After the huge success of the retrospective that travelled to four major American museums last year, it might seem somewhat strange that a Belgian institution is presenting a major retrospective of work by Luc Tuymans only for the first time. Perhaps even more strange is that the show ‘Luc Tuymans – A Retrospective’ that opened at Bozar in Brussels is, in fact, the American show of the country’s most important contemporary artist.
Organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, it was hardly surprising that the American curators of the exhibition, Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth, were delighted at the eager reception of the show by the discerning Brussels audience at the vernissage. Speaking to the invited guests during the opening formalities, one of the points that they raised was the special treat offered by this outing of the show at Bozar where Horta’s grand architecture with its glass ceilings enables the some 75 works offering a 30-year chronological overview to be viewed in daylight.
This is only an additional benefit: for an audience on this side of the Atlantic, the Bozar manifestation will be the only European opportunity to see this most comprehensive of exhibitions of work by, quoting one of the exhibition’s curators, ‘the most important painter of today’.
Luc Tuymans has been called ‘post-modernism’s history painter’ and this exhibition makes the validity of the description adequately clear. Moving from the more overt formal painterly concerns of the earlier works, the circuit through the numerous elegant Art Deco rooms of Bozar, segues effortlessly into the oeuvre and concerns with which Tuymans is now so closely associated. Momentous historical events and political watersheds seep into the representational works that reference the genocides and Second World War of the mid-twentieth century, colonialism, 9/11 and the contemporary culture of surveillance, amongst other topics. Abstract ideas such as nationalism, corruption, violence or perception manifest themselves in apparently identifiable images in which the level of opacity at their heart, when they stop our prying gaze’s assumption of a simple reading, sometimes arrives as a dull shock.
Steadily hung in the series of interconnecting exhibition halls with ample space to breathe, each room effectively becomes a complete discussion of its own that flows neatly into the next like a visual stream of consciousness, a philosophical discussion triggered by and building upon the preceding works. This might be expected: a number of the individual rooms are effectively reconstructions of key solo exhibitions from different periods of Tuymans’ career as a painter. And, if the curatorial structure facilitates a comprehension of the progression of ideas and preoccupations, it also elucidates exactly how Luc Tuymans has technically engaged with his subject matter. For example, the signature cropping of images and archival or cinematic suggestion of many of the more immediately representational works that follows on from the starker approach of the earlier years somehow inform the more fragmentary and looser feeling to paintings of more recent years in which the influence of Impressionism really comes to the fore.
In a timely crossover that sees a short intersection between the opening of this substantial retrospective in Brussels and Tuymans’ solo exhibition at Zeno X, his gallery in Antwerp, those who are quick and smart enough to make it to both will readily make the connection. In the show at Zeno X, the heritage of Impressionism and strong linear constructions that feel almost like a knowing nod to movements such as Color Field Painting are yet another fresh and unexpected development. No mistake, the distinctive and recognisable hand of Tuymans is in every one of these new works. But, as is so clearly evident in the retrospective at Bozar, he seldom feels the need to repeat a point already made.