Luc Tuymans showed works on paper at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1997 and called the show, “Premonition.” The cognoscenti knew what he was capable of, but I had no idea! Around the same time the Berkeley Museum acquired an oil painting with the unheimlich queasy feeling one gets from Tuymans’ best work. In fact I remember we went to the Castro Theater when they were showing Alien, and at the moment that the Aline creature comes out of John Hurt’s mouth I was thinking, looks like a Luc Tuymans painting and I guess it was this one I had in mind. It’s called Superstition, the depiction of a human body straddled by a giant black, flat, shellacky insect or worm.
Last month I heard that Tuymans had returned to the Bay Area to attend the opening of the retrospective of his work held on the fifth floor of SF MOMA. I scurried down there with my autograph book and a list of questions. What I found is that Luc Tuymans, hampered perhaps by the ill-concealed anxiety of a smoker in our ultra-puritan San Francisco, does not suffer fools gladly. First he gave a lecture revolving around the progression of his work, and there were questions back and forth between himself and his moderator, and then audience members could ask questions themselves. Pow! He thumped the chair, scowling. “I answered that already!” Another question. “Everybody asks me that!” His glittering glance darted across the dark expanse of the Wattis auditorium, as if daring us to argue with facts. He is not always peremptory, but he was in a hurry in the 1990s and he’s still in that hurry today. I suppose it’s only a shock when one contrasts the extremely mannered and perfected finish of his painting, with those fingers drumming the desk till he can push away and go. There came a time in his own career, he said, in which he knew he could do what he had in his mind. “If you don’t have that confidence, you’re sunk.”
I said, “But you also spoke of that fear”—the fear, each time one sits down to make a work of art, that one’s facility will have taken a hike—“and maybe the artist needs that fear too.”
He nodded briefly, his lips pursed around some wry Belgian expression. Something unutterable. “Perhaps,” he acquiesced. Dismissed, I stood to the side and watched other Americans attempt to amuse or enlighten Luc Tuymans. He signed all of our things without comment, or even looking up. This sort of rock star behavior was at once thrilling and insufficient. I felt like suckup Tony Curtis hoping for even a nod of approval from Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success. Lancaster just sneers knowingly at Curtis, and raises a cigarette to his lips. “Match me, Sidney,” he says. A photographer acquaintance of mine joined me as I tried to take a snapshot of Tuysman’s curled-up tension. The brute brute heart of a brute like Luc! “He may be a prick,” said Dennis, “ah but who cares, he’s the next thing to a genius. The work will last, the man is not the work.”
I took one last look at the man who’d been asked everything, the man racing out the door. “What about Tintin, were you influenced by Tintin?” Uh-oh, he’d been asked that one time too often!