“Gaskamer” is joined, in Tuymans’ first gallery, by more small, stark Holocaust-themed works from the 1980s, all in a muted palette of blacks, whites and grays. Four small oil paintings on cardboard make up “Die Zeit (Time),” 1988, a sort of filmic storyboard. The first work establishes the setting: a rural village square, or perhaps some barracks. Next we see what might be empty shelves, or are they empty death camp sleeping quarters? Then a close-up of two large discs (Tuymans says they’re spinach tablets, concentrated food developed by the Nazis). Finally, a crudely drawn man sits before bookshelves or an archive of sorts. Tuymans evidently ripped the man's impassive face from a photo in Signal, the major Nazi propaganda magazine, and painted hair and sunglasses on it. Curators claim the man is Reinhard Heydrich, deputy chief of the Nazi SS. No matter: Each viewer will manufacture a unique narrative.
Works from the 1990s
Paintings from the 1990s are grouped in Wexner’s second large gallery. “Tracing,” a work in Tuymans’ first U.S exhibition, in 1994, depicts a dull-colored, stylized bouquet of flowers with a folk-art feel. Wall text reveals that the floral pattern was copied from an embroidered fabric that once covered a chair in which a person was murdered—information that radically alters how we read the image. Whether the anecdote is true or not, Tuymans’ lesson is that decontextualized images can generate myriad, even contradictory meanings. Herein is Tuymans’ ultimate caveat about representation itself, painting and mass media imagery included.
Similarly, “Der diagnostische Blick (The Diagnostic View) I-X,” 1992, a series of paintings based on photographs from a diagnostic medical manual, reduces humans to body parts. Cropped images of a cancerous breast, or legs ravished by skin cancer, become almost abstracted by Tuymans’ wet-on-wet painting technique. How does this species of decontextualization, the pedagogical medical image, affect the way doctors “frame” and treat their patients?
By the mid-1990s, though Tuymans was still preoccupied with Nazi Germany, he also aimed his crosshairs at the misdeeds of other nations, including the U.S. and his own country. The bespectacled face smiling at us in “Heritage VI,” 1996, looks like a grandfatherly neighbor, until we’re told he’s based on a photo of Joseph Milteer, a right-wing extremist and Klansman who was implicated in a plot to assassinate J.F.K. [Continued on page 3]