“Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever”

“Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever” was both the title and topic of a recent show at the Akademie der Künste (AdK), Berlin, and it succeeded with minimal means. The Belgian painter, born in 1958, invited a fellow AdK member, now 83-year-old German theatre icon Edith Clever, to stage an exhibition in the historic building at Pariser Platz. With pieces ranging from 1975 to the present day, new work constituted the smaller part of the relatively sparse show. Clever’s contribution was partly executed by Tuymans’s photographer, Alex Salinas, as well as by composer Genoël von Lilienstern, whose barely perceptible sound installation in the foyer could easily go unnoticed. These and other pieces from or about Clever functioned as homages as well as extensions of Tuymans’s well-established practice of problematizing historical time via aesthetic strategies. Tuymans’s careful curation also affected the role of his own paintings; they were not individual pieces constituting an exhibition but elements of a Gesamtkunstwerk wherein different scales of time were brought together with the solemnity of a funerary rite. In effect, “Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever” announced a theme rather than a two-person show. It was memorial, mausoleum and valediction— a meditation on time as it comes to an end.

Installation, “Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever,” 2023, Akademie der Künst, Berlin. Photo: Roman März. Courtesy Studio Luc Tuymans, Antwerp.

This impression was heightened by the architecture of the exhibition space itself. Its five variously sized rooms proceed in a straight line, which made the show inescapably linear. The floor plan was vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian tombs, where one moves through a series of corridors and chambers, eventually coming to the sarcophagus, in this case a large carpet bearing a pattern from the back of a chair. Tuymans explains it was a chair in which someone was murdered, though the soft, cushy feel under one’s feet gave the space a comforting if not homey tactility. On the back wall above Carpet, 2023, hung the oldest work in the show, Hands—a 1975 self-portrait the artist painted when he was still in his teens. It is darker and heavier than the washy pastel tones for which he has become known, but like the works of his later period, the face is murky, blurred, if not completely blocked out.

Despite the sound installation and video montage in the foyer, the show really unfolded only in the exhibition space itself. The first room was a direct contrast to the pristine last chamber. It featured Edith Clever’s Cinematic Portrait, 2023, filmed by Alex Salinas, which, in a format similar to Andy Warhol’s 1963 to 1966 “Screen Tests,” was a close crop of the actress’s face projected in black and white onto a screen. Its position and format paralleled Tuymans’s Hands. Both are portraits but one is of an artist “at the end of her working years,” as written in the exhibition guide. Moreover, Tuymans’s young face is obscured, whereas Clever’s is completely exposed; her visage was enlarged into an architectural feature, while Tuymans’s painting was a small period at the end of a sentence, dwarfed by an expanse of carpet and white wall. Clever’s Cinematic Portrait evokes a sense of legacy and vulnerability. The traces of time in the actress’s face were echoed in the war-damaged walls of the original building, which are sometimes exposed in the otherwise cleanly renovated museum space. The past accumulates here as mute but persistent affect, just as it does in Tuymans’s washed-out faces—as a menacing remnant of oblivion.

The theatre-piece-turned-film that made Clever an icon is Die Nacht, 1985, a six-hour monologue directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, whom Susan Sontag once called a “genuine elegiast.” Indeed, the film, from which 34 minutes could be seen in the show’s second-last room, is often described as an elegy to Western culture, as were many of the director’s works, developed as they were in the long shadow of Germany’s WWII crimes. Composed from a patchwork of poems, letters, literature and philosophical texts, it starts with Clever speaking like an oracle in a war-damaged building. She recites a speech attributed to Seattle, a Suquamish and Duwamish chief, who defended Indigenous land rights after receiving an offer of purchase from the US government. In the excerpts featured in the show, she is filmed in high-contrast black and white film, spotlit against thick blackness, giving lyrical voice to the beautiful, yet hopelessly flawed, crumbling monolith of European civilization. The film veers toward abstraction, like a Tuymans painting, and in its exhausting length is like a still image.

Installation, “Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever,” 2023, Akademie der Künst, Berlin. Photo: Roman März. Courtesy Studio Luc Tuymans, Antwerp. Foreground: Luc Tuymans, Carpet, 2023, wool, 800 × 1000 centimetres. Private collection. Background, left to right: Luc Tuymans, Mother of Pearl, 2018, oil on canvas, 204.6 × 159.7 centimetres. Courtesy Zeno × Gallery, Antwerp. Luc Tuymans, Hands, 1975, oil on canvas, 100 × 80 centimetres. Courtesy Private collection, Antwerp. Luc Tuymans, Model, 2015, oil on canvas, 120.6 × 120.8 centimetres. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

In conversation with Tuymans, Clever recalls how Syberberg always wanted to capture a scene in one take, a fortuitous parallel to the painter’s method of finishing each picture, regardless of the size, in the span of one day. This approach renders his images temporal beyond their historical content. They are time smeared across a surface, thick and compact on the smaller canvases, permeable, forgetful, even hurried, on the larger ones. Like Syberberg, Tuymans is an elegiast. He works in the shadow of WWII, as well as in the twilight years of painting. Writing on Tuymans, Peter Schjeldahl reasoned that if painting no longer had anything significant to say, “then it might as well say nothing about significant things.” It is precisely this emptiness that emanates from the artist’s famous depiction of Albert Speer, The Architect, 1998, which was also included in the show. It is based on a still from a home video of Speer’s ski vacation. He seems to have fallen while skiing. He sits in the snow, his face whited out, looking into the camera. Maybe he is smiling. The video was recorded just days after he wrote Himmler to say that the inmates of Theresienstadt had too much space. The AdK’s location at Pariser Platz was also used by Albert Speer in 1937 to present models of Berlin’s transformation into “Germania,” the future capital of the Third Reich.

Tuymans’s interest in the distance between spectator and image took form during his five-year sojourn in film, to which he turned in the 1980s after painting became oppressive for him. In “Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever,” another type of distance is developing—the distance between the artist and his work or perhaps between the artist and the end of his work. This sense is summarized in a series that does not reference a particular historical moment, though it does emerge from one. Numbers, 2020, four approximately 3 x 3-metre canvases featuring bleached, hazy digits—1, 3, 7 and 9—against porous, indigo backdrops, were made during the COVID lockdowns. They measure the distance of waiting. But this waiting is not expectant; it is a particular type of oblivion, as can be inferred by Tuymans’s neglect of certain numbers, prompting the question of how much time wiles away between 1 and 3, or 3 and 7, and what sort of expanse lies after 9. One gets the sense of something slipping away, which makes the description of Tuymans’s works in the exhibition text as “vibrating” seem out of place. Schjeldahl was right to call them “drab-looking.” They don’t approach the viewer but, like fading wallpaper, recede. Within them, time is visible, if not articulate. It persists. ❚

“Luc Tuymans – Edith Clever” was exhibited at Akademie der Künste, Berlin, from September 15, 2023, to November 26, 2023.

Dagmara Genda is an artist and writer living in Berlin.

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