Exhibit of the week: Luc Tuymans

The Belgian artist’s first American survey brings together more than 70 works from the 1980s to the present.

Wexner Center for the Arts

Columbus, Ohio

Through Jan. 3, 2010

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Luc Tuymans may be “the most influential contemporary painter of the moment,” said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. Walk through any hip New York gallery, and you’ll likely encounter “an imitation Tuymans.” But Ohio’s Wexner Center has the real thing. Tuymans’ first American survey brings together more than 70 of the Belgian artist’s works from the 1980s to the present. His coolly dispassionate paintings appropriate images from television, film, and other media, all rendered in “the near-monochromatic palette of old newsprint.” But Tuymans is less a pop artist than a postmodern “history painter.” Unafraid to tackle such topics as the Holocaust, the bloody history of the Belgian Congo, or the war in Iraq, he has an “ethereal way with heavy subjects.”

Somehow Tuymans’ paintings combine ripped-from-the headlines immediacy with a “quiet, contemplative simplicity,” said Christopher A. Yates in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. Often he trains his eye on seemingly mundane objects, carefully stripped from a chilling original context. Gaskamer (Gas Chamber) and Our New Quarters depict unassuming structures that turn out to be parts of German concentration camps, and thus “underscore how a seemingly innocuous location can become a place of horrors.” In a few notable cases, Tuymans makes actual historical figures his subject. Der Architekt (the Architect) depicts Hitler’s counselor and master planner, Albert Speer, jauntily perched on skis. The Secretary of State zooms in on “the enigmatic gaze” of Condoleezza Rice. W shows Walt Disney in front of plans for a futuristic community. “The metaphoric connection to President George W. Bush’s plans for Baghdad, Iraq, is clear.”

But this “intensely political painter” doesn’t limit himself to easy targets, said Steven Litt in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. His most searing work “explores reverberations of Belgium’s colonial rule” in Africa, including the overthrow of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. A 2001 series called “Mwana Kitoko” (Beautiful White Man) takes its name from the striking painting at its center—“a strangely blurred image of a white man in a blazingly white military uniform descending from an airplane to a Third World tarmac.” Based on documentary footage from 1955, it has a cool color scheme and “blasé brushwork” that seem to encapsulate the impersonal quality of so much institutionalized, 20th-century evil. “Painted with deadpan detachment, the work manages to be both utterly banal and a searing historical indictment.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.