Frank Auerbach: Marlborough

Article excerpt

There's not much left of mimesis in Frank Auerbach's new paintings and drawings. Where previously there was a balance--however uneasy--between the picture (usually a portrait or a London street scene) and the gestural handling that gave it dramatic substance, the new work tilts--almost, it seems, irreversibly--toward gesture. The medium--and its handling--seems to be the message here. The particularity of the people and places identified by the pictures' titles seems to have been sacrificed to the particularity of touch. But the paint has personality--Auerbach's personality. One recalls Dostoyevsky's remark: "The painter seeks the moment when the model looks most like himself" ("himself" being the artist, not the model). "The portraitist's gift lies in the ability to spot this moment and hang on to it." Auerbach's paintings and drawings are self-portraits in principle if not in appearance: They are "signature paintings," and their signature--brisk, dense, staccato marks, blunt but animated--give us a real sense of the artist's character.

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And it is clearly still a vital character, still energetic after a half-century of work. The new paintings show that a late style need not be an empty variation of an earlier one. There's a new uncanniness to Auerbach's gestures here, a controlled effusiveness. Control is evident in the fact that the gestures are organized into the semblance of a picture even as the picture seems to be falling apart. The two versions of Reclining Head of Julia, both 2005, for example, present an array of quixotic squiggles that unexpectedly add up to a ghostly figure or face. …