On ViewLuhring Augustine
Frank Auerbach: Selected Works, 1978–2016
October 31, 2020 – February 20, 2021
The first time I understood Matisse’s audacious green line brushstroke in his 1905 painting of his wife, Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line), was as a radical cancellation of any contract of faithful portrayal between sitter and artist. Ultimately, though, such a gesture is integral to the artist’s fidelity to both his subject and to painting itself. That apparently superfluous green line boldly bisecting Madam Matisse’s face was essentially what held her Fauvist portrait together. It’s this same quality of painterly, gestural intervention serving as the inevitable mortar for painting’s irrefutable objective facture (together with its subjective quiddity), that permeates the paintings of Frank Auerbach. There are all manner of what may seem like willfully incidental brushstrokes in Auerbach’s paintings that nevertheless construct a reality out of his subjects’ inherent “emanations.”1
There are a number of portraits presented at Luhring Augustine in this tightly-curated survey of Auerbach’s paintings and drawings, which also includes some of his relatively larger landscapes. It’s a welcome opportunity to review up-close a number of mature works by an artist much more well known (as practically a national treasure, really) in his adoptive homeland in the UK. Sent at seven years old by his German-Jewish parents just prior to WWII from their home in Berlin to safety in Britain (both the artist’s parents would die at the hands of the Nazis), Auerbach later attended art classes at The Royal Academy, St. Martin’s and London’s Borough Polytechnic where he and his classmate from St. Martins, Leon Kossoff, came under the tutelage of the older painter David Bomberg. Bomberg, formerly involved in the dynamic, British variation on Futurism known as Vorticism, was then in a period of his work that had returned to an expressionist figuration that nevertheless retained the angular spatial thrusts of the Vorticist kind. This compositional sway within a figurative inclination has seemingly had the largest influence on Auerbach and can be seen throughout his works presented here.
Auerbach, however, has taken this important foundational power of example and radically reinvented it for himself. His gnarly brushwork makes up a much bolder expressionist scrim through which one experiences his figures and landscapes, as almost animist incantations. Consider Head of J.Y.M (1978) a fairly small (14 5/8” x 18”) yet spirited oil portrait. In it one is surprisingly made witness to the immediate morphological genesis of both the artist’s sitter and their depiction in paint. A shorthand of thickly-loaded, dusky yellow counterstrokes constructs the neck, jaw, and cheekbone structure of a subject looking urgently upward to their right, so that the dramatic sinew of that painterly gesture is embedded faithfully in a provisional form. It retains the upwardly imploring, dark pathos of Goya’s Drowning Dog (1823) while seemingly just in the process of being formulated. There’s a giddy but sure joy of painting here combined with the translated weight of concrete form wrapped up in the artist’s somewhat crepuscular, existential moodiness. One feels to be in touch in real time with Auerbach’s initial skepticism at the possibility of capturing his subject in paint and, simultaneously, his willful attempt to get on with it nevertheless. Hanging to the right is the more staid portrait of the artist’s wife Portrait of Julia (2009–10). The older Auerbach appears to focus more on the sculptural essence of his sitter than in the dramatic excrescence of the earlier Head of J.Y.M. There’s a resolute solidity to the portrait (done like the earlier one, in yellow strokes) yet this time much more assembled from atomized scribbles and with less of a singular intent toward a simply unified form. It’s comparatively delicate, more like a late Cézanne watercolor than a pathetic Goya personage.
One of the benefits of such a brief survey is that we have the advantage of seeing such shifts in Auerbach’s overriding obsession with the painterly stroke. Yet it’s not an obsession lacking a keenly reflexed self-criticality. The curatorial gaps between stylistic permutations, however, might falsely portray precipitous leaps of faith that only the dedicated, incremental labor of Auerbach’s legendary studio commitment have achieved over a span of 60 of his 89 years. Another such comparison of the painter’s aesthetic evolution can be made in two landscapes. In Primrose Hill (1978), the angular vortices inherited from Bomberg are at play across the entirety of the canvas in raw and burnt umber, green and red bolts. Auerbach has described these as being partly inspired by the bare swaying branches of the trees, their movement in nature. There’s a kinship with a similar abstract formal correspondence with dynamic nature in the works of the American painters Arthur Dove and John Marin, the latter being prone too, to a kind of “flying cubism” in which kinetic angular marks hieroglyphically bracket and spatially reconstruct both his land and seascapes. The later landscape Another Tree in Mornington Crescent II (2007) has a softer, less edgy aspect to it, despite its subject being more architecturally dominated. To the left of the canvas a cerulean blue sky of varying saturation and value is crowded on the right by a large tree made up of green and orange masses gesturally overwritten by green, deep umber and Prussian blue squiggles. It’s a lighter orchestration of brushstrokes than in the earlier painting, feeling more morning present than evening truant. There’s an immediate intensity to both pictures, yet a modulation of painterly affect convinces one that each instance finds its own particular “there” there. Auerbach’s familiarity with these places has made such subjects as Primrose Hill and Mornington Crescent (where his longtime studio is located in North West London) practically primordial environments from which he can successively wrest the painterly topographies of his works’ characteristic contours. These locales for the artist are so known so as to be “more known” as works of the artist’s imagination. One needn’t, however, peer over Auerbach’s shoulder through this personally-tailored Johari Window of “known-knowns” to get his work. Like Cézanne’s Mont St. Victoire or even Andy Warhol’s Empire State Building, these places are only as legendary as the artist’s mind can reimagine them. Auerbach does so with his fidelity to place as paint–and with his fierce commitment to the immediacy of paint as place.
The artist’s portrait drawings arrayed here, works he considers a separate (if parallel) practice to his painting, offer an array of personages that populate the back room of the gallery with an intimate grandeur. An immediate association might be made with Giacometti’s similarly spectral heads made up of staccato yet sculpturally-definite graphite marks. Spending more time with the works reveals them to be much slower apperceptions than those characterized by Giacometti’s graphic alacrity. In Self Portrait (2011) and Self Portrait II (2010) Auerbach composes his visage from a vocabulary of angles and squiggles familiar from his paintings (but without the dramatic color of those) so that a kind of exoskeletal matrix maps his aged face. With these drawings one feels the artist’s sculptural third eye wide open. In another portrait drawing, Head of David Landau (2006), one can make out previously drawn/subsequently erased palimpsests of the sitter’s head bracketing the final image. The pencil and graphite marks here are drawn as ropey chains both enveloping and delineating the subject’s facial and cranial structure. The sketchy aspect of each of these portrait drawings presents Auerbach’s sitters as less literally there, which lends an interesting figurative twist to the artist’s aural encounter with his subjects. They come across as somewhat more insubstantial and wraith-like compared with his painted portraits.
Frank Auerbach emerged as an artist into a post-war Europe that saw the decline of the School of Paris, the incorporation of Internationalist Modernism into everyday design, and the rise of The New York School and Abstract Expressionism followed by subsequent periods of mostly abstract or conceptual elaboration. His older colleagues of what became known as the London School of painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Leon Kossoff formed a loose association that saw further investigation into the figurative idiom as a still productive row to hoe. Bacon was the more photophilic of this group (as Freud’s style might, arguably, be termed rather phototropic) while Kossoff and Auerbach were more vested in the impasto phenomenology of paint itself. Because of this there is a wistful nostalgia attendant to the work of these latter two: perhaps a longing for irrefutable presence or for the potentially comforting unifying logic of a larger cultural texture and consistency no longer felt palpable in a post-post Modern reality. Auerbach’s works here exude an anachronistically resistant belief in experiential “knowing.” It’s this kind of rear-guard attitude: an orderly withdrawal from the all too speculative present, via painting’s object—obstinacy, that lends this survey an almost heroic dimension.
- Auerbach often refers to his chosen subject’s immanent reality as composed of “emanations.” From Frank (2015) a documentary film by the artist’s son Jake.