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The Art of Frank Auerbach

Newness arises from repetition. It is the unfamiliar found in the midst of the most familiar sight, such as the head of someone you have been painting for twenty years. The element of surprise is

enormously important to me. To do something predicted doesn’t seem to me to be worth doing at all. To do something one hadn’t foreseen—by itself—seems to me to be just a gesture, and I can’t see how that would be interesting. But to have done something both unforeseen and true to a specific fact seems to me to be very exciting.

Auerbach’s work is full of observed facts of posture, gesture, expression, stare, the configuration of the head in all its parts, the tenseness or slump of a body, alertness or boredom, light and shadow: the endless drama of the I and the Other. The brush does not so much “describe” these as go to inquisitorial lengths in finding kinetic and tactile equivalents for them. A dense structure unfolds as you look. The essential subject of the work, however, is not that structure as a given thing, but rather the process of its discovery.

In the late Fifties and through the Sixties the English critics Andrew Forge and David Sylvester wrote about Auerbach with insight and enthusiasm,6 but to most critics his work seemed ill-synchronized with its time. In the late 1960s and early Seventies, as he was moving toward maturity as a painter, his isolation was especially severe; he looked like Pound’s M. Verog:

…out of step with the decade,
Detached from his contemporaries,
Neglected by the young,
Because of these reveries.

Stubbornness exacts its price. In 1986 the critic Stuart Morgan assured the readers of Vogue that Auerbach was “the ultimate pig-headed Englishman.” condemned by his own narcissism to do the same thing over and over again.7 This is a peevish reading, but one can see why such irritations are felt. There are dumb ways of liking any serious painter’s work. In Auerbach’s case the idée reçue is to attach pseudo-moral value to the inordinate thickness of his paint, which is the most obvious feature of his work and threatens it with cliché, as drips do Pollock or dots Seurat. Heavy paint looks worthy; it suggests mucky integrity. As Andrew Forge remarked in 1963, apropos of Auerbach’s thickest and most heavily troweled paintings, “It has been taken—rather insultingly, as a sign of his seriousness, as though it proved he tries hard.”8 But of course thick paint is as much a code as thin, and by this time we should know that neither is more “sincere” or “urgent” than the other. Who was in more travail—Ingres weeping with frustration as he struggled to get right the thin vellum-like bloom on M. Bertin’s sallow cheeks, or some neoexpressionist in the Eighties prolifically turning out his signs for extreme insecurity? If the thickness of Auerbach’s paint does have expressive value, it must arise from some source other than these conventions of sentiment.

To be seen as a peripheral painter, stubbornly holding ground nobody else much wanted in the Sixties and Seventies, excluded Auerbach from what people still called the avant-garde. In the process his work survived the idea of avant-gardeness. Modernist “progress” in art, once an unquestioned faith, seems the merest illusion, now, at the beginning of the Nineties, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that the apparent “newness” of a work of art generates any kind of aesthetic value. In our fin de siècle we realize what harm this fantasy has done: how it abbreviated aesthetic response and created set menus of novelty for cultural tourists; above all, how it replaced the organic complexities of a serious artist’s relation to the past with a shallow puppet show in which hostility to one’s ancestors mingles with bombastic claims of equality with them.

It takes exceptional historical imagination to reconstruct the boldness and independence of mind of (say) Newton in the act of radically rewriting the laws of nature. In Masaccio, in Michelangelo, in Velázquez or Cézanne the personal heroism and genius is woven into the fabric of the work—also, in the history of art, it becomes clear that as we gain one insight and skill we lose another—we cannot now paint like Bruegel since we do not have the tension of discovery which produce[d] his work. Otherwise—I feel quite close to scientists…the way Kepler arrived at true discoveries on false premises simply by obsessively going over his data seems familiar.9

Art is not like science, though scientific experiment has some of the character of art. Science progresses; art does not. Any third-year medical student knows more about the fabric of the human body than Vesalius, but no one alive today can draw as well as Rubens. In art there are no “advances,” only alterations of meaning, fluctuations of intensity, and quality. The modernist sense of cultural time, fixed on the dictatorial “possibilities” of the historicist moment, is a lie. It has distorted our sense of relation to the living body of art, most of which lies in the past and none in the future, to an absurd degree.

And so in culturally compressing machines like London and, especially, like New York in the twentieth century, obsessed with rapid stylistic turnover (which is what consumer capitalism, in its need to encourage novelty and diversity, made of avant-gardism), Auerbach does indeed look odd. His project as an artist has to do with arresting (just for himself, and for one viewer at a time) the sense of leakage between images which, under the pressure of other media, has been set up as a “postmodernist” value. And seeing one thing well, clearly, and “raw” (a favorite adjective with Auerbach), especially in a way that has no relation to photography and in fact defies everything implied by the rapid glance of pattern recognition we bestow on media images, means seeing it over and over again. “I’m hoping to make a new thing,” he once remarked,

that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing…. The only way I know how…to try and do it, is to start with something I know specifically, so that I have something to cling to beyond aesthetic feelings and my knowledge of other paintings. Ideally one should have more material than one can possibly cope with.10

But the “material” must be concentrated onto one thing at a time.

Both drawing and painting have always been involved here, and Auerbach’s drawings tend to be as ambitious as his paintings. His wish to invest charcoal on paper with the density and “presence” of paint was realized for the first time in a set of large heads begun in 1956. They bear the scars of their making: so much rubbing and erasing that the paper wore through in spots that gave trouble, and had to be patched. They have a disciplined amplitude of form, swift and deep and instinctively drawn toward solidity, as in Head of Gerda Boehm II, 1961 (see page 23). It is the polar opposite of the Cubist fragmentation which, strung on a decorative grid, had become one of the conventions of English art in the mid-Fifties. The charcoal strives to integrate the features, to carry the form around the back of the head, out of sight. “Nothing can be left out,” he would say thirty years later, “but you have to bury the irrelevant in the picture, somehow.”

To do this, he gradually realized, paint would have to relate to drawing in a different way. Auerbach painted inches thick, but this crust of pigment had its peculiar qualities, and was unlike the bas-relief surfaces of Dubuffet and Tapies that had been so much discussed in London in the Fifties. Those were basically sculpture, but Auerbach’s—as David Sylvester put it when reviewing his first show in 1956—“preserved the precious fluidity, the pliancy proper to paint.” When Auerbach’s work failed, as it often did, it was usually because the paint mass was laid over a conventional base of “topographic” drawing—realism with grotesque calluses. He must somehow integrate his growing sense of paint as an “accumulating substance within which the whole world can be experienced” with his need for patient and repetitive scrutiny. The key seemed to be wildness, so that the agenda of the painting stayed open until the last moment of its completion.

Think about the vehemence that goes into some late Matisses—you get a radical reorganization at a very profound level at the very last stages. In a good painting everything is painted with the pressure of a grander agenda behind it, but sometimes the agenda isn’t clear to the artist until the very end. The problem is always to identify it. Then the act of recognizing it can burst the painting, and often it will.

Color alone, he realized, would not do that. His larger problem was to get the paint moving, to modify the sense of arrested time and slow deposit that was built into those interminably reworked surfaces—to give gestural energy to the lump, as in the remarkable Head of E.O.W. V, 1961. (See above.) Without doubt, although Auerbach has been little influenced by American painting, de Knooning’s work was a help here. Auerbach was twenty-seven when he saw Abstract Expressionist paintings for the first time—at the Tate, in 1958. Neither Pollack’s all-over webs nor Rothko’s fuzzy rectangles had the kind of density he admired; de Kooning’s work did. It was clearly based on figure and landscape, and its formal properties—the sense of edge and line, its concern with weight and definition of form, and its figure-ground contrasts—came out of an engagement with the Old Masters and a tradition of studio practice which Auerbach recognized at once. The Dutchman’s hooking, rhythmic line evoked bodies in the jostle of elbowforms and crotch-shapes, and drew them openly in the totemic Women. His paint surface was a membrane, now thick and now a wash, but always under some degree of torsion and tension from the boundaries of the forms. And the linear qualities of de Kooning’s style were embedded in the swiping of the brush; the gesture and the form were one. At the same time there was enough contrast between figure and field in de Kooning’s work to give Auerbach’s figural obsession a handle on it.

In sum, Auerbach found himself admiring in de Kooning what he admired in Soutine—the sort of draftsmanship that is deeply painted, bathes shapes in air and carries the eye around the back of the form, rather than leaving it with the contours and color of a flat patch.

Auerbach’s paintings of his first constant model, Estella West, or E.O.W., had begun, twenty years before, in a spirit of devotional accretion, a slow, obsessed layering. Her replacement after 1963 by the second, Juliet Mills, or J.Y.M., confirmed and accelerated, though it did not directly cause, the freedom and comparative wildness of his mature style, whose main point (apart from a deepened expressive role for color) was to get the whole surface moving under the action of drawing, the decisive linear marks of the brush in liquid paint.

  1. 6

    See especially David Sylvester, “Young English Painting,” The Listener (January 12, 1956): “Auerbach…has given us, at the age of twenty-four…the most exciting and impressive one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon’s in 1949…. These paintings reveal the qualities that make for greatness in a painter—fearlessness; a profound originality; a total absorption in what obsesses him; and above all, a certain authority and gravity in his forms and colours.”

  2. 7

    Stuart Morgan, Vogue (London: May 1986).

  3. 8

    Andrew Forge, “Auerbach and Paolozzi,” The New Statesman (September 13, 1963).

  4. 9

    Frank Auerbach, letter to Robert Hughes, August 1, 1988.

  5. 10

    Lampert, “A Conversation,” p. 10.

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