Important Art by Frank Auerbach
Painter and friend Leon Kossoff was a favorite early subject for Auerbach. Here the fellow School of London artist's face occupies nearly the entire picture plane, his head slightly tilted downward. Auerbach renders him in ghostly shades of grays, blacks, and whites; his features threatening to blur or vanish under the viscous layers of paint, which are almost sculptural, resembling one of Giacometti's attenuated figures. Kossoff's eyes are dark abysses, his mouth set in a taut line of contemplation as if he were a saint in an illuminated manuscript enduring afflictions of the soul.
Portraits of friends, lovers, and family members constitute the bulk of Auerbach's oeuvre, but his technique strains the typical understanding of the genre's commitment to likeness. Indeed, Auerbach has pushed back against the idea that he's simply a figurative painter and insists that his goal is to create new images. Auerbach's sitters are captured in their essence rather than their exactness. From multiple sittings with the artist, they are constituted from innumerable layers of paint that were scraped away and/or added to so that the artist's hand seems both completely obfuscated but also mordantly present. Every ridge, ripple, or accretion of paint suggests Kossoff is a multifaceted figure, one whose memories and sensations and physical presence are always shifting. The impression made is that what makes up an individual is fungible, and an accurate image is impossible to pin down; persons cannot be summed up by one moment in time just as they cannot be summed up with one word or fashioned out of one memory.
E.O.W. (Estella "Stella" Olive West) was Auerbach's first obsession as a painterly subject. This work, one of several, is painted so thickly that the subject is difficult to recognize; however, after careful looking and with some assistance from the title, the viewer can discern the naked figure of a woman reclining on a bed with a blue coverlet. It is an intimate work; she is clearly comfortable, lying on her back and propping one arm up behind her head. She seems to be looking casually out at the viewer, and her figure stretches from one side of the canvas to the other. The creamy color of her flesh and the bright blue of her bed are the dominant colors, while the wall and floor are primarily shades of taupe and burnt gold.
This painting and others from the 1960s exemplify Auerbach's tendency to straddle the fence between abstraction and figuration. Again, at first glance the work appears to be abstract - just dollops of paint, messily smudged, encrusted, and carved. Auerbach's admiration for Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning is clear in his attempt to render the figure with abstract gestures. Despite this abstracted nature derived from the paint handling, Auerbach is also deeply invested in the figure. E.O.W's corporality and psychology is key to the painting's aesthetic power. Her sensually painted nude form and the enigmatic nature of her gaze may be the same in spirit as those of Giorgione, Velazquez, and Manet, but Auerbach makes us question the very idea of a unified self or a unified image with the tensions he has created.
Auerbach is unabashed about his love for the Old Masters, including Titian, Rembrandt, and Rubens. This piece is modeled after Titian's work of the same name concerning a tale from Ovid, in which Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, encounters the god Bacchus and his procession of revelers. Auerbach's rendition is completely abstract, consisting of dynamic horizontal, vertical, and diagonal brushstrokes in vibrant shades of cherry red, cerulean, golden yellow, and grass green. Though referencing Titian's work might help viewers interpret the brushstrokes as trees, figures, or the sea, Auerbach's painting is ultimately devoid of any explicit figurative references.
Auerbach's allusion to Titian in the title is difficult to square with what one sees on the surface. Critic Mark Prince suggests that Titian's composition "could be its primary-coloured skeleton, a severe distillation of figural dynamics to a linear network," but something else seems to be going on as well. A more sustained consideration of the two works yields some suppositions. First, Auerbach demonstrates Titian's love for paint, delighting in its application and every encounter between colors and lines. Second, Auerbach's marks are akin to Titian's in that they express movement in a fluid and vigorous fashion. Just as Titian's Ariadne moves away in fright and Bacchus leans toward her in concern and reverence, Auerbach's dashes, lines, and smudges vibrate and leap across the canvas. Scholars noted of Titian's painting that "he was able to demonstrate to the full his powers of observation and his descriptive ability with the brush," and that he painted in a way where each brushstroke was "a mark of the artist's own presence on the canvas." Titian's keen sense of translating his observations to the canvas and his ability to indicate his own presence with his brushstrokes could easily be said of Auerbach as well. Rather than simply borrowing Titian's composition, Auerbach, then, is in dialogue with the Old Master, expressing his debt and demonstrating his ability to "see" the scene in a wholly new way.