The paintings in the first room of Frank Auerbach’s Tate Britain retrospective date from the postwar years, yet their glistening surfaces—almost sculptural in thickness—look as if they still may not have dried. The accumulation of earthen paint in Building Site, Earls Court Road, Winter (1953) harbors a bleary, benighted image of urban renewal: architectural structures are rendered as mere planes, while the world beyond is evoked by a wedge of gravelly light. In E.O.W. Nude (1953-54), a body bathed in gray takes shape from encrustations of grime-colored oil paint. There is a tussle in these early works between the substance and the subject of the paint that has come to define Auerbach’s art.
These paintings were made when Auerbach first moved to his studio in the Mornington Crescent region of north London, where he has remained ever since, in the same room painting every day. Curated by Catherine Lampert, the exhibition moves decade by decade from the 1950s to the 2000s (with a final, eclectic room), adopting a sparse and appropriately Spartan format: eight works per gallery, with minimal text. Despite the chronological sequence, a brief opening statement disavows any wish to demonstrate development. And perhaps that notion is irrelevant in attempting to describe Auerbach’s oeuvre: it has accumulated, rather than evolved, with a kind of doggedness (he has admired the same quality in Constable), just as his very paintwork accrues through Sisyphean cycles of scraping away and building up.
Throughout his life, Auerbach has gone back again and again to the same sitters and the same views of London. (E.O.W. is Stella West, a lover whom he painted during the ’50s and ’60s. She was 30 and he 17 when they met.) Yet it would be impossible to call his work stagnant or self-repeating. He distills long-familiar subjects into new arrangements of hard line and pregnant color, often seeming to carve into his own paintwork with the brush. Blue and maroon zigzags dance (or tear) across a field of acidic yellow in Primrose Hill, Summer (1968), while the scattered linear hatchings of portraits such as Reclining Head of Julia II (1997) act as a loose matrix, holding Auerbach’s shearing, turbulent color in position—and keeping the image intact, just.
The large E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden II (1964) encapsulates the dual tendency toward integrity and dissipation in Auerbach’s imagery. It portrays—or intimates—bodies in an indistinct yet bordered space, their presences captured in swiveling ocher and russet marks. Out of hard coagulations of paint, Auerbach evokes the incoherent nature of the event in the garden: the figures and the space simultaneously materialize and dissolve, as if into heat ripples. In E.O.W.’s Reclining Head II (1966), a body lingers somewhere within the streaks and globules of red, white and yellow, but it is tentative and shifting. The more Auerbach layers and sculpts the stuff of paint, the less graspable the attitude and mood of E.O.W and other sitters. Capturing the subject is also a kind of undoing.
This retrospective lays bare the oddity of the fact that Auerbach continues to be placed (commercially and curatorially) in the category of British postwar art—as were his contemporaries Bacon and Freud, although both managed to transcend that provincial club by their later years. One wonders why this major exhibition is taking place at Tate Britain when those of Gilbert & George (2007) and Damien Hirst (2012) were considered appropriate for the international profile of Tate Modern.
But the show, in its eloquence and concision, transcends and—in the end—trivializes these quibbles of categorization. The survey reveals Auerbach as a painter who succeeds, in his moments of profoundest localism, in being transhistorical and international.
Most young painters seem able only to reflect on their inability to do what Frank Auerbach does: construct equivalents of observed reality which do not seem naive, oblivious, obsolescent or reactionary. He makes much contemporary painting seem like a mechanism designed to teach someone to emulate his process. Next Door III (2011–12), the show’s largest oil painting, at a little over 50 inches high, is a cityscape seen from the entrance of the studio in the London suburb of Camden that the 81-year-old Auerbach has occupied since the 1950s. This selection of recent work consisted largely of variations on this motif, mostly in colored pastel on 8-inch-square sheets of paper, hung in grids. The artist has painted the view so often that its patchwork of diagonals is impressed upon the cultural retina like a Richter candle or a Warhol Marilyn. But unlike them, Auerbach’s painting is not an image of an image, and not really an image at all, but an investing of awkwardly viscous oil paint with an accretion of subjective perceptions.
Auerbach once said that he wanted his paintings to be like nothing on earth, but like their subjects, and Next Door III‘s deep canyon of stacked rooftops is surely a reimagining of the facts tempered by awe, desire, nostalgia and sleight of hand. An abiding contradiction between a rigorously empirical intention and a language of abstract notations characterizes the work of the group of painters—particularly Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Francis Bacon—who emerged in 1950s London, pitching a dissenting representational idiom at the modernist mainstream, even as their work assimilated some of the contemporaneous discoveries of Pollock and de Kooning. Auerbach’s version of this approach is a strenuous but unself-conscious gesturalism, the consequence of a mind and hand consummately absorbed in arriving at an unpremeditated solution that equates to the painting’s subject without illustrating it. Such flights of fancy do not detract from the hair’s-breadth accuracy of the draftsmanship. No attention is free to intentionally make “Auerbach marks.” The mire of postmodern self-reflexivity is circumvented, as the marks, assimilated by the order they comprise, fuse into often outlandish, but always precise, metaphors for the reality they capture.
At Marlborough, clusters of sketches combined with a few oil and acrylic paintings evoked Auerbach’s discipline of allowing repeated brief sightings to accumulate over years into paintings densely packed with observations, like archeological strata. An Auerbach is a series of reiterations and erasures, restatements and qualifications. The earthy palette results from a final overworking of a mass of applied color, its brightness dimmed as matter is harnessed into focus. The paintings tend to be under 20 inches across, due to the physical demands of creating a painting in a single sitting, over a ground that has previously been covered and subsequently scraped off over innumerable unsatisfactory attempts at reaching a conclusion.
The support of the painting Reclining Head of Julia (2012), with its rounded corners, appears to be a bread board. Auerbach re-creates jawline, cranium and collar bone from viridian strokes that intimate a universal, constructivist language, even as they render the unmistakable pride and self-assertion in his wife’s raised chin. She is subsumed into the objecthood of the painting—hence the bread board-but Auerbach registers that her acquiescence to the medium memorializing her is willful.
Photo: Frank Auerbach: Next Door III, 2011-12, oil on canvas, 52â?? by 46¼ inches; at Marlborough