European countries, and finally also with David Zwirner in New York (1996 The Heritage). In 2001, he causes a furore at the Venice Biennale (with Jan Hoet as a curator). This is the beginning of triumphal progress via the White Cube (‘The Rumour’ 2001) and Saatchi in London (Display Room 2) to the Tate Modern and K21 in Düsseldorf in 2004. Presently, Luc Tuymans is universally hailed as “the man who put painting on the agenda” again, yes, even as the most important painter of his generation, nothing less than the successor of Gerhard Richter.


Luc Tuymans foremost caught the attention by his subject matter: themes like the holocaust, (Belgian) colonialism (Mwana Kitoko, 2001), the rise of the New Right in Flanders (Heimat, 1995), Conservatism in America (‘The Heritage’ 1995-1996, ‘Security’ 1998, ‘Proper’ 2005), sexual abuse of children and recently also the church (‘The Passion’, 1998-99 and ‘Les Revenants’, 2007). A broad array op political themes.

How political are these themes? Many of them seem to be inspired by the personal experiences of Luc Tuymans. Thus, the obsession with the holocaust comes as no surprise with someone whose family from mother’s side was active in the resistance, whereas his family from father’s side sympathised with the Nazis. His unhappy youth and his childhood anxieties may have made him susceptible for the theme of the sexual abuse of children, and, through his wife and his friends, he is acquainted with the effects of Jesuit education. The strange thing is that these themes are not handled directly, but wrapped in themes that are in vogue in the media. The series ‘Heimat’ (1995) is a reflex on the rise of the New Right in Belgium, that came to a first apogee with the ‘Black Sunday’ of 1991. The theme of sexual abuse of children appears in 1996, the year Marc Dutroux was arrested. The theme of ‘Mwana Kitoko’ appears after the publication of Ludo de Witte’s book on Lumumba in 1999, where the involvement of the Eyskens administration and the Belgian Royal House in the murder on Patrice Lumumba is handled. And the portrait of a boy in the series ‘Les Revenants’ (2007) suggests that the theme of the power of the Jesuits may have something to do with the recent paedophilia scandals.

At once, it also becomes clear that Luc Tuymans’ themes only apparently cover a broad array. On a closer look, it rather strikes us that many themes are completely absent. Adult private life is underrepresented, as well from the point of view of the inner life of the individual, as from the point of view of parental and sexual relations and eroticism. And as far as politics is concerned, where he seems to feel better at home, Luc Tuymans is rather obsessed by the resurrection of the old monsters, than by the impact of the modern versions, which are, if possible, still more devastating. For, Nazis and bureaucrats have the advantage of being clearly identifiable, which is not the case with the ‘Invisible Hand’ that is increasingly taking over the lead in our present world. In that sense, Luc Tuymans’ obsession with the past is rather a kind of blindness for what is happening here and now before our eyes. Besides, we can have some doubts about the political awareness of someone who, on occasion of his exhibition ‘I can’t get it’ in the Museum of Photography in Antwerp (2007) had a smoking room installed as a way of demonstrating his resistance to the banning of smoking from public life. (He is not alone is his struggle: also that other revolutionary from Antwerp, Jan Fabre, joins him in his resistance with his ‘I am a mistake’, in which, together with Wolfgang Rihm, he sings the praise of smoking – ‘the pleasure that is trying to kill me’).

We cannot escape the impression that the involvement with what is topical in the media only masks a blindness for what is really at stake. That Luc Tuymans is above all interested in the problematic that have influenced his childhood experiences, makes us suspect that his political themes are merely a metaphor for private problems, especially childhood experiences. In that respect, a comparison between ”Gas chamber’ (1986) and the children’s room in ‘Silent Music’ (1992) speaks volumes. We will come back on this theme later.


Remarkably enough, the man “who put painting back on the agenda” harbours a deep distrust in the image.

That distrust is, among others, inspired by the fact that the image is often used to mask horror: think of the opposition between the images of the Nazi propaganda and the monstrosities perpetrated by that regime, as denounced in ‘Our new Quarters’ (1986). In some of his paintings, Luc Tuymans is out at a reversal of this obfuscation by making a painted version of the photo, as when he overpaints a photo Reinhard Heydrich (1988) from ‘Signal’ with sunglasses. The images distorts not only in that it conceals the horror behind misleading glamour and heroic poses. More often, there is a shift from the political to the private. Again, Luc Tuymans disturbs the idyll through reversing the shift. Just think of the painting after of photo of a fallen skier who turns out to be Speer (Der Architekt, 1998), or of ‘Walking (1989), after a photo with Hitler and setting off on a walk with his escort in Berchtesgaden. We get the feeling that something horrible goes hidden behind these seemingly banal snapshots.

Soon, this procedure becomes Luc Tuymans hallmark. The private is thereby generalised to the banal as such. The gaze of the unsuspecting onlooker falls on pictures, which, at first glance, look innocent, if not poetic, precisely because the horror has been removed. Thus, from the concentration camps, Luc Tuymans paints only the empty gas chambers. From the visit of King Bouduain to the Belgian Congo, we get only to see his foot on a leopard skin rug spread by two black hands. But the banal turns out to be a mere trap: inadvertently, the onlooker is confronted with the horror that has been zoomed out or removed from the image. Luc Tuymans describes such breakthrough in terms of an ‘assault’ (Aliaga*).

Through such reinvestment of the banal, Luc Tuymans succeeds in reinstalling the horror in our memory. He thereby undermines the idea that the horror is such that it cannot be depicted in an image. According to Luc Tuymans, the only truth in this contention is that the horror cannot be handled in, say, depicting heaps of corpses – referring to the more explicit approach of painters like Anselm Kiefer (if not to documentary films).

Luc Tuymans’ most cherished procedure can be described in two ways. In terms of photography, it is a ‘close-up’, a zooming in on a detail of the whole image. No zooming in on the kernel of the proceedings, however: these are rather zoomed out of the image. From the spreading of the leopard skin rug before the feet King Bouduain, we only get to see the leopard skin. ‘Zooming away’ might be a better name for this procedure.

We can also describe such ‘zooming away’ in terms of the conventional academic genres. Luc Tuymans is then turning away from ‘history painting’ – the explicit depiction of the human drama, condensed into one single meaningful scene. He withdraws in the ‘lesser genres’ of the hierarchy: landscape, interior, still life – where the painter ‘zooms away’ from human drama to concentrate on the place where it happens (interior, landscape) or on the objects which he uses or produces (still life). Thus, ‘Schwarzheide (1986), can be classified as a ‘landscape’, ‘Gas chamber’ (1986) as an interior, ‘Orchid’ (1998) as a flower piece, ‘Bird’ (1998) as an animal piece.

Such shift from history painting to the lesser genres, must be seen in a broader art historical context. The shift began already centuries ago, lead to an open rejection of history painting by the Impressionists, came to an apogee through the introduction of abstract art, and was completed by the banning of every narrative element from art. Against this background, we understand not only why Luc Tuymans has a predilection for the lesser genres, but also why he often tends to become completely abstract, like in ‘Insomnia’ (1988), where there are only unidentifiable spots to be seen. But, as a rule, Luc Tuymans feels more at home in the preceding phase where the lesser genres are taking over. In that sense, Luc Tuymans’ painting is a step backwards, a step towards a pre-modern phase in the development of modern art. As a matter of fact: Luc Tuymans does not believe in something like a synthetic image in which reality is contained in a condensed form, as usually expected from history painting. According to Luc Tuymans, a universal image – the ultimate history painting – is impossible: we can only lift the veil through fragmentary images.

Nevertheless, Luc Tuymans understand his still lifes, interiors and portraits as ‘history paintings’, not as lesser genres. They are only ‘understatements’: on closer view, the rather banal subject matter conceals a more encompassing world of horror.


But, let there be no confusion: it is not the image that works such reversal from ‘a sense of cosiness’ in the seemingly banal genre piece into the historical dimension of ‘something terrifying’ (Aliaga*). At its best, the image is only the occasion of such transformation. It is rather the word that ignites the fire. It does so on three levels.

To begin with, there are the texts in or below the image. We are not dealing here with the usual titles that provide further information on the subject matter, even less with titles that facilitate the access to the image, or put our mind on the right track. A text like ‘Our new quarters’ (1986) does something totally different. It is only through these words that the meagre image gets some substance and that we realise that we are dealing with the model camp built by the Nazis in Theresienstadt to deceive the world. That surely makes us think: all kinds of memories and images pop up in our mind. Until we suddenly realise that we are no longer looking at a painting. The text makes us discard the image and lose ourselves in a train of thoughts and memories completely independent from the image.

Next to the titles, also the comments of Luc Tuymans himself are indispensable for a proper understanding of the image. A title like ‘Schwarzheide’ is only the onset of a longer comment, that initiates a train of thoughts in its turn. The comments can be found in a increasing number of books devoted to Luc Tuymans, but also in the catalogues – like the one for the Kunsthalle in Bern (1992) where every single painting is commented on. That results in the hilarious – but telling – spectacle in the exhibition ‘Der Diagnostische Blick’ in Düsseldorf. Rather than looking at the paintings hanging on the walls, all the visitors stood staring in the booklets distributed at the entrance.

Another essential part of the extensive glosses around Luc Tuymans’ images is the information about the photos used by Luc Tuymans. Thus, we are told that the image of ‘Mwana Kitoko’ descending from the aeroplane, is borrowed from a propaganda film on the visit of King Bouduain to the Belgian Congo. The intention is to spare the art historians the trouble to find the origins of the image themselves,

Finally, it speaks volumes that also the titles of the exhibitions themselves play an important role. This is understandable as long as we are dealing with series of images like ‘Heimat’ (1995), ‘Mwana Kitoko’ (2000-2001) or ‘Les Revenants’ (2007). But, for Luc Tuymans, also new combinations of pictures that have been isolated from the initial series, like in the Tate or in K 21 Düsseldorf, have to be read as a new discourse. They are thereby reduced to mere signifiers that get a new meaning in another context. Nothing demonstrates better how, for Luc Tuymans, paintings are mere occasions for a discourse that is essentially independent from the image.

In a first series of images, hence, the text is merely a kind of midwife that brings to birth the real content of the painting or the exhibition as a whole. The child that is thereby delivered, is no longer an image, and, a fortiori, not a history painting. Rather is it a complex of thoughts and representations in the mind, as independent from the painting as the meaning of a word from the arbitrary sound of the word itself. The withdrawal into the detail or into the ‘lesser genre’ turns out to be only a first move, which is completed by a second, where the word takes the lead. The image as un understatement is replaced by the word as an overstatement. As if in the work of Luc Tuymans Hegel’s prophecy about the spiritualisation of art comes true once more, against Schopenhauer’s claim that art has to overcome the shortcomings of the ‘Begriff’ through the ‘Idee’.

The question is why Luc Tuymans continues to resort to the image altogether. Why not become a writer or a philosopher rather than a painter? The answer is obvious. Without the prestige of the image, Luc Tuymans’ ‘philosophy’ would not be heard at all. In that Luc Tuymans entrusts his ideas to paintings, he not only gets a forum, but good money as well. That would not bother us too much, if Luc Tuymans had to tell us some epoch making insights. But that is not at all the case. Take ‘The Architect’ (1998). Only after reading the title and the comments, we see that a skier has fallen; that the skier is Speer, the architect of Hitler who also designed the concentration camps; that the original image is a snapshot made by his wife during one of their holidays; and that there is a blue hue around the image intended to suggest that the image is projected on the canvas as a screen. In the comments, we read something about ‘the banality of evil’. Hannah Ahrend has written an entire book on the subject already in 1963, and the idea has become widely accepted in matters of the Nazi era. Luc Tuymans’ painting only repeats a commonplace. Rather than the vehicle of epoch making insights, Luc Tuymans paintings are not more than a kind of illustration of the ideas of others.

The discrepancy between the painting and the train of thoughts is sometimes rather ridiculous. A painting from the series ‘Passion’ with a yellow canary on a blue background (‘Bird’,1998) is supposed to be ‘travesty of Christian symbolism’ – in casu: the symbol of the Holy Ghost. Luc Tuymans says that he has deliberately chosen a ‘domesticated image and an unusual colour to profanise the idea of the sacred dove’. To the this time genuine doves ‘in dumb disarray’ on ‘Pigeons’ (2001) – a banal animal piece – the comments read: ‘Dirty and disease-ridden, they’re a strangely curious mob, a metaphoric stand-in for ourselves… Luc Tuymans offers a chilling ultimate truth about humankind. He makes a cold comedy of a terrifying thought.’ Speaking of an assault! Not in that the seemingly banal suddenly turns out to be horrendous, but in that a banal image is purported to be freighted with a deeper meaning!


The seizure of power by the word devalues the image: it is no more than an occasion to a flight of thoughts and representations in the dark room of the skull. That has everything to do with Luc Tuymans’ already mentioned distrust in the power of the image. That distrust goes further than a mere distrust in some kinds of images. The criticism of the propagandistic image, which, in a first phase was extended to a criticism of history painting or the ‘pretentious myth of the image as a synopsis of reality’, develops in a second phase into a criticism of the image as such: the painting as a mirror of reality would not at all be able to hold a mirror to reality. As a reaction to September 11th, Luc Tuymans painted his ‘Still life’ (2002). No ‘zooming away’ from the banal here, but a resolute substitution of history painting with a still life, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Twin Towers: a pastiche on Cézanne as a symbol of painting as such. In this painting, the lowest of the academic genres is no longer an occasion to a flight of thoughts and representations that presumably cannot be caught in the image, but rather an example of the impotence of the image to tell something about the real world altogether. Such conception of the painting as a blindfold is accentuated by the magnifying of the size of the image – a gesture that up to now had been alien to Luc Tuymans. As if this non-subject also wanted to attract all the attention. “I had great fun making the painting because, although it is by far my largest, it represents the least” (Heynen*). Only here does it become clear how far reaching the seizure of power of the word has become. For, whereas the banality of what is to be seen on many of Luc Tuymans’ paintings hints at a reality behind the picture – with a little help of the text – in this case, there is nothing whatsoever in the image that might suggest that it had something to do with the Twin Towers. We learn that only from the comments.

That goes even more for those other paintings, where Luc Tuymans paints a mirror. In ‘Mirror’ (1999), we see a nearly monochrome rectangle. In the upper corner on the right, there is a lighter rectangle, and on the left a kind of cube. It is impossible to identify what is represented here. Unless we read the title, but above all the comment: apparently, we are looking at a mirror, a mirror where there is nothing to be seen. In ‘Mirror 1’ (1992) Luc Tuymans paints a stain on a mirror. We see only a stain, not the face that is normally reflected in the mirror. And in ‘Slide’ (2002), we see a rectangle of light on a wall. In the textbook, we learn that we are dealing with a projector without slide installed. Or, to phrase it with Berg: ‘a bottomless and unfathomable ground is the substrate of a motif that itself exhibits nothing but its own absence’ (Berg*).

In these ‘mirror paintings’ the role of the word is, if possible, even more constitutive than in ‘Still Life’. In the first place, it is only the text that turns the stains on the images into reflections in a mirror. In ‘Still Life’, it is at least our very own eyes that discern a still life. And, second, the image itself is no more than a non-verbal statement – a variant of the painting of Magritte, where we see a rectangular window where we would expect a canvas. In paintings like these, the images are not only totally dependent on the word, the word usurps the role of the image. The painting is no more than a non-verbal statement on the image as such or on the relation between the image and reality.

Next to the image as a mere occasion for the flight of thoughts and representations, then, there is also the image as a mere non-verbal statement or as an example to Luc Tuyman’s discourse on the image.


‘Was mann nicht malen kann, das muss man nicht malen wollen.’
(free after Wittgenstein…)

An obvious objection is that the image is always dependent on the word. But that is only a modern fable, that has become popular ever since it has been so eloquently advocated by Roland Barthes. When looking at Goya’s Kronos, you need not know who the man eater is – the title rather diverts the attention from what there is to be seen in the image. And that goes equally for the Venus of Urbino. Things are different when we are dealing with paintings like the Primavera of Botticelli or with paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. These pictures ask for an explanation, simply because the figures are non-verbal symbols. The image is here reduced to a mere vehicle. Not surprising that it resists its subordination: the three graces continue to seduce the eye, also when it does not know that it is looking at the Three Graces and what their function in the non-verbal statement is.

There is also another way in which the image can become dependent on the word. Every image is embedded in a cultural context. As long as that context is shared by the onlookers, there is no problem. Problems arise only when the image is isolated from the environment in which it originated. It is obvious that non-Belgians have to get the required information when they are confronted with a hint at the ‘Vlaams Blok’ or at ‘ Mwana Kitoko’. The problems become principial when we are dealing with images from the past. These have to be placed in the appropriate context through art-historical explanations. And, since most great art works stem from the past, and hence have to be embedded in an art historical discourse, the totally erroneous impression grows that art as such deserves explanation. Many modern artist abuse this state of affairs when they have their meanwhile obligate exegetes explain what their pictures do not convey. Luc Tuymans goes even further: he has become his own exegete and simply cannot stop to spin an ever growing web of comments around his paintings

Whereas, in the allegory, the word distracts from the image, with Luc Tuymans, the word is rather constitutive of the image: only when reading the comments do we see the monochrome surface as a mirror, and as a mirror in which there is nothing to be seen. The same goes for the lamp of which we read in the booklet that it is made of human skin. One might object that there is no other means of making it clear that we are dealing with a lamp made of human skin. But the conclusion should be that such a subject is not appropriate to be painted – there is so much left that can be painted properly. Genuine painters are not looking for images that could convey their preconceived ideas, they create images that speak for themselves.

And, to deal with still another modern fable: wherein precisely does the image fail? Is it not in the first place photos and images which revealed the horror of the holocaust to the world? And did they not do so precisely in being indexical/causal – ‘narrative’ par excellence? Paintings cannot rely to the ‘ça a été’ to the same extent. Of course, a picture – whether painted or photographed – is not reality itself: it may be more disturbing or more reassuring, more superficial or more profound, and that only depends on the intentions and the competence of the maker. But in any case, it holds that a good image can be more speaking than even the best word – but above all: more speaking that even the most eloquent reality. Precisely therein lies the function of art, and precisely therefore will we always need art.

Again: suppose the image fails, why should it do so only after the holocaust? As if history is not one endless series of atrocities perpetrated with ever new destructive strategies and through ever new forms of organisation, of which the administrative/technological genocide by the Nazis is a meanwhile somewhat obsolete phase. And what would have prevented Goya from denouncing them in his ‘Desastres de la guerra’ – not to mention Brueghel in his ‘Dulle Griet’? The truth is that painters, misled as they were by the slogan that painting should not be narrative, have relegated the task of history painting to the photographers and the filmmakers. They thereby lost the necessary experience to make convincing history paintings. Already the images during and after the First World War, often partake of the caricature. And towards the outburst of the Spanish Civil War, the problems with which Picasso was confronted in his ‘Guernica’ testify to the impasse in which history painting had landed. Where a resistance against the narrative did not exist – think of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain – the tradition remained alive, although, equally as a consequence of the anti-narrative fervour, it was undermined in that the artist used an obsolete language. This stylistically outdated tradition lost every credibility in that it praised rather suspected regimes rather than criticising them, like Goya and Brueghel did. The combination of obsolete ‘academic’ technique and propaganda for unconvincing regimes, made it all to easy to equal ‘history painting’ and ‘propaganda’ – and the CIA could not wait to proclaim abstract art to the very hallmark of the ‘free world’.** Thus, the genuine tradition of formally progressive and contentually critical history painting, like that of Brueghel and Goya, was gradually undermined and betrayed. For, apart from the problem of style, there is the central problem of the quality of the world view of the artist. The truth is that most painters simply do not have a world view that is worth conveying. For, to have problems with the old and the new Right, imperialism, the sexual abuse of children and the Jesuits is one thing, to reveal the deeper reality that expresses itself in all these phenomena, quite another. There is no purpose, then, in contending that it is impossible to paint a history painting in this ‘most horrible of all times’. The truth is simply that Luc Tuymans not only is incapable to paint one, but above all that he has no insight in our present ‘condition humaine’ that is worth mentioning (or painting). Which is not to say that figures like Richter, or Kiefer and Immendorf would have succeeded better. There is, finally, still another factor that deters many a painter from history painting. A painting that would tell something interesting about say the widening divide between the rich and the poor in our world, is not sellable to a multimillionaire that has to invest his dollars in a painting. And I can imagine the problems of an atheist confronted with an outstanding history painting advocating the restoration of spiritual values…

Rather than admitting that he is not able to produce a convincing history painting – or that it is too dangerous or too little commercial – Luc Tuymans prefers to argue that it is painting itself that is no longer appropriate. He thus delivers another fatal blow to painting: for Luc Tuymans does not more than spinning a web of words around the image, to take his place in the mid of it as a kingly spider that, in a veritable act of auto-castration, bereaves his own images of their very substance. The old allegories were so strong as images, that they tended to shed of the cobweb woven around them or to discard it altogether in the end. With Luc Tuymans, the image has become so dependent on the word, that we are only left with an empty carcass when the web is removed.


‘I am not interested in aesthetics; I am into meaning and necessity’

Tuymans (from Aliaga*).

Luc Tuymans resorts to the word for other reasons than the supposed shortcomings of the image. The factual impotence to make a self-contained image is in the first place the result of the restrictions that the artists imposed on themselves by adopting the dogma of the inartistic nature of the narrative element, the pursuit of abstraction and ‘musicality’. But, on a deeper level, Luc Tuymans is also the executor of a much older version of the mimetic taboo: the contempt for the image as such, that has become endemic in the plastic arts ever since Duchamp’s saying that art is not a question of the retina, but of the brain. Henceforward, more and more artists begin to philosophise about art through making images – through painting about painting, or more general: through making art about art. Again and again, ever more pseudo-philosophers come to echo Duchamp’s dictum, which is in its turn a profane echo of Hegel’s version of the mimetic taboo. One of Luc Tuymans’ variants sounds: ‘The small gap between the explanation of a picture and a picture itself provides the only possible perspective on painting.’ That these artists-philosophers express themselves non-verbally – not with words on paper, but with the brush on the canvas, if not with objects on pedestals, yes even with entire constructions in real space called installations – has as a consequence that the already long racks reserved for the philosophy of arts in the libraries, are now extended with the cellars in the museums, where all these voluminous considerations are stocked.

If to any, then Luc Tuymans certainly belongs to this tradition. That is apparent from the constitutive role of the word as analysed above. It is also unambiguously testified by the many assertions of Luc Tuymans where he speaks or art as of a statement, as when he says about Ad Reinhardts ‘Black Square: ‘It is the representation of nothingness. A black square, no more. A clear statement. Just like Duchamp’s Fontaine’. Or when he describes his own ‘Still Life’ (2002) as a ‘Western European statement’ (Tusa*). And it becomes more than obvious when we compare Luc Tuymans’ painting with verbal statements painted on canvas like those of Ben Vautier and Baldessari, or with On Kawara’s dates painted on canvas. Also these statements and dates are no more than occasions for flights of thoughts and representations. That Luc Tuymans’ statements have more in common with painting than mere letters and numbers painted on canvas, makes it all the more easy for devotees of art who are fond of philosophising, to uphold the impression that their hobby has something to do with art. In that sense, Luc Tuymans’ paintings are only more ‘artistic’ versions of the very conceptualism that he is supposed to reject. Luc Tuymans: a crypto-conceptualist. The cliché about the man who put painting on the agenda again in a climate where painting was declared obsolete – just think of Cathérine David who, on occasion of the Xth Documenta (1997) declared that painting is at its best academic and at its worst reactionary – only obfuscates the contrary truth: that Luc Tuymans still taps old wine from new wineskins. That the wineskin looks old – bleached-out, yes even ‘craquelé’ – should not make us believe that we are dealing with new wine in old wineskins…


Bad artists copy. Good artists steal

 Pablo Picasso

Luc Tuymans not only resorts to the word, he has also a distinct predilection for photography. Let us therefore, in a second section of this text, examine this predilection.

We already pointed to the fact that the heirs of history painting are not to be found in painting, but in photography and film. A vague consciousness thereof will certainly have driven Luc Tuymans to the camera. It remains a riddle why, after his return to painting, he not just inscribes himself in the tradition of Brueghel and Goya. For, despite his return to painting, Luc Tuymans continues to resort to photos and film stills. He thereby refers to Spilliaert. But more obvious is the example of Gerhard Richter, who, in the vein of Pop Artists, uses advertisements and all kinds of illustrations as raw material for his paintings.

Richter openly declared that painting after photos freed him from the necessity of selecting or constructing a motif. Luc Tuymans’ justification sounds that everything has already been painted. Well known is the story how he saw the self-portrait, with which he had won a competition, reproduced in the book on Ensor that he received as a prize. Luc Tuymans came to the conclusion that it is no longer possible to make an original. That the Neue Wilden could only feast their return to painting in resorting to the manner of the ‘Fauves’, will only have strengthened him in his conviction. And, if there has to be painting nevertheless, the only option is to repeat what has already been done – to forge existing works, but openly and, like Van Meegeren, in an own recognisable style. ‘Authentic forgery’, as Luc Tuymans phrases it. But, otherwise than Van Meegeren, Luc Tuymans does not forge paintings, let alone history paintings of old masters – which would have made it clear once and for all how absurd his undertaking is. No, Luc Tuymans makes ‘authentic forgeries’ of photos, by transforming them in paintings. Which is legitimised in its turn by the contention that painting can only be a representation of a representation – think of Richter’s ‘second order representational strategy’. Painting as re-presenting photos hence, as a mirror of an image rather than of ‘nature”. Which is, again, another variant of the widespread practice of making art as a reflection on art, rather than as a mirror of reality. To escape the reproach of making art that only refers to itself – did he not in the first place attract the attention by his subject matter? – Luc Tuymans concocts the construction that the ‘reconstruction of the photographical image’ is not just ‘history painting’, but the ‘the realising of history’ as such (Tusa*).

Let us leave the justifications for what they are. That Luc Tuymans proceeds from photos betrays that he is aware of the fact that, in matters of history painting, you better rely on photographers. On the other hand, that he transforms photos in paintings betrays that he ranks painting higher than photography. The question remains why Luc Tuymans does not resort to this superior technique for his history painting? When reality, as it is misrepresented by photographs, can be re-constructed, why not construct it right away on the canvas? Why make the detour over photography?

The answer is that Luc Tuymans is not so much interested in history painting as rather in something totally different: the trench war between photography and painting. By repainting photographs, he unambiguously states that only the hand of the painter can work the wonder that – in Luc Tuymans’ mind – remains out of reach of the photographer. That is why he so conspicuously borrows his motif from the photographical image in view of transforming it in a painting. No doubt, after such transformation, the painting tells something totally different from the photo. But so would re-photographing – of the same photo or the same motif! And we are still talking in terms of the image. For, since it is the comments that constitute Luc Tuymans’ images, embedding the photo in an appropriate context of comments would also do! On closer view, it cannot be a contentual concern that lies at the roots of this undertaking. It rather seems that we must conclude with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message here. And that message sounds that an image is art only when it is painted. It is only through repainting the photo in view of conveying this message, that also a vague reminder of what used to be called ‘history painting’, can be smuggled into the museum again.


How much the medium is the message, appears from the kind of interventions Luc Tuymans makes when re-presenting his photos.

To begin with, there is the obligate blurredness of his images. From the very beginning of photography, ‘le fini’ has become increasingly suspect in painting. Not that painting would not be able to produce ‘high definition’ – suffice it to refer to the Flemish Primitives, so much admired by Luc Tuymans, or in a more recent past to Salvador Dali and the ‘sharp focus’ of photorealists like Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Chuck Close (who, by the way, do not feature in Luc Tuymans’ discourse). It is apparent that Luc Tuymans’ conception of painting is indebted to the aversion for this aspect of the photographic image and therefore prefers brush strokes or texture above the cult of the detail, as it comes to its fetishist apogee in the photography of Andreas Gursky. Richter introduced a new version of the rejection of overall-sharpness – the ‘flou’, that, already from the Pictorialists onwards, has been regarded as ‘artistique’. Luc Tuymans’ obsession with photography – or his eagerness to obfuscate his indebtedness to Richter – goes so far that he even understands this characteristic of anti-photographic painting in terms of photography: to him, the absence of ‘fini’ is not so much a characteristic of painting since the invention of photography, but in the first place of Polaroids that are not fully developed. Precisely therefore, he regards them as more credible – artistic – that the fully developed end products. As if the image would lose its credibility in becoming sharp. Nevertheless, Luc Tuymans does not proceed to making Polaroids. Already in ‘Arena’ (1978), that he considers to be a central work in his development, the effect is obtained by covering the figures with plastic foil…

A similar analysis applies to the bleached palette that has become Luc Tuymans’ hallmark. Also this is borrowed from not fully developed Polaroids, and is especially appropriate to distinguish the image from photography, that excels in its ability to render the full gamut of colours in all its richness. Let us remark that the aversion for ‘technicolor’ appears only after the invention of colour photography. As long as photography was only able to render black and white, painting profiled itself through playing off colour, preferably unbroken by the rendering of tone: exemplary in the cloisonné technique of Gauguin or the pointillism of Seurat. We conclude that Luc Tuymans’ mania of washed-out colours originates in his endeavour to distinguish himself from photography. In addition, it also distinguished him from other painters like the Neue Wilden, that made a furore when he began with his ‘retour à la peinture’.

Also deformation is, equally from the very beginnings of modern art, the most obvious way to distinguish painting from photography, which is renown for its true-to-nature rendering. That is why Luc Tuymans does not project his images on the canvas, like Richter and the Photorealists, but draws them with a pencil on the canvas. To deformation belongs also the omission of details: ‘In order to show something, I paint a lot away’ (Maja Naef in Dexter*)

Finally, the small Polaroids are magnified. Until Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, photography equalled small formats, whereas painting, especially after the Second World War, increasingly came to prefer larger sizes. Luc Tuymans’ choice of the size is determined by an effort to distinguish himself as well from the smaller formats of photography as from the larger formats of painting.


In the above, we have shown that Luc Tuymans ranks painting higher than photography, how much he might be devoted to the latter. But also his high esteem is at least ambivalent: it goes hidden behind an overt contempt for painting, a special variant of the contempt for the image as such.

To begin with, Luc Tuymans experiences painting as ‘antiquarian’. To accentuate that, he often produces a artificial ‘craquelé’, like in ‘Body’ (1990). Also the age worn colours, apart from the fact that they allow to distinguish his painting from commercial photography and expressionistic painting, have to convey the impression that the image is bleached by light. How much Luc Tuymans thinks in terms of photography is evident from the fact that bleaching is the fate of photos rather than paintings, which rather tend to darken.

The contempt shows itself also in his handling of what, according to the analysis above, he considers to be the distinguishing characteristic of painting: the brush stroke. Promoted to psychogram by the Action Painters, aseptically banned from the surface by Pop Art and the New Abstraction, it is triumphantly welcomed again by the Neue Wilden. Also Luc Tuymans welcomes the brush stroke. But the expressive stroke of the Neue Wilden is resolutely denied. Elsewhere he ridicules the magic of the pre-expressionistic ‘figurative’ brush strokes, where the brush made some self-contained movement on the canvas, that, from a distance, turned out to be some figurative motif. Also this form of ‘becoming image’ – mimesis par excellence – is resolutely denied with Luc Tuymans. His brushstrokes cannot achieve the mimetic miracle, from whatever distance you look. Exemplary is the painting ‘Wiedergutmachung’ where you see a kind of eggs sunny-side up. According to the booklet, we are dealing with eyes. But even when you know that, the stains never succeed in becoming eyes. Precisely the brush stroke, that was mobilised against the photographic ‘fini’, is bereaved of its expressive and mimetic potential and reduced to a pure referent for the message ‘this is painting’.

It is certainly no coincidence that Luc Tuymans seems to have a predilection for horizontal brushstrokes. They cannot but remind us of the lines of a text. Even when painting, Luc Tuymans writes – think of Dotremont and Cy Twombly. Also on this level, painting is turned into writing.

The irony is that also these anti-expressionistic strokes of Luc Tuymans acquire an expressiveness that is not intended, but not less real. This is the whole dilemma of ignorance: also clumsiness has an expressive value of its own. You are always right, hence, as already the artists of Cobra understood. Although it applies also here that one clumsiness is not the other: it suffices to compare Picasso with Appel.

The same applies to composition, precisely the domain where the hand made image is superior in principle to the photographical image. Take ‘Tentje’: Luc Tuymans wants to achieve a sense of discomfort through an inadequate position within the rectangle. To be sure: an inadequate composition has an expressiveness in its own right, just like a clumsy brush stroke. But how little Luc Tuymans is interested in composition, is apparent from the fact that he has no problems with having ‘Silence’ embroidered or silk screened on a shirt designed by Walter van Beirendonck. Of course, the dialogue between the figure and the frame falls away. If there was any altogether. For Luc Tuymans paints his images on a large canvas on the wall (like Pollock on the ground). When finished, he frames it in a rectangle by painting the rest away! That reminds not so much of Pollock, as rather of the photographer.

And it is above all evident, finally, from the way his works are conceived. Luc Tuymans images do not originate during painting itself – from a permanent dialogue between the unforeseeable effects of the brush and the deliberate intentions of the hand. Luc Tuymans’ has a clear cut concept in mind when he begins to paint -and executes this concept within a few hours: ‘I use drawings and before I begin painting the imagery is completely finalized. So the execution of the painting goes very fast, but the work before the painting, the conceptualizing of the image itself is a long period of time.’ (interview with ‘The scene’).

Jan Van Eyck

All this talk about the impotence of the image is not only an expression of the mimetic taboo, but also a construction to mask Luc Tuymans’ inability, that only testifies to the secret, but frustrated desire to walk in the wake of the real masters of painting: to become Antwerp’s new Rubens, if not Flanders’ new Van Eyck. Several contradictions betray such secret desire.

To begin with, Luc Tuymans prides himself that he has been a virtuoso painter in his academy years and that he afterwards intentionally denied the ‘aesthetic’ aspect of painting. However, not much of this virtuoso manner seems to have survived, not even in its negation. We cannot but surmise that the negation is nothing more than an alibi to conceal that he is not really good at using the brush stroke in a convincing way, neither in the mimetic, nor in the expressive, nor in the constructive sense.

The same goes for his bleached colours. Luc Tuymans declares: ‘A tone can grow, a colour cannot’ – as if to excuse himself for the fact that he denies himself the use of a full colour palette. Authors like Berg* echo: ‘His painting seem pale and monochromatic, but nonetheless reveal an abundance of colourful nuances and distinctions’. But, even when many art lovers breathed again when they saw the pastel colours of Luc Tuymans light up in the museums, his paintings are rather ‘grey holes’ than a seemingly neutral background from which eventually colours begin to light up. Some awareness of the lack of lighting power of his paintings may have led at the base of his sneer on Morandi, whose work he called `poetic bullshit’. That does not prevent thinning down with white from being a proven way of circumventing all the real problems with colour. And even within this thinned-down colour palette, Luc Tuymans mostly restricts himself to elementary dyads of complementary colours: he seldom lets triads resound, let alone still more complex combinations of colours. With the same self-confidence, Luc Tuymans declares that he resigns from full colours because ‘depth deals mostly with the idea of tones and not with full colours’ (Tusa*). In reality, lack of depth, perhaps more that those bleached out colours of him, is the hallmark of all the paintings of Luc Tuymans.

Also the shying away from ‘full’ history painting is based not only on contentual impotence, but above all on a lack of compository skills. For, painting a fragment of a mirror is one thing, composing a painting with many figures another. Not for nothing did Renaissance artists regard history painting and ‘compositio’ as synonyms. Against this background, we understand that other sneer, this time on Rubens, whom Luc Tuymans called the ‘Cecille B. de Mille’ of the 17th century.

Luc Tuymans has also his problems with the portrait. The man who was rewarded at the academy for a self-portrait, repeatedly confessed that he is not interested in the psychological portrait (Aliaga*). In the comments on ‘Der diagnostische Blick’, we read that it was the intention to make it clear that a portrait cannot reveal anything about inner life. One can conceive of many reasons to cover the eyes of Heydrich (Die Zeit, 1988) with sunglasses, or to frame the face out of the picture altogether, like in ‘Body’ (1990), or to concentrate on the re-presentation of photos meant to show the symptoms of disease on the face, like in ‘Der diagnostische Blick’. But is is also a convenient trick to conceal impotence. No wonder that Luc Tuymans prefers to paint moods directly, like in the series ‘Embitterment’ (1991) which the describes as ‘an emotional self-portrait’ ‘showing the inside of the body’.


Despite all the verbiage about the impotence of the image, the image always takes revenge on its allegorical or instrumental abuse. And that goes also for the images of Luc Tuymans. Although they are conceived as a mere occasion for the breakthrough of ‘something terrifying’, in the last resort, only their ‘sense of cosiness’ remains intact. Luc Tuymans complains that many onlookers read his paintings as intimistic and poetic (Heynen*), and tells the anecdote of the German collector who had interpreted his ‘Gas Chamber’ as a cosy bathroom. But also the informed art lover all too readily overlooks the contentual freight of Luc Tuymans’ paintings. Suffices it to refer to Bunny Smedly* who bluntly declares: ‘It was perfectly possible to look at these works and see them not as sinister, brutal and horrific, but rather as evocative, nostalgic — even rather beautiful.’ Bitterli* muses that, despite the explicit intentions, Luc Tuymans work ‘is about light’. Andrew Lambirth experiences ‘Embitterment’, meant to convey rage as ‘rather pleasing’ and adds ironically :’I am responding visually to it, rather than intellectually’. And, whatever story Luc Tuymans might have to tell about ‘TV Set’ (2000), in the catalogue to the auction at Sotheby’s, it is simply described as ‘an eery, Munch-like landscape that has a nice feeling of mystery.’ …

It is only the question whether we are dealing here with a wrong lecture or rather with a lucid perception of an undercurrent in the work of Luc Tuymans that runs counter his explicit intentions. The sole fact that Luc Tuymans continues to resort to the brush betrays an addiction to painting that belies every conceptual rapture. And that goes also for his description of the act of painting: ‘Caressing the painting, flattening it out. Painting wet in wet. I would not say that every act derives from sexuality, But a lot is triggered by it’ (Aliaga*)

We cannot escape the impression that also the painter in Luc Tuymans himself is increasingly joining the German collector who descried a cosy bathroom in ‘Gas chamber’.

To begin with, Luc Tuymans seems increasingly reluctant to spin a verbal cobweb around his paintings. On occasion of his exhibition in the Tate, he declared: ‘Compared to my older paintings, where I tone down the virtuoso element for the sake of the content, now the painterly aspect of my work almost has the upper hand’ (Heynen*). And indeed, whereas in the Zeno X, Luc Tuymans has an exhibition old style around the theme of the Jesuits (Les Revenants, 2007), there is – apart from the already mentioned smoking room – no trace of political commitment in the parallel show ‘I don’t get it’ (2007) in the Museum of Photography in Antwerp. There are no paintings there, only photos and prints (monoprints, silk screens, lithos) and the focus is on purely plastic qualities. It is significant that Luc Tuymans images are often better when the photos, transformed in painting, are transformed in print in their turn – were it alone for the fact that those clumsy brush strokes of him do not survive the transformation (not to mention the mastery of the printer….). And, as the stories around the pictures tone down, the images become all the more eloquent: just think of a picture like ‘Bent over’.

Also the explicit denial of the virtuoso painting seems to gradually weaken. Already on some documentary films, we see Luc Tuymans show off some ‘virtuoso’ movements with the brush. And it is also apparent from his increasing preoccupation with the mimetic power of the brush stroke described above.

It will, finally, not have escaped Luc Tuymans’ attention that not only the uninformed onlookers, but also countless commentators read his portraits as psychological portraits. For, just like clumsy brushstrokes can be read as expressive nevertheless, also portraits of people who are concealing their inner life can be read as psychological portraits. To be sure, the alibi of transforming photographs continues to be invoked, like in the series of portraits drawn from memorial photographs (2000). But it speaks volumes that an informed commentator like Hans Theys describes Condoleezza Rice’s portrait – although it belongs to the series ‘Proper’ (2005) that deals with ‘fragile America and the crumbling state of current affairs’ – as a ‘tribute to a mighty woman of Afro-American descent’. Also figures like Jerry Saltz do not hesitate to praise that same portrait as a ‘modern Mona Lisa’! Granted, there is worlds apart from the photo of Heydrich with sunglasses and this modern Mona Lisa from the Bush administration. I rather prefer Duchamp’s ‘LHOOQ’… Also the portrait of that young boy from the series ‘Les Revenants’ is widely praised. It is painted after a still from the film ‘The valley of the doomed’ (Road of the Giants). It reminded me immediately of a photo of Luc Tuymans as a young boy in his Sunday best, and of a more recent photo where the now adolescent Luc Tuymans points a revolver to the camera. And also of Luc Tuymans’ confession in Trends: that he has always dreamed of having three costumes made by a top tailor – of being able to wear the uniform of the more modern elites so to speak. Talking about self-portraits…

The image takes its revenge. And that revenge is more than sweet. For, if we leave the overstatements for what they are, Luc Tuymans’ works are no longer understatements, but just paintings like all the other which have to compete with those of the great masters in the museums. And that comparison will never be in favour of Luc Tuymans: just hang the ‘monumental’ ‘Still Life’ next to Brueghel’s modest ‘Dulle Griet’…. That is why Luc Tuymans will never let dry out the verbal ether in which his paintings thrive. Presently, he is working on a series “Disneyworld”, where this time not the power of the Jesuits is at stake, but that of advertising. Perhaps some self-reflection would be nice….


Luc Tuymans’ painting is much like the relation between his mother in the resistance and his collaborating father: ambivalent and contradictory. The man would like to be a painter, does not believe in painting, dedicates himself to conceptualism, does so with paintings, draws his motifs from photos, represents them on the canvas, while overtly despising painting. No outright painter, hence, but rather a conceptualist/photographer plagued by homesickness for painting. His work is a half-hearted compromise between an endeavour to revive the image and the desire not to lose access to the temples of art where, ever since Marcel Duchamp, the mimetic taboo has been installed. There, he is all too welcome, precisely because of his flirting with painting, to alleviate the bad conscience of all those who had all too readily referred painting to the dustbin.

And, since he is not a genuine painter, it is somewhat out of place to assert that he would have put painting on the agenda again. Besides, painting has only been removed from specific agendas: those of that handful of curators that fly around the world only to meet each other everywhere. The irony of the whole story is that painting – or the image – has rather been put on the agenda again by the very black sheep that has initiated the anti-mimetic spiral in modern art: photography. From the eighties onwards, it began its unstoppable conquest of galleries and museum under applause of the public. Also photography had to pay its lip service to the there reigning anti-mimetic ideology (see Joel Peter Witkin and Andreas Gursky). But it is telling for the havoc that has meanwhile been wreaked, that it is not longer the painters that object to the ever more severe ban on the image. When the Action Painting threatened to reduce painting to a kind of expressive writing, it was Pop Art that tried to restore the image, and when Minimalism (see Judd) and Conceptual Art (see Weiner) got the upper hand again, it was the Neue Wilden that tried to reverse the tide. The advent of figures like Luc Tuymans, on the other hand, is only the epiphenomenon of a fare more strong countercurrent that was initiated by photography. The wait is only for a genuine revolution, that would set free painting and photography alike from the deadlock in which they have ended up after a meanwhile more than hundred years old trench war, far away from the image that they were supposed to produce.

There is not much to be expected from a Luc Tuymans here: if he would ever turn out to be the virtuoso painter he pretends to have been – which we only wish were true – he would only price himself out of his image and of the market.


It remains to be explained why Luc Tuymans has become so popular, not only with the art lovers, but also by an increasing number of disciples.

Wherein resides that secret charm?

The enthusiasm of the disciples is easy to understand. It is based on a misunderstanding. Ever since Luc Tuymans made painting respectable again, they can unabashedly resume painting, with our without the accompanying stories. Except that of the photos. For these release them of the difficult task ‘of selecting or constructing a motif’, as already Richter confessed. Next, there is the already mentioned ease of painting in a muted palette and the often cheap charms of wet-in-wet painting. That explains the fierceness with which the Tuymans-adepts denounce the Tuymans-clones: they would not have the same profundity. But the profundity that would discern Luc Tuymans from his clones, is only disclosed by the verbal comments. Without these comments, we are left with paintings like all the others, without the discerning profundity. Precisely because the Tuymans-clones need not bother about spinning stories around their pictures, their brush work is often far more interesting. With that breath down his neck, it becomes increasingly difficult for Luc Tuymans to persist in his ambivalent stance on painting. Which perhaps explains why he increasingly seems to prefer to paint without all that conceptual and photographic fuss.

The enthusiasm of the art lovers is based on the same misunderstanding. Precisely because what at first sight presents itself as a banal animal piece with a bunch of city pigeons, can be sold as a horrifying history painting that reveals ‘a chilling truth about humankind’, they can unabashedly enjoy the charms of painting, in the full conviction that they are reflecting on major world problems or on the essence of the image.


But there is more. Many a devotee of Luc Tuymans seems to be addicted to that nostalgic atmosphere that hangs around Luc Tuymans’ paintings – to the Hopper rather than the Richter in Luc Tuymans. The zooming away from what is really at stake – the regression from history painting to the cosiness of the lower genres – is only a first move that clears the way, not only for the seizure of power by the word, as described above, but in many cases also for another move, that threatens to remain unnoticed: the projection of private stories – the gas chamber as a metaphor for the children’s room, as we phrased it earlier. That explains Luc Tuymans predilection for themes of the past: they pave the way for a condensation with themes of infancy and youth. There are numerous examples, but exemplary is the image of Mwana Kitiko – ‘the beautiful boy’ – descending from the plane: poor King Bouduain, treated so stepmotherly by the successor of his beautiful Swedish mother Astrid and by a father who collaborated with the Germans, who, nearly adult, got the yoke of the Imperialist heritage of his forefather Leopold II around his neck! This story not only condenses the political themes of Imperialism and Nazism, it foremost contains all the elements for a secret identification of Luc Tuymans with this shy king. For, behind the now so self-confident Luc Tuymans, a rather shy boy goes hidden, like the one on the portrait from the series ”Les Revenants’, that could just as well have been a portrait of the young king Bouduain or of Luc Tuymans as a young boy. While the vague figures and hinted at themes on Luc Tuymans’ canvasses conjure up all kinds of reminiscences in the private unconscious, the bad conscience about that is alleviated in the conscious by the the big stories that are woven around the image. Thus, the onlookers can secretly indulge in self-complaint about the dawn of the prince in them – in the full conviction that they are dealing with World Problems.

The emphasis with which Luc Tuymans and his commentators contend that he would be a history painter, in combination with Luc Tuymans contention that he is not at all interested in the psychological portrait, and that he removes himself from the image altogether, reveals a second, more fundamental misunderstanding: Luc Tuymans’ history painting, reduced to genre painting, is in many cases only a travesty for the enactment of the infantile drama. There is nothing wrong the latter, even less with a deliberate combination of the personal and the social or political level, quite the contrary. Problematic is only the travesty, which does serve the purpose nor of the gas chamber, nor of the children’s room. That is already apparent from the remarkable lacunas in the subject matter handled, as pointed out in the beginning of this text.

Thus, it appears that Luc Tuymans is not only a misunderstanding in the sense that he would have put painting on the agenda again, but also in the sense that he is not at all dealing with the very subject matter that made him famous. Or to phrase it otherwise: Luc Tuymans is not only a crypto-Duchamp, but also a crypto-Hopper.

And in this double misunderstanding resides the double secret charm of Luc Tuymans: while they can keep up the appearance that they are reflecting on the essence of the image and the world problems, his devotees can not only unabashedly indulge in the forbidden charms of painting, but foremost indulge in a secret self complaint on the child in them that has been abused. By….

© Stefan Beyst, August 2007;

* See ‘some references’ below.
** SAUNDERS, Frances Stonor: ‘ Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War’, Granta Books, London


BERG, Stephan Ed.: ‘Luc Tuymans, the Arena’, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003
DEXTER, Emma en HEYNEN, Julian: ‘Luc Tuymans’, Tate, 2004.
LOOCK ulrich, ALIAGA Juan Vincente, SPECTOR, Nancy: ‘Luc Tuymans’, Phaidon, 1996.
SMEDLEY, Bunny: ‘Luc Tuymans at Tate Modern’
STORR, Robert,PIROTTE Philippe en HOET jan (Ed): ‘Mwana Kitoko, SMAK, Gent 2001?
VERMEIREN, Gerrit: ‘Luc Tuymans: Proper’, David Zwirner, 2005.
TUSA, John: Intervieuw with Luc Tuymans

Added July 2008:
RAUTERBERG, Hanno: ‘Schach gemalt, Schwach gedacht’ (24.03.2003)
RAUTERBERG, Hanno: ‘Was bedeuten diese Bilder’ (08.05.2008)
KOENOT, Jan: ‘De macht van de Jezuïeten en de onmacht van beelden’, Streven, November 2007.
LAUREYNS, Jeroen: ‘Geschilderde geruchten”, Knack, 6 juni 2007.




Luc Tuymans on His Tormented Relationship With Abstraction, His Views on Geopolitics, and Why His Catholic Upbringing “Doomed” Him

By Mat Smith

Nov. 25, 2015

Luc Tuymans on His Tormented Relationship With Abstraction, His Views on Geopolitics, and Why His Catholic Upbringing "Doomed" Him

The painter Luc Tuyman (photo by Waqas Farid)

Although he is an accomplished figurative painter, the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans has always had a strong abstract element in his work. His paintings, he likes to say, “border on the idea of abstraction.” Nonetheless, he has struggled with the artistic approach from time to time. Over the years he’s found abstraction “existential” and “tormented,” and has felt “suffocated” by it, as he said in his Phaidon monograph of 2003.

That has not stopped him from curating a show of abstract artists, “The Gap,” for the small London gallery Parasol Unit, on the borders of Shoreditch and Islington. The show, which runs through December 6, features 40 works by two generations of Belgian artists in a variety of media. It mingles contemporary abstractionists with historical practitioners of the art—a number of whom were exhibited in the show “G58,” held in the year and the town in which Tuymans was born (Mortsel, 1958).

“In that show you had some of the people I’m showing here. There were links with the Zero movement, and also with Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. They were up front with this type of avant-garde after the war,” he says. “Then it dispersed itself, the scene became isolated and all these links sort of disappeared.”

“The Gap” is his attempt to restore those ties between the Belgian avant-garde and its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, at a time when works by Fontana, Manzoni, Yves Klein, and others in their Italian and French circles are being pored over in academic circles and coveted by collectors. Below, Tuymans discusses the show, the history of postwar abstraction, and his upcoming retrospective in Doha with Phaidon digital editorial director Mat Smith.

Luc Tuymans credit Waqas FaridAll photos by Waqas Farid

Belgium has a fine history of figurative painters, yet here you are doing a show of abstraction.

Yeah, well just because I’m a figurative painter that doesn’t mean I don’t like abstraction. I’ve always been, quite adamantly, an admirer of Mondrian—who actually was a very good figurative painter to begin with. He was a good painter altogether from the start, a bit better than Malevich or Cézanne. And then I was always mad about the black works of Ad Reinhardt, which I still love, or the Seagram paintings of Rothko, of which you have beautiful pairings in the Tate Modern. And even my work, although figurative, sometimes borders on the idea of abstraction.

Many of the artists you’re showing are friends; your wife, Carla Arocha, is included as well. Is it okay to bring the personal into the curatorial process?

It’s probably not what curators do, but a curator that works in an art historical way would probably not do this show in a similar way. He would make different connections that would be more art historical and less visual. So, in that sense, I’m not a curator. It’s not that I’m competing with that or fighting or opposing that—because I think we need curators—but this is an artist-curated show so of course you will have that visual element.

What are the other elements can an artist-curator bring to the table, as opposed to a “professional” curator?

Well, the speed at which I can work is far greater than that of any curator. The very first show I curated was the “Trouble Spot” painting show in Antwerp in 2000. It was a far larger show, but there, if I needed a Robert Gober, I just phoned him. I had Michelangelo Pistoletto come over and install his work, and Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman too, for that matter. They’re colleagues and in that sense there’s a collegiality and so there’s a different understanding.

Early in your career, you turned your back on abstraction for a time and went into filmmaking.

Yeah, but my sense of abstraction was a little bit ridiculous in the sense that it was juvenile and colorful and gestural. Not that it didn’t show any talent—it probably did in terms of how the paint was applied and how I pushed it around­—but in a sense it didn’t really sufficiently cover what I was trying to do and therefore I just stopped it and went filming and the filming experience sort of influenced and informed the work that came after that.


Luc Tuymans credit Waqas Farid


Do you think Belgium’s abstractionist history been underrecognized—overlooked in favor of its contribution to Surrealism, and overshadowed by the history of abstraction in America?

Clearly so. At the end of the Second World War and at the beginning of the ’50s, the CIA went into a covert operation where they actually made American art. After they won the war they were on top of the world in every which way and they needed a cultural stance to accompany that, so they had this fantastic idea to do this covert operation. Of course Jackson Pollock and Rothko didn’t know that because they would never have agreed to go along with it. And ultimately it seemed to be quite an altruistic proposition in a way. I think it’s quite interesting that the same thing is happening in China. The Chinese have always taken culture as a quite important element in their society—the emperors even wrote poems.

When you think back to Abstract Expressionism you think of that defining moment, the aftermath of the Second World War. Is there an event or period that defines contemporary abstraction?

Well, there are several takes on this. If you go to South America you will see that the idea of modernism has had a completely different life. The element of the hard edge is a different signifier than it is in European or even American abstraction. I think also the empowering effect of Minimalism—which became a sort of new classicism within the realm of the art world, an art that was clearly meant to institutionalize itself—has, on the one hand, made a ring of protection. On the other hand it has also opened up a formal element which is, in my opinion, quite ambiguous.

I think most abstraction comes out of the element of dispersion, and this was already clear in 1925 when Mondrian made the remark that you could not perceive the world as a whole anymore—you could only see it in particles. Now if we think about the size of particles at the reactor in Cern, where they found the “God particle,” this is something that you can’t even see.

But to bring it back to one particular moment in time, in terms of abstraction now I would say that it is actually also has a lot to do with the digitalized world.

Your fellow artist and friend Ai Weiwei has embraced this world—perhaps for no other reason than because, until very recently, he was physically excluded from the real one by the Chinese government.

Yeah, his blog was already ongoing years ago when we met. I think that was a very self-evident thing to do in China because it’s the thing that’s very difficult to control—although they tried to control it. I know other artists who only make art in that medium and work in a way that is far more difficult to detect. In that way they are actually enemies of the state in China. That’s not what Ai does.

My proposition to him was that he could have his blog until he was 86 and become a clown or we could actually delve ourselves into the system and see what could be done.

You worked with Ai on “The State of Things,” a show of contemporary artists in Brussels and in Beijing in 2010, didn’t you?

Yes. I had two experiences there. The first one was an extremely brutal one, because they totally destroyed the entire concept of the show [a look at the traditional art of Flanders from the 15th century to the 20th century in collision with old Chinese masters]. I told myself this was not going to happen twice. So that’s why I also asked Ai to help me the next time because he has an element of power that I needed—not that he is a bully. His position is a position of power, any way you look at it, and that power is mainly lionized by the West, and the West lionizes that power without knowing how things really happen in China.

How do you think things happen there?

Either way you look at it, that centralized power has never changed. Even under Mao it was still centralized power—so everything can change with extreme speed in terms of decision-making—but it is so large and so complex that it can take time. Five years ago there was still an element of slapstick. You would see girls on the street with t-shirts saying “Sexy Girl” or “Diet Cock,” and now they know how to use the iPhone, they are learning English, so this society is in uproar. And they are extremely efficient.

Next month you’re showing new work as part of a retrospective in Doha which has the rather combative title of “Intolerance.”

Yes. In terms of the title there are two links. There is the link with [The Birth of a Nation director] D.W. Griffith. It was one of the biggest super-productions ever made in the realm of film, with real elephants and the whole orientalist, exotic whatever. He was quite an authoritarian filmmaker. And for the painting, which is far smaller than that film in terms of format, I just assembled all my mother’s candlestick holders—the most horrible candleholders from the ’70s—and put them on the chimney on the mantelpiece. If you look at all these mantelpieces, they look like altars in a sense. So I lined them all up and you get a sort of Giorgio Morandi-like feel. That painting is also called Intolerance [the title of Griffith’s follow-up film to The Birth of a Nation]. Coming from a Catholic upbringing doomed me.

The whole idea is to give them a show about something they don’t have, which is Western image-building. It’s a clear stance toward the ideas of power and religion and it’s also by far the biggest show of my work ever done—160 loans and there were six works made especially for the show. They’re called The Arena.

You’ve used this title before in a show and book called Arena, which center on the Holocaust and religious belief. Is there a link?

No. The interesting part about it is that this new group of work came about because the sheikh, on one of my preparatory visits for this show, said, “You’re some kind of a political artist. Why don’t you make something about the region?” That is quite difficult because it’s like opening a can of worms. So I said, “I don’t think I’m ready for that, so I will make something for the region.”

Two months later my wife and I were visiting friends in Madrid and I was of course again in the Prado and looking at the “Pinturas negras,” the black paintings of Goya, and some of them—levitating figures, one with a scissor and a sort of loop—struck me as having something to do with the region. Immediately that sort of triggered other imagery, namely of an old work which is going to be in Doha which is a mixed-media work. It’s actually a collage, painted with a screen in front of it. I liked the idea of the sort of “unsharpness” to it, and its depiction of the idea of violence. I also remembered that before closing that off I once took the screen away and filmed it, and out of those film stills I created a group of paintings also called The Arena, which is interesting because then the show goes nearly full circle.

Your work centers on photographic source material. What photos would we find on your phone—a pretty abused-looking iPhone 3—at the moment?

Well I don’t know if it will be interesting—wait a minute. [He flips to a photo of a painting in his studio.] This was taken before I left to come here. It’s called Murky Water. My next show, actually, is going to be about photographs that family members of mine took in Zundert, the village where my mother was born, which is also where van Gogh used to live as a kid, and it’s about flower parades and murky water. And the title of the show is called “Le Mépris,” or “Contempt.” It’ll happen in January [at David Zwirner] in New York.


Luc Tuymans interview: ‘You can feel a threat, and the threat is imminent’

Luc Tuymans is famous for painting washed-out images derived from photographs that skirt around incendiary issues such as colonialism and the Holocaust. He tells us about his new show, ‘The Shore’

Tuymans’s new exhibition includes portraits of Scottish enlightenment figures, a creepy film-still-inspired canvas depicting figures caught in a searchlight, and a disconcerting view from the artist’s bed. The show comes shortly after a court case in his native Belgium, in which Tuymans was found guilty of plagiarism in his use of a press photograph as source material for his 2011 painting ‘A Belgian Politician’. He tells us about his latest work and how he intends to fight against the ruling.

You’ve billed this as a show for London but there’s a strong Scottish element. Why?
‘Three portraits are derived from paintings by Henry Raeburn in the University of Edinburgh, where I’m going to show later in the year. The show is generated out of these portraits. It’s on two levels with two distinct atmospheres. Downstairs is about domesticity and status. Upstairs is more about the disquietness of things.’

What do you like about Raeburn?
‘I like the way that, once you’ve cropped his images and enlarged them they look contemporary. It has to do with his touch, the strokes he made.’

He was said to have a ‘square’ touch, which is something I recognise in your work.
‘Yes. I don’t like the lyricism of Rubens or that kind of thing. He’s a great artist. It’s just not my painting mode. That’s about the virtuoso. Some people are great at it, like Marlene Dumas. Edvard Munch was also great at it but a lot of people aren’t. For me it’s dangerous – it’s very scary to do that I think because it can work but it can also fail, radically.’’

Did you make the work during the Scottish referendum?
‘Yes. So, it’s intended to be a bit of a kick in the ass for people here. It would have been a disaster for Scotland and England to split, just as it would be for my country to split; it’s totally ridiculous.’

What’s going on in the large, dark painting ‘The Shore’?
‘I was looking for imagery, trying to find a war movie on YouTube and, by accident, I saw the beginning of a film from 1968, a British film called “A Twist of Sand”. The film is not very interesting but at the very beginning you see a succession of imagery. The painting is from the second scene, of people isolated within this black nothingness. That’s what the disquiet is all about, because you can feel a threat, and the threat is imminent. It instils a state of mind, something we’re actually living in a way now. If you see the film, in the third scene you hear the shots.’

You’ve said that this is one of your blackest paintings, why do you think it’s taken until now to make such a dark work?
‘Some things really have to incubate for a while. Goya, for example, is an artist who is still growing on me. I was in the Prado recently looking at his black paintings. But actually this painting isn’t black, because I don’t use black: it’s quite a warm colour.’

Do you expect people to get all your references?
‘The work isn’t really serial in terms of how you connect the dots. But it’s tailor made for this gallery because it’s a house. I like that element of domesticity, the human proportions. It’s not like you go into a gigantic space and you first see the space and then see the work, which is mostly the case now. Here there’s a sense of intimacy. In the portraits, you’ll recognise the colour of the skin, the blue that comes out, the temperature.’

How do you go about transforming a photograph or film still into a painting?
‘You can work from websites, you can work with Photoshop. I work with my iPhone. I don’t take Polaroids any more but I still draw, and all that comes together. I think it’s ridiculous to fight new media. You can’t win, so you just have to incorporate it into your toolbox and make a painting out of it, which is fantastic.’

You’ve used press photographs as source material for many years, were you surprised by the recent plagiarism case?
‘Not really. But this one painting is generating so much coverage, which is insane: it’s only one painting. It’s going to be a very famous painting.’

You’re not allowed to show the painting or make any more ‘reproductions.’ How does that make you feel?
‘It’s interesting because it has generated so many caricatures, it’s like going back to the nineteenth century, to Manet’s “Olympia”, so actually it is really funny. We’re going to fight this because what’s at stake is freedom of speech and freedom to criticise what’s in the world. If you’re no longer be able to do that how can you be a contemporary artist? It’s just not possible.



Luc Tuymans: dark visions and enlightenment

‘Europe’s most important, provocative history painter’ talks about the new works in his forthcoming London show

Luc Tuymans in his studio with ‘The Shore’

The sky is leaden, the rain relentless, the wind so fierce that the bridges over the Scheldt are closed on the day I make my way to see Luc Tuymans in Antwerp. Across a courtyard behind a 19th-century terrace, a glass door opens on an expansive, L-shaped, dirty-white studio. A pale wintry sheen flickers through ceiling windows but a large, long painting on the dominant wall is so black that it commands the space: menacing, heavy, driving out light and hope. Only close up do you see a row of tiny blotchy white figures, stranded in darkness. The picture is called “The Shore”.

Before it, in a torn low armchair, slumps the painter, dressed in black sweater and trousers, dragging on a cigarette, looking grey and exhausted. Tuymans, who has just finished the works for his first exhibition of 2015, opening at David Zwirner London this month, rises sluggishly as I admire his monumental night painting.

“For ages I tried to make a really dark painting,” he explains. “This is the moment before these people are shot.”

Opposite hangs a depiction of an expressionless Japanese man in a hat, painted in Tuymans’ familiar bleached-out palette. “That’s a cannibal,” says the artist with relish. “Issei Sagawa. He was a student at the Sorbonne, he lured a young Dutch woman to his apartment, cut her up and ate her. He was found in the Bois de Boulogne with two suitcases full of her remains and extradited to Japan. Now he roams free.”

‘After Raeburn: William Robertson’ (2014)

While making this “mask of terror”, Tuymans thought of Goya. “He is growing on me because he is one of the painters I don’t understand, the old master who was on the brink of being modern — and he was living alone because the Enlightenment stopped. I really like Velázquez but the positions are up and down: Velázquez looks down [as if to say], ‘You’re just shit.’ Goya’s paintings are insane: “The Execution” [“The Third of May”], that’s iconic, no one did that before. And the awkwardness — a still life, the eyes of a fish, so aggressive. The virtuosity, bravura, I was opposed to this for years: it was clearly anger management.”

Is it the same for you?

“I suppose so. You get old … ”

Tuymans is 56. Since 1986, when he depicted a bare, musty room and called it “Gas Chamber”, a response to taboos about Nazi collaboration in the Flanders of his youth, he has become Europe’s most important, provocative history painter. Aestheticising horror, he approaches his subjects obliquely, creating memorable images of injustice and terror as diverse and unexpected as “Leopard” (2000) — a luxurious animal skin used as a power symbol in the Congo, a former Belgian colony — and a five-metre colour-drained “Still Life” of apples, Tuymans’ wry 2002 memorial for the assault on western values of 9/11.

It seems to me that “The Shore” — its source image is “a very bad 1960s movie”, A Twist of Sand, with a colonial theme — and “Issei Sagawa”, fraught with ambivalence and threat, are about current fears of otherness and violence coming from dark, premodern cultures. The Enlightenment theme is underlined in London’s forthcoming show by Tuyman’s engagement with Goya’s contemporary, the Scottish portraitist Henry Raeburn.

I still indulge in the perversity of painting, which remains interesting

Aged 16, Tuymans encountered, in Ghent, Raeburn’s portrait of Alexander Edgar, Scottish landowner and Jamaican plantation owner, and “what shocked me then and still does is the blue of the eyeballs”. Last summer, during the build-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, Tuymans stayed in Edinburgh and revisited Raeburn to make paintings that “give the idea that there’s an element of disruption to the isle”.

Tuymans always uses photographic or film found images; this time he created his own, shooting Raeburn’s portraits with his iPhone, printing them out, photographing them again until “you get a real face that doesn’t feel of that time”.

In Tuymans’ faux-digitised close-up renderings, the cold blue eyeballs are creepily echoed in a luminous blue back-glow, evocative of computer or phone screens, which “has to do with the printing. What is weird is, once you blow them up, you get something contemporary. Raeburn’s factual, dry, persistent strokes are very decisive and, therefore, very modern: there’s no Gainsbooooorough” — Tuymans rolls the syllables dismissively — “going on. Raeburn is quite Calvinist, in the element of reduction: such precision, harshness, unforgivingness.”

We tour his Raeburn portraits: university rector, mathematician, scientist. Tuymans says they “create a sort of presence of social structures of power. They are clearly educated people: the gaze of this one is self-indulgent, he clearly didn’t have a problem with self-esteem, he’s stern, aware of his status. This one’s more romantic, there’s the ego, megalomania. They’re all Scottish, so there’s the idea of splendid isolation, the element of class. And then I painted tea at the Balmoral Hotel” — he indicates a queasy painting called “Cloud” — “that big floating croissant: that is the disgust we have for the class society!”

‘Wallpaper’ (2014)

These go on show in Zwirner’s elegant 18th-century townhouse gallery along with other works of “suffocating domesticity”, strange back-lit effects and conceptual credentials, including a depiction of a fake orange chimney based on “an installation shot of a Mike Kelley installation of a fireplace painted on a cardboard box”, and “Diorama”, a peephole landscape close-up centred on “a hole which is not a hole, a suggestion of [Marcel Duchamp’s] ‘Etant Donnés’: I really like Duchamp by the way.”

Distrust of the image underpins Tuymans’ entire oeuvre but in these new works he builds that questioning for the first time into rich, painterly brushwork, with a paradox that the light from the internet and iPhone images returns as layers of oil on canvas, asserting the power of paint. Is Tuymans ultimately a northern European realist?

“Realism, modernism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism: that is a discourse for people who have no visual sense. I mean, these people have to get by. I still indulge in the perversity of painting, which remains interesting.

“Painting is about time. It’s belated time. The image can linger for decades before it comes out. Then there’s the physical trace, stalling, freezing things. It works with time, through time. Belgian art is all about realism. There’s nothing as horrid and strong as Van Eyck: the first secular artist, he got away from Christianity, opened it up in scientific way. His motto was, ‘If I can’, which means I’m high on humility but I have great ambition.

“That’s very true to the region, it’s a back-up game, we’re over-run by so many foreign powers that we have to be opportunistic to survive. I can’t get a show in Paris, because I’m le petit Belge, the infectious type. The Parisians don’t understand what globalisation is about. People ask me, ‘Why do you paint?’ I reply, ‘I’m not fucking naive.’ Painting is the oldest form of conceptual artmaking, it goes from the caves to here. Since it’s now the loop perceived as not central, in the periphery, it’s the more powerful.”

‘Luc Tuymans, The Shore’, David Zwirner, London, January 30-April 2 davidzwirner.com




Luc Tuymans. Photo: Louise Mertens

Art is Created from Reality. Interview with painter LucTuymans

Produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation 

Interviewed by Elīna Čivle-Üye

Antwerp-based painter Luc Tuymans (1958) belongs to the circle knows as “the masters of contemporary art”. His works – the characteristic features of which are relationships between pale, almost smeared paints and laconicism – can be found in the collections of the most noteworthy museums and institutions, as well as in famous private collections. Tuymans’ art is liked by both curators of prestigious exhibitions and so-called “A-class” gallerists. It is a source of inspiration and a touchstone for numerous young, and not-so-young, artists. And Tuymans is also loved by the public, his works almost constantly available for viewing in both solo shows and group shows being held the world over. And there’s more – in the art world, Tuymans himself is also a highly regarded curator (he studied art history at Brussels’ Vrije Universiteit in the mid-80s).

Luc Tuymans’ creative biography contains practically all of the “medals” of the art world: the Venice Biennale (2001); Documenta (2002); a solo show at Tate Modern (2004); and a retrospective that started its journey in 2011, at the prestigious BOZAR in Brussels, and then continued through several cities in the US. Having attracted numbers usually associated with rock festivals – 90,000 visitors, it completely turned on its head the 21st century’s mistaken declaration of painting being a “dead medium”.

At the beginning of August, a retrospective of the works of the famous Italian modernist Giorgio Morandi opened at BOZAR (ongoing through 22 September), with Luc Tuymans as invited guest artist. The dialog between Morandi and Tuymans draws the viewers into an exciting discussion on influences and their role in the creative work of an artist.

Arterritory.com interviewed the artist in his studio, which is located on the first floor of a brick building in a slightly shabby corner of Antwerp. Actually, the buildings on Korte Schipperskapelstraat are either undergoing renovations, or they’re being decimated – there are pieces of scaffolding here and there, but then there’s a window that looks as if it was smashed just last night. Right around the corner is Antwerp’s red-light district – Schipperskwartier, with its piquant “window dressings”.

We both are sitting at the side of a long, white table. The studio’s wide windows and walls are also white in shade. It seems as if the only bright accent in the room is the colorfully red packet of Marlboroughs next to Mr. Tuymans. It is continually being emptied – the last ember of one cigarette serving as the light for the next one, the stream of smoke cut-off for not even a moment.

I don’t get to see the artist’s works in the holiest of holies itself. We meet in the office part of the studio, and as I soon find out, the artist doesn’t like to find himself in close quarters with his finished pieces. Tuymans answers the questions fully and deeply. When he listens, it seems as if he’s judging all that was left unsaid…

You have never left Belgium. In addition, you’ve practically spent the whole of your life in your hometown. Famous artists usually head to London, New York…

First of all, I was born here and am somehow linked to this place. Secondly, it’s really great to work in a small city! Of course, I could live in New York, Berlin or Paris, but famous artists have the bad luck that someone always needs something from them. And Belgians are a reserved people. Even though they are proud of me, they’re not obtrusive; that’s why I can feel unbothered here.

I do travel for five months of the year. Belgium is a very small and central country. Brussels, which is just a 20-minute drive from here, is the capital of Europe, and from there I can fly to anywhere in the world. We’re close to the Netherlands, Germany, France…

Antwerp itself is a lively and important city for artists and for art itself. That’s the way it’s always been. Don’t forget that already back in the 17th century, Antwerp’s harbor was one of the largest in Europe. When Bruges lost its importance, many artists headed here.

How would you comment on today’s art scene in Antwerp?

Jan Fabre still lives and works in Antwerp, as does German-born Kati Heck, who’s lived and worked here for a long time; and there are many, many more.

The creative sphere in Antwerp has always been, and still is, lively. That includes the music scene – with the rock-group dEUS and Tom Barman at the forefront. It’s own kind of “underground” branch of artists is also active here. Like in any small city, everybody knows each other and they work together – they create art, put out their own musical recordings, hold parties. It’s a group of young people, around 30 years old, and their works can also be seen in the collection of Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MuHKA).

I must say, though, that right now the Museum of Contemporary Art isn’t functioning the way it should, and many artists are forced to go to Brussels. It’s a moment of transition right now. It’s connected to the political climate, in large part – the activities of Belgium’s Flemish nationalist party, which has now taken the reigns of government in Antwerp as well.

Brussels’ Center for Sculpture (BOZAR) is currently showing a retrospective of the Italian modernist Giorgio Morandi, in which your paintings have also been included. There was a discussion held in connection with the exhibition – “Talking about Giorgio Morandi”. What did you speak about, and what does Morandi’s art mean to you, personally?

This retrospective has been curated by an expert on Morandi – the Italian curator Maria Cristina Bandera. Among other things, the exhibition shows that even though Morandi was seen to be a master of still-lifes, he didn’t paint only those. Still-lifes are only a part of the artist’s work. He also painted self-portraits and landscapes. This exhibition reveals this diversity for the first time, allowing people to observe his evolution.

Also represented in the exhibition is Morandi’s phase of metaphysical painting (Pittura Metafisica, 1918-1922), as is his joining of the German New Objectivity Movement (Neue Sachlichkeit) between both World Wars, which he also lived through.

A huge question mark appears here – what was Morandi’s position in relation to the fascist regime in Italy? It’s always been presumed that he was sympathetic to it, but that is not completely clear. More likely, it could have been a form of political escapism.

That was one of the subjects we discussed.

Since Morandi is still able to influence today’s artists, including me, Mrs. Bandera asked me to share five of my works in which a link to Morandi’s works could be seen. And the writer Joost Zwagerman has written a lot about Morandi. So, that’s how we brought Morandi’s idea about silence to the forefront. What did it look like in his works? And, of course, about Morandi’s paintings themselves – he practiced a very enigmatic form of painting.

Luc Tuymans. Still Life. 2002

For you, contemporary art is mainly a form of expression in which to reveal the most salient occurrences in contemporary life. An exception is your latching on to a more meditative theme, in which you created your famous “Still Life” (2002). What was the motivation behind creating this piece?

Still Life (2002) came about shortly after the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. My wife and I were in New York at the time – we were really there and we experienced that atmosphere. I saw how the planes hit the Towers from all possible points of view.

The documenta exhibition was nearing, and I started to think about how I could make an answer to this terrible thing – what is it that I should paint right now… I came up with an idea that was completely opposite to the socio-politically acute events of 11 September, and to what was expected of me in the exhibition. I chose to go the way of something totally idyllic, something calming, something that didn’t have the slightest thing to do with the Twin Towers. The painting is actually quite ironic. It kind of imitates Paul Cezanne’s work, and modernism, as such. Concurrently, it is my own still-life, and as everyone knows – in the hierarchy of painting genres, still-lifes are on the lowest rung. In response to this, I created this painting in a gigantic format (347 x 500 cm). It’s impossible not to notice it; it’s not even possible to take it all in.

Are there other still-lifes among your creative works?

Well, maybe kitchen of a Los Angeles serial killer could be seen as a still-life. Intolerance (1993), which is in the Morandi exhibition right now, could also be a still-life.

And even if they are still-lifes, they contain a slew of iconic, meaningful and ambiguous elements. In that way, I differ from Morandi.

You, as an artist, pay a lot of attention to other artists. You are also an experienced curator. What is it that links you to other artists?

I’ve curated eight exhibitions in total. But I’d like to say that none of them were done at my own initiative. People asked me to do it. The latest and largest project was “Luc Tuymans: A Vision of Central Europe. The Reality of the Lowest Rank” – an exhibition in Bruges that I was asked to do by the festival organizers of the Brugge Centraal. It was a parade of Eastern and Central European art – from WWII to the modern day. Along with the Polish artists Miroslaw Balka and Pawel Althamer, American artists were also shown – Andy Warhol, the son of Slovak immigrants, and the artist Alex Katz, who is of Russian-Jewish ancestry.

For me, it’s interesting in the sense that it is a possibility to work with art that I haven’t created myself. The opportunity to work with notable artists who are still alive, and whom I know personally, is exciting.

When curating, if I speak as an artist to another artist, it’s possible to get the project moving forward much faster than a professional curator could. If the artist in question is even interested in the project, than a much higher return can be expected from him in terms of cooperation – that’s on the level of solidarity among colleagues.

The reason why I involve myself in these sorts of projects is also due to my observation that, in a large number of exhibitions that have been organized by curators, one can sense the one and the same discourse – which seems to have been pounded into all of the curators during their study years. A kind of pseudo-intellectualism. The exhibitions they make are more documentary than visual. And in terms of curating exhibitions which are based on a look back into art history, they are often created from only the visual viewpoint – not from the artistic viewpoint.

You are well-informed about what’s going on. But there are artists who maintain that they never watch TV and that they don’t go to the shows of other artists – so that they don’t pollute themselves and they can retain the ability to think only about their own ideas. Do you look upon them as real representatives of contemporary art?

I think that’s foolish. It’s the same as saying that you’re against the new mediums, and that you will fight them. That’s impossible!

I think that you have to include these opportunities and knowledge in your arsenal of instruments.

And then there’s always been this foolish discourse on authenticity. In my case, it’s about how I use the new mediums in my works… Stupid!

We can paint by following a certain movement, we can also develop our individual style – which, in my opinion, is rather dangerous – but the most important thing is the meaning that we create in our works. Everyone can use the possibilities offered by today’s technologies to create their own images and meanings. Because, in my opinion, art cannot be created from art. It is created from reality. The reality in which we live, the reality that has been created by history. They are connected.

If people are talking about Belgium and they’re thinking about art, they always think about James Ensor and his grotesques, and René Magritte as a surrealist. But Ensor wasn’t a master of grotesques, and Magrite wasn’t a surrealist. They were realists.

People forget that realism has had a special place in Belgian art history since the time of this region’s most influential artist – Jan van Eyck. He was the first one who finally broke away from the exact copying of images and the religious dogmas of the Middle Ages. He created realism from reality, by portraying the truth.

This country has been under the rule of so many foreign powers that there has never been room for romanticism here.

And that only strengthens my belief that art is created from reality, from what you experience and see.

Sometimes, one needs quite a bit of knowledge and background information to understand your works. What if your audience isn’t in possession of this?

When I began to show publicly, I thought that it was important to supply the audience with informational materials. The journalists were especially happy about this, since then they always knew what to write about. Until it went so far that people began to think: if Mr. Tuymans hasn’t spoken about this piece, then you can’t even look at it.

Now I am certain that it isn’t necessary to know everything – you just have to look. I don’t want to encourage everybody to see the same things that I have seen, what was important to me. A work must be multi-layered, it must have room for people’s interpretations. And the piece’s visual aspect must come first.

When the painting “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man”, which was a portrait of Patrice Lumumba, was first exhibited in New York, African-American society thought that it was a portrait of Malcolm X – a passionate defender of minority rights in America. But when the Guggenheim was interested in acquiring the piece, they wrote in their e-mail that they very much like the work with the man in the white uniform – Augusto Pinochet… In Belgium, everyone knew who the person in the painting was.

There was a sort of link between Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba – they were both linked by power, which was symbolized by a uniform, they were both black, both were murdered.

I’m happy that the painting has made people think on an individual level, instead of pointing out what is what.

I also don’t completely believe that it is possible to create universal images. Perhaps Morandi tried to do that, but I don’t think that’s possible.

When I created the portrait of Condoleeza Rice (she was still the Secretary of State at the time), people interpreted it as my critique of the Bush administration. From my viewpoint, that’s what it was, but on the other hand: we’re talking about a fascinating woman  – the first African-American Secretary of State – a strong, intelligent persona. While some interpreted this portrait as a critique, others saw it as an iconic tribute to Rice – similar to Warhol’s Marylin Monroe.

Luc Tuymans. The Secretary of State. 2005

How do you, yourself, feel in front of your works?

All of my pieces are created in one day – I paint fast; that necessitates concentration. When the piece is done, and I feel that it is has been done successfully, I go on to the next one. But before I begin to paint something, there’s a long and quite painful thought process – until I arrive at the point where I know what I want to paint and how. My works include both brain- and hand-intelligence.

I don’t have a single piece of mine in my house – I couldn’t stand it. If I see my work in a museum collection, among the works of others – fine; but if I’m in the dining room of a collector, and my painting is the only one on the wall – I will turn my back to it. Because I always see mistakes.

Is it easy to speak about your work? And does the telling change every time, depending on who is listening?

I am not my art work. What I say is only that what I say. Those are two different things.

Does being a famous artist mean that people really understand your art?

No, not at all. And overall – there are so many people who buy art for the wrong reasons. But contemporary art now is so expensive that only a select few can afford to acquire it.

Another important thing that I’m trying to work on with my dealers – Frank Demaegd, with whom I’ve worked for 27 years in Antwerp, David Zwirner, with whom I’ve worked for 20 years in the US, and Kiyoshi Wako, with whom I’ve worked for 17 years in Tokyo – we try to hinder and discourage profiteering in the art market by buying back pieces from auction houses and controlling prices that are inappropriate for their quality. It is important to steer pieces towards collections in public museums or fund-collections. In America, there are eleven museums who have from one to three of my works, and who travel across the globe with them.

Of course, I work with private collectors, but I always follow along to make sure that they are trustworthy. That’s why I don’t like to sell to Russian collectors, and the same goes for the Chinese. There’s always something to think about – will there or won’t there be a speculative maneuver again…

Luc Tuymans. Gaskamer. 1986

What, in your opinion, are the mutual responsibilities of the artist and the gallerist?

It’s difficult to follow everything that’s going on in the art market. That’s why I need someone trustworthy – a consultant from the same Russia or China – who can help me find the path to the right people, to those who are really interested in art.

That’s why an artist needs dealers and gallerists, because it’s not possible for him to control everything. And I’ve been lucky with having trustworthy people in my longterm cooperations, who not only sell my work, but also protect it. There are people who don’t do this, and who only do cold-blooded buying and selling.

The art world underwent a stark change when the art market – as we know it now – was established in the mid-80s in New York, which was flooded with Japanese yen at the time. The bubble burst, of course, but the machinery continued to churn on. The new generation of artists joined in, and now this system has become a gigantic business. Never has so much money been spent on art as in the last 15-20 years.

The art market is similar to the diamond market – they are both largely based on trust. If you loose it once by doing something wrong – you’re out of the game. This same principle applies to the art market, even though it’s full of speculators. Because actually, you’re buying and selling air – symbolic capital. A diamond is also judged by such qualities as clarity, color and cut – it’s value and worth is in the finishing/creative process.

How do you see the future of the art market?

If people continue to invest at the same rate as now, then everything will go on. Interestingly enough, even though the world is on the brink of a gigantic economic crisis, the art market certainly isn’t.

Even though there’s constant talk that painting is a dead medium…

I think that this talk has been borne from misunderstanding. From the mistaken interpretation of some critics’ writings.

When we talk about progress, we’re talking about new and newer mediums, which can make it seem as if the oldest of them has died – but that’s not true. We use a medium because of the medium – because of its characteristics. In order to create meaning. If a medium is used correctly – everything is alright. Even if it’s the same painting. In this case, painting can still create meanings.

After touring in several American cities, my first retrospective in Belgium, in cooperation with the Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts, was held in the BOZAR center two years ago. It drew 90,000 people. The exhibition of the German Renaissance-era painter Lucas Cranach, in this same venue, drew 80,000 people. This means that the interest in painting is marked.

Entitled, Allo!, the exhibition of  Luc Tuymans was displayed at David Zwirner’s brand new Mayfair gallery, opened  last autumn in London. This was Tuymans’s first solo show in London since his 2004 retrospective at Tate Modern. Photo: Stephen White; David Zwirner, London

Luc Tuymans, Allo! I, 2012, Oil on canvas, 133.7 x 182.6 cm, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York London

You did leave painting, once. You turned to film. But then you returned to painting…

In the first half of the 80s, I felt as if I were working too existentially in painting, too personally, and it was becoming suffocating. I took a break. By chance, my friend showed me a Super 8mm camera, and I began to film. Indirectly, this experience changed the way that I painted when I returned to it. Very literally – through the camera lens.

How do you comment on the phenomenon when an artist becomes the central persona of an art- manufacturing plant – in which his next “masterpiece” is being created?

I do everything myself.  I don’t have any assistants. This isn’t the kind of art that Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst make. And that isn’t the kind of art that I’d want to create. I don’t want to criticize – it’s just not the way that I work. For me, painting is a very physically present activity; it belongs to a person.

But some art works are so technically complex that their realization requires the involvement of several people. Take, for example, my friend, the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami – I think he works differently than Koons or Hirst. About 250 people work for him. Murakami’s hand-drawn sketches are digitally remastered, and then the printed material is silk-screened onto fabric. One image uses 500 screenings, and that’s a very technical process. At first, it may seem like very superficial work, but it’s not – in Murakami’s case, his work is truly a passive-aggressive attack on the West. Unhealed war wounds.

The idea of an art factory was started by Andy Warhol in the 60s and 70s. But if we look even further into art history – Rubens also had apprentices.

Overall, parallels can be drawn between the modern-day art world and that of the Renaissance – Titian was a millionaire, Michelangelo left riches behind, and Da Vinci is seen to be one of the founders of capitalism. In their time, society had influential people who wanted to acquire art with money, and artists who wanted to acquire riches with their work.

It was only in the 19th century that the idea of a lonely and poor artist arose.

Then there were all those people who played that “bohemian shit”… Yes, they came from good families and could afford to do it. Duchamp came from the bourgeoisie, and he could afford to play around his whole life long.

The way an artist has worked notwithstanding – either as a craftsman or as a businessman – he is morally responsible for his work. Both during his life, and after it. He is the one who thought it up and whose thought was realized, and he retains the responsibility for it.

I think that being an artist is also a profession. It is not only a hobby and a dream, and a thing that one likes to do. Today, the creation of art is a complex process that embodies organization – transportation, preparing lectures, printing catalogs. We do all of that here, in my office – a team of several people. Museums should be doing that, but they don’t.

Luc Tuymans in his studio. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York London



Flemish Master

A Luc Tuymans retrospective.

The Belgian Luc Tuymans is the most challenging painter in the recent history of the art, if recent painting can still be said to have a history, and not just a roll call. A retrospective of the fifty-one-year-old artist at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio (it will travel to San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and Brussels), invites a verdict. Mine is a thumbs-up. Tuymans’s thinly brushed, drab-looking (but sneakily lovely) canvases, usually based on banal photographic images with wispy political associations, do two big things at once. First, they dramatize the fallen state of painting since the nineteen-sixties, when Andy Warhol merged it with mechanical reproduction, and Minimalism petrified it with a basilisk stare. Not for Tuymans the tragic pathos of the previously preëminent Gerhard Richter, whose several styles, alternately realist and abstract, have acknowledged the collapse of any coherent tradition in painting, but have done so with defiant bravura, clinging to the old, grand manners. Tuymans’s grayish daubs announce that the war against mass media and Minimalist skepticism is truly over, because it’s truly lost. Second, Tuymans discovers in the very humiliation of the medium a vitality as surprising as a rosebush on the moon. He does so with nothing-to-lose audacity, in terms of subject matter. If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things. He works in thematic series, whose topics have included the Holocaust, disease, Flemish nationalism, Belgian colonialism, post-9/11 America, and the mystique of Walt Disney. It’s hard to tell how invested he is in his subjects, but he is plainly fascinated by the power of images to roil minds and hearts.

One of Tuymans’s first definitive works, from 1986, is a small painting of the gas chamber at Dachau, copied from a watercolor he made at the site. Its perfunctory splotches and smears, on a yellowish ground, indicate the wide door, the fake showerheads, and the floor drain in the awful room. Whatever feelings and thoughts you have about it are only your own. Tuymans leaves you alone with them, and with the innate sensuousness and sensitivity—the physical appeal to the imagination—of paint on canvas. The first-person touch of his brush is the work’s sole, and frail, emotional anchor. By being detached, it attains an utterly unsentimental, anti-rhetorical poise that would seem scarcely possible in art that touches on atrocity. I have wondered, in front of paintings by Tuymans, why I was looking at anything apparently so desultory. Minutes later, I have found myself still wondering, unable to tear myself away from a delicate engagement that mysteriously feels as necessary as a raft in a flood. The flood is the noise of the world. The work is perfectly silent.

Tuymans is Flemish, a native and lifelong resident of Antwerp, in the region that speaks a dialect of Dutch and is congenitally at odds with the Francophone south of Belgium. He studied art there and in Brussels. He identifies with the historical bounty of Flemish painting. (Tuymans opined in a recent interview with Artnet.com that since Jan van Eyck promulgated the use of oil paints and the aesthetics of methodical realism, nearly six centuries ago, all painters, himself included, have been “dilettantes”—a reckless enough sally, but I will look anew at the master of the “Arnolfini Wedding.”) After struggling with an early style of aggressively crude portraiture, Tuymans quit painting for several years in the early nineteen-eighties to pursue filmmaking, with a Super 8 camera and a spirit so obsessively experimental that only one finished work resulted. (A video monitor in the show samples scattershot bits and pieces of film.)

He resumed painting in 1985, with cinematic lessons learned. His ways of framing images within his series—long shots, establishing shots, closeups—evoke the movies, although with a softly blurry look suggestive less of film stills than of videotape paused on a primitive VCR. In that year, burstingly ambitious, he sent out a thousand invitations to his first solo show, which was installed for one day in the swimming pool of a derelict luxury hotel in the seaside resort town of Ostend (James Ensor’s home town). Nobody showed up. The impressive failure pays witness to Tuymans’s independence of the Belgian and, for that matter, the international art world of the time, when swaggering Neo-Expressionism still set the pace for new painting.

Hunger for notice may have motivated Tuymans’s Holocaust-related works, including a sketchy painting of a modernistic structure and the words “our new quarters.” (It is from a postcard issued to inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a fraudulent showplace that was, in truth, a way station to Auschwitz.) His far less sensational works since then prove that he would rather whisper than shout, though always in the vicinity of raw nerves. Two series touching on Belgian politics—“The Flag,” mocking a recurrence of separatist agitation in Flanders, and “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man,” alluding to the dénouement of colonialism in the Congo—are exotic to my mind. But then Tuymans makes me feel exotic to myself, as an American, with “Proper” (2005), a suite responding to this country in the era of George W. Bush. Clouds of dust (“Demolition”) and a naggingly familiar face (“The Nose”) evoke, without representing, the towers’ fall and Osama bin Laden. Ballroom dancers in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol are viewed from above. A dinner table is set with genteel precision. Condoleezza Rice squints from a gorgeously painted closeup, “The Secretary of State.” I’ve looked long and hard at this last painting, testing one interpretation after another; each seems plausible at first, then not quite right. Does Tuymans like Rice or not? Does her appearance “stand for” something? Many things? Nothing? The painting both demands and rejects answers. I suspect that it’s a masterpiece but cede the judgment to a less politically distracted posterity.


A tireless exegete of his own work, Tuymans articulates a modern tradition that gives equal weight to the dazed German Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and the wide-awake Parisian modernity of Manet—bridging a fault line that still divides the soul of Western taste. He is Manet-like in his smart synopsis of borrowed images. His smoldering colors are Friedrichian: pale blue-greens, wan oranges, dusty lavender, violet, muddy vermillion. There are no true grays, because he eschews black for a blackish mix of reddish brown and emerald green. He claims to make each of his works, albeit after lengthy rumination, in a single day—sometimes a very long day—painting wet-in-wet with dark-over-light colors, forming the image as he goes. He insists that this is so, even in the case of “Turtle” (2007), an immense picture, about twelve feet high by seventeen feet long, from a photo of a Disneyland parade float. He compares his method to the self-developing of Polaroids. He told Artnet that in his initial hours of work, “until I get to the middle of the process—it’s horrific. It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” Now, that—uncertain ends, confident means—is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know. It illuminates and justifies Tuymans’s eccentric work rule, with its distant redolence of Jackson Pollock’s odd decision to paint in the air above a canvas. The unities of form and feeling in Tuymans’s work may be shallow—as, under time pressure, he seizes upon whatever resolution of a picture first beckons. But the effect is thrillingly open-ended, as if the work were still in the act of coming to its point, dragooning the eyes and the minds of viewers to that enterprise.

Tuymans is vastly influential among younger painters, but none have gone much beyond imitating his look of laconic dash and sang-froid. The next painter who greatly matters may or may not recall him in style but will—must—take a particular attitude toward him. Of course, such a painter might not appear. Tuymans’s feat may prove hybrid, unable to propagate. Meanwhile, he is not apt to become popular. There is an air of penitent mortification about his work, which frustrates even as it arouses our childish yen to be told exciting stories. He conveys a very dim view of the world today and scant trust in our capacity to cope with it. But, if you like painting enough, you will gamely tolerate the bitter flavor of this artist’s amazingly intoxicating brew.


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