With his new exhibition ‘Eternity’, Luc Tuymans presents a colorful but gloomy picture of society in David Zwirner’s Paris gallery. His new paintings are charming but full of barbs.
Luc Tuymans, in a black suit, smokes a cigarette at the entrance to the gallery. “Go and see, I’m there,” he says. We walk in silence through the empty, white halls past the new paintings. You can immediately see some of them: vintage Tuymans. Others are surprising and show an artist still testing his limits. No downtime at Tuymans. His new work is his way of capturing the spirit of the times. A time of polarization and war. “It’s a political exhibition,” he says dryly as the cigarette is smoked. “A little gloomy just exactly,” I reply. “We do not live in the happiest times either. But I have used a lot of colors. The richness of color softens the anxiety, or may make you forget it.
This is certainly the case with the exhibition’s title work, the first painting you see when you enter the gallery. In a bright orange color, ‘Eternity’ sprays off the wall. ‘I have incorporated my fascination with Mark Rothko into it. You disappear into the colors. ‘ Tuymans points to the floor. ‘Do you see that? The painting is reflected in it because it is so big. ‘
The painting is inspired by the work of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. In the 1930s, he was involved in the drawing board in Nazi Germany for the development of an atomic bomb. ‘It is a reference to the chemical element plutonium and a reference to Heisenberg’s study model of a nuclear explosion. At the same time, the painting also shows the moment of the explosion, just before one sees the famous mushroom cloud. Hence the clear colors, of course. ‘
But what if you do not immediately understand the meaning and content of the painting? Does Tuymans mind? ‘No, I do not care at all. I do not think people are stupid if they see nothing but a piece of fruit or a toy in it. Not at all. If you just get hit by the colors, that’s fine too. I’m curious about what the Parisian audience thinks of the exhibition. The relationship between me and Paris has always been difficult. I do not know why.’
Tuymans is first and foremost a painter. But he has curated many exhibitions in his career. This can be seen in his new exhibition in Paris. Much thought has been given to where which painting is hung and how they relate to each other. In this way, the exhibition also tells a story. Tuymans constantly talks about polarization. But one can also call it a threat. Or fear. Or loneliness. The dissolution of Western society into increasingly extreme and extremist parts. Which in turn can lead to ‘Eternity’, the eternal end if it ends truly catastrophically for humans.
Visually, it is a very varied exhibition, where Tuymans uses his entire palette. Like a charmer, he invites you to watch. But when you look deeper and further, the charm turns out to be deceptive and with barbs. That’s always what makes him so exciting.
The key work at the exhibition is ‘Polarization’. ‘I would not have held the exhibition without it,’ says Tuymans. It is an ensemble of four paintings – they must be purchased together – based on data from the American scientist Mauro Martino. Under his leadership, several universities examined the polarization of American politics over the past decades. They watched as Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill. To what extent did they vote the same way?
‘The data is poured into hundreds of graphs. I took four out and painted them. Vertically while the graphs are horizontal. There are three colors: blue for the Democrats, red for the Republicans and gray where they meet. The study shows that the agreement between the parties is frightening on the way down. I show four years: 1951, 1967, 1989 and 2011. In the first painting (1951) there is still a lot of gray. Harry Truman was president at the time. Under Barack Obama (2011), the polarization was total. You look red together, blue together and not cry. It has not gotten better under Donald Trump. It speaks. ‘
‘I partially painted’ Polarization ‘with my hands. That’s not my habit. But it works here. It is important to show the four years. That makes the abstract paintings very concrete. ‘
Across the street hangs a completely different painting. A man – unmistakably Tuymans himself – floats in the sea. ‘After the pandemic, I traveled to Madeira with my wife. Her brother lives there. It was there that the idea of the painting arose. I hesitated to show it because it might not fit the context. But eventually anyway. You see an angry white man feeling a little lost in the water. It seems like a metaphor for how many people are feeling right now. There is, of course, irony in the picture. People should not forget that ‘.
Tuymans is usually inspired in his work by images that he transforms into his own idiom. It is no different with the new exhibition. But it is never non-binding. We stand together in front of the ‘Estate’, a painting of a castle or a large country house. It’s a pleasant surprise that Tuymans says he made the painting after watching the German TV series ‘Babylon Berlin’. The series takes place in the 1930s in Germany – an absolute must by the way. ‘The crew performs wonderfully, but above all: the spirit of the times is meticulously represented. At the manor in question, the conspiracy against democracy was being prepared. The connection with today is the emerging fascism, then and now. ‘
The portrait I painted of Putin is missing from the exhibition. I do not want him shown here.
A painting is missing from the exhibition. Tuymans takes out his smartphone and scrolls. He shows a portrait of a man. Vladimir Putin. ‘I do not want him to be shown here. Although he is a key figure in the disruption of Western society. I made the painting a year ago. Due to the focus of the pandemic, many things remain under the radar. As the corona got better, I thought: a conflict could break out. It happened perfectly. I see it takes a long time. Putin is clinging to a past that no longer exists. The conflict is affecting the whole world because of globalization. Everything is connected with everything. It makes a person gloomy. ‘
Tuymans’ future looks busy. His major exhibition in Beijing, which has already been postponed three times, could kick off next year. ‘We will see. A lot of work has to come from America. Will it work with the difficult political relationship between the two countries? And who knows what will happen in China itself. ‘
Meanwhile, Tuymans is already working on a number of new works for an exhibition in Los Angeles in two years. ‘I was in a good flow. But a few months ago I got covid. I was sick for a week. Then I could continue. But three weeks later, I started having problems again. Muscle pain all over. Still. I’m still not quite on top. But fine. ‘