Francis Bacon, Blood on Pavement, c. 1984, Oil on canvas 78 x 58 inches (198 x 147.3 cm), Private Collection / © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015. Photography by Robert McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

During an interview in his later life, Francis Bacon’s stated his hope that he would “drop dead just working.” It was not, he admitted, out of any romantic longing, but merely because he didn’t see much purpose in stopping while he still had the ability. This did not end up being the case. Instead, this lapsed Protestant deconstructor of the crucifixion died in Spain under the care of nuns at the age of 82, following complications from his lifelong asthma condition. It was not for lack of trying. From the end of the Second World War to the end of the Cold War, Francis Bacon produced a steady stream of paintings, showing a mixing and contorting of elements divined from classical portraiture, expressionism, cubism, existentialism, and surrealism, to create a wholly idiosyncratic, if not outright invented, visual language that assured Bacon’s place as the iconographer of an anxious mid-century. And his impact remains present even now, in both the art world and whenever gloomy and fraught visuals are called for in popular culture.

“Impact” is an operative word when thinking of, and certainly when looking at the work of Francis Bacon. Eschewing narrative by his own admission, Bacon offered only the immediacies of moments, brief but traumatizing depictions, at once brutally visceral and elegantly precise, not unlike capturing the moment Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. If impact of this sort is not new to the medium—surely Goya and Bosch count as impactful, for good or ill—it crystallized with Bacon and became thoroughly modern as his heirs: Hirst, Jenny Saville, Mat Collishaw, and other YBAs, worked to chase shock after shock, with technical deftness and conceptual profundity seemingly getting second billing.

The ideal position of the typical Bacon viewer, in fact, would be something along the lines of a wheelchair-restrained Freddie Lounds before a towering Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, owing not just fear to Bacon’s paintings, but awe. This is an experience almost exclusively associated with Bacon’s primal early work; his monstrous triptychs, his disembodied heads, amorphous bodies, screaming Popes, frantic animals, and hooked meat; all of that raw meat. Such an experience was likely felt in more than a few eager viewers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2009 centenary retrospective where all of these works were in brilliant display. That feeling, however, seems to taper off the later into his work the viewer reaches, starting somewhere in the 1970s.

There is a consensus that, in the last twenty years of Bacon’s life, the peak of his fame and very real fortune coincided with the trough of his actual talent. His craft is present, to be sure, elegant and assured but very much stuck in a creative holding pattern; old habits dying hard, affectations becoming frozen. He is the Tim Burton of the art world: offering a distinct but limited gothic aesthetic that yields with minimal effort to self-parody. And yet it is with works from these years that the Gagosian filled its Madison Avenue gallery, some 25 paintings created from 1976 to 1991. Not, at first blush, the most auspicious exhibit, certainly not for the Bacon fetishist, but perhaps one that should be see in isolation, in any case.

The disconnect between Bacon’s early and crucial paintings and everything that followed is made plain in early on in the sequence of rooms as one makes one’s way through the Gagosian’s halls. Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) is conceptually a beat for beat do-over of his work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) made 44 years after its creation. As Bacon’s first major work after years of struggle—Bacon himself disowned (and often destroyed) everything that preceded it—the tribute is significant, as are the alterations he made to it. The rough, almost frantic technique of the original gives way to a smoothed over presentation in 1988. So too does the infernal orange pervasive in all three paintings become a deep but soft and subdued crimson. The three figures, recalling the mythical Furies, are identical in formation, but are less so in presentation. Furious and alive becomes rigorous and cold; the monstrous becomes the monumental. The canvases are just as large and imposing (larger, in fact), but as a memorial of something greater, if less refined, it feels as if the painting takes up more space than needed.

Bacon’s large canvases never lost that sense of allure and imposition as he worked into the century’s twilight decades, but those that don’t recall his earlier forays into humanity’s collective existential meltdown have distinct preoccupations. These include numerous portraits and studies that he composed mainly of himself and his friends. Bacon of course had done portraits before this point, particularly of his onetime lover George Dyer, including the morbid 1973 triptych recreating his overdose. But in this collection one sees something of a narrowing focus. The horror and pain of his papal studies and the anxiety and repression of his men in blue give way to a lighter hued serenity. 1949’s Study for a Portrait (also known as Man in a Blue Box), for instance, showed a man in captivity; 1991’s Study for a Portrait finds his subject at least able to choose not to confine himself to the darkness. 1982’s Study for a Self-Portrait does find the subject confined but not exactly captive either. Dark blue is now pastel blue, and the subject’s panic is now more along the lines of discomfort.

It is, however, the smaller canvased portraits, the 13- and 14-inchers, that leave a deeper impression in this exhibit. Bacon’s relationship with the human face has never been a good one. Fixated largely on the mouth, the teeth, or the half-glanced profile, his paintings were practically a safe haven for people with difficulty in making eye contact. But here in miniature, Bacon gives nothing but the face. In his numerous variations of Studies for a Self-Portrait, Bacon shows himself surrounded by black, with the very contours of his bones, flesh and muscle almost spectrally out of sync. It is not certain whether he is meant to be coming out of the blackness or receding into it, his and other subjects’ faces (one of Michel Leiris is included here), shown or half-shown, neither coming together or being pulled apart. The faces themselves exude something in between eerie calm and resignation.

The exhibit is not without its hints of violence, of course, but here too it is not of the typical sort. Bacon’s 1988 Jet of Water shows a natural rather than manmade rupture. Over an innocuous bathroom scene, a streak of white and bright blue shoots through as if to want to tear the canvas crudely in half. Bacon’s idea of sand in 1983’s Sand Dune seems less like a gathering of granular matter and more of a shifting, barely containable force, a dustbowl lying in wait. Blood on Pavement (1988) has the opposite effect, understated but ominous in its ambiguous depiction of aftermath. (For my part, I was brought back to a memory of seeing a woman bleeding from the nose in midtown Manhattan after she had tripped.)

If some of these later paintings—Second Version, Seated Figure, Study of the Human Body, etc.—give the impression that Bacon was resting on his laurels, this is not exclusively the case. Even if Bacon’s palette had become less stark, his technique more graceful and less “accident” prone, one does not get the sense, at least with some examination, that Bacon had found peace in his work. He found a calm perhaps, but not necessarily a utopian sense of balance. It makes more sense to say that his work found temporary respite. From the inferno of the earlier paintings, it seems, we have ascended into limbo, conceivably the best the self-professed “optimist about nothing” thought us possible to reach.

Francis Bacon: Late Paintings, can be seen at Gagosian New York through December 12, 2015.

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