I’ll begin with my only complaint: the protective glass covering each picture. Frank Auerbach’s palpably tactile paintings make you want to reach out and feel their surface, but the intervening (and reflective) panes obstruct the eye and mind as well as the finger. Maybe that’s why they’re there in the first place—a covid-19 prophylactic, surely? But polished New York gallery-goers, even those brazenly venturing out “in the midst of a global pandemic,” know how to Please Don’t Touch, right?
Insurance premiums are probably the real culprit. It’s the paintings they’re looking out for—not regular Joes like you and me. (No offense.) Well, for good reason, it turns out: Luhring Augustine’s presentation of nineteen paintings and six drawings by Auerbach includes several exceptional and significant loans from private collections, and even one from the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a rare treat to find Auerbach presented at this scale in the United States. Though the eighty-nine-year-old exhibits regularly in London and is perhaps the most accomplished painter working in Britain today (the Tate held a landmark retrospective in 2015), to the American art scene Auerbach remains, well, foreign. The only museum show he’s had in the United States was in 1990, held at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Yale Center for British Art, and the gallery bills this exhibition as the largest seen in New York since 2006. On this side of the Atlantic, probably the only place you’ll find him on regular public display is Yale, where a few of his paintings usually hang alongside works by his famous (and now dead) British friends and colleagues—Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossof, and others—in the ycba twentieth-century galleries.
The chance now to see Auerbach on his own, and to consider so many of his mature portraits and London streetscapes—with their wild impastos that duck, dip, and dive into sculptural relief—in a single setting, is thus enormously instructive and welcome. On first impact, they feel like repeated strikes of lightning. Despite the risk-prone nature of Auerbach’s liberated paint handling, there’s a remarkable fixity to his overall vision. Spanning 1978 to 2016, the selected paintings are similarly scaled (the heads tending towards life-size) and can look quite a lot alike from a distance. Whatever differences in color between and among paintings, there’s little discernible change in Auerbach’s general palette over the years, save perhaps for a more recent tendency towards slightly brighter pastels. Without the help of a checklist or identifying labels, I was hard-pressed to differentiate pictures made in 1978 from those finished just four years ago.
Get your nose in the paintings, however, and it’s clear that “repeated” is not a word with which one may fairly describe Auerbach. The pictures refuse to be understood as items in a series. Each work retains a surprisingly firm sense of autonomy, demanding that we consider it for itself, ensnaring us in its internal logics and illogics.
In Head of J. Y. M. (1978), the earliest work in the exhibition as well as the smallest, swipes of cadmium yellow and pale lime green congeal and cohere to suggest a slightly upturned head against a dark field of chromatic grays. The painting is densely worked, with active, sculptural impastos that build up into tactile relief against the background. But as thick and painty as the picture is, it’s no match, in sheer weight and material density, for the savagely overwrought paintings that Auerbach made years before in the 1950s and ’60s. These earlier works would build up over the course of hundreds of sittings into inches-thick accretions of slowly caked-on layers, irrefutable evidence of an intense, even maniacal inner drive. This earlier method sometimes resulted in paintings of extraordinary depth and power, pictures that “awaken a sense of physicality,” which the artist once claimed was his goal in painting. More often, Auerbach’s toil and trouble devolved into mere rhetoric, an assertion of effort and angst against what ultimately turned out to be rather conventional images.
By the late 1970s, however, Auerbach was scraping his work down at the end of each day. Doing so kept the surface fresh as he continued to struggle through hundreds of sittings, working through ideas and gathering up courage for that eventual moment of spontaneous epiphany. This more open-ended approach forced Auerbach to merge his paintings’ tortured surfaces with their pictorial structures, the result being that the images became more precarious and complex than anything he had done before.
Back to the 1978 Head of J. Y. M. Out of a cacophony of seemingly arbitrary gestures, Auerbach renders an eye, a nostril, a cheek or jowl with single, decisive strokes of loaded pigment. In moments like these, we’re impressed first by the energy and verve of Auerbach’s marks—they have all the radical reduction and muscular plasticity of an African mask—then stand in awe of his ability to carve out these features with a scalpel-like precision that yet harmonizes with the riotous energy of everything surrounding it. Here and elsewhere the British painter recalls Matisse’s découpage, which succeeds, Auerbach once remarked, “because it’s a shape made from a sense of mass, rather than a shape made from a sense of shape.”
Auerbach’s understanding, through Matisse, of the crucial importance of drawing with a sense of tactile mass and physical touch has sustained his slow-burning project through the years and decades. In Head of David Landau (2004–05), a mysterious concoction of burnt oranges, rust reds, dirty greens, mustard yellows, and prismatic whites, Auerbach sets this tangle of wobbling incisions against a straight, vertical slash of muted green along the right-hand edge. Though at first indistinct, the mark alters our understanding of the entire picture. Overlapping the edge of Landau’s white shirt in the bottom corner, the line surfaces almost to the picture plane, pushing other, ostensibly louder forms back. At the same time, it brokers an otherwise untenable relationship between the trembling head and its rectangular frame. Other exemplary works, such as Head of Jake (2006) and Portrait of William Feaver (2007), see Auerbach sharply limiting the range of his palette, allowing subtly modulated grays and browns to sing freely against the tremolo structure of his drawing.
Compared to these portraits’ contained focus and bottled-up energies, Auerbach’s pictures of the neighborhood surrounding his studio of sixty-six years explode into all-over environments of vibrant color. In 2007’s Another Tree in Mornington Crescent II, the painter whips us around the street with yellows, blues, oranges, and greens somewhat reminiscent of Sérusier’s 1888 Talisman. Soutine in Céret also comes to mind—those free-flung landscapes with lumpy mountains sprouting into the sky, trees flailing about in gale-force winds, and buildings sagging under the unrelenting stress of gravity. But with Soutine, an uneasy sense of growth and decay predominates, whereas Auerbach’s London street scenes bring classical stasis to the general chaos—a formal order in which wild sweeps of the brush push up against stout, straight lines, and everything retains an intuitive awareness of the inert edges of the rectangle. (One way to understand the difference: flip a Soutine upside down, and it’s incomprehensible; do the same with an Auerbach, and you still have a sturdy abstract painting.) If Auerbach’s landscapes lack the human intensity he achieves in his portraits, they are nonetheless sparkling demonstrations of his ability to evoke the unstable flux of outdoor life through the inborn structures of painting.
Auerbach is a devoted student of art history. He keeps reproductions and copies of works from London’s National Gallery in his studio and has made abstracted interpretations of works in the collection by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Constable, Turner, and others. Even his portraits, ostensibly hermetic, contain a world of art historical knowledge. But for some reason it was Matisse who kept coming back as I continued to look. Listen to what the French modern master once said about his own work in portraiture, and consider how it might relate, however improbably, to Auerbach’s long-minded project:
Expression, for me, does not reside in the passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions. . . . A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 5, on page 49
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