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Auerbach portrait painting of a head
Auerbach portrait painting of a head

Frank Auerbach: Head of J.Y.M., 14 5/8 x 18 inches, 1978

Frank Auerbach/Private Collection, Topanga, California/L.A. Louver, Venice, California/Marlborough Fine Art, London/Luhring Augustine, New York/Lee Thompson

In Frank Auerbach’s paintings, we can see the mysterious and often ferocious bouts he seemed to have with his materials.

The high points of the current New York gallery show of the eminent English painter Frank Auerbach are some dozen exquisitely colored and often bristling pictures of people seen from the neck up. Although the paintings include the name or initials of the sitter, more of the titles say “head” than “portrait,” and “head” is the right word, because Auerbach’s point seems to be less an intimate or psychologically aware account of his people than a use of their heads as pretexts to make paintings. We look at Julia (the artist’s wife), or Jake (their son), or Catherine Lampert (an independent curator and an authority on the artist), and see what appears to have been a mysterious and sometimes ferocious bout the artist had with his materials. It is mysterious because, while we are left with a sense of flying, eruptive energy, it is not clear why the artist came to make these particular jabbing or curving marks with his brush.

That Auerbach’s approach is far from realism can be felt in the way he adds, as if it were no more than last-minute signage, black blobs for nostrils or offhandedly drawn circles for eyes. A single firm line will do for a mouth. The breezily impersonal nature of these marks on a face—or, in a picture of a seated Lampert, the blunt way he outlines her legs and shoes—is pleasing in itself. We delightedly imagine hearing the artist say, as he adds his thick black directional lines, “Oh, here’s the person.”

The eyes and nostrils also give us our bearings. Standing before the powerful Head of J.Y.M. (1978) in the exhibition, I saw primarily an explosion of broad yellow brush marks and had little idea of what I was looking at. When I later saw the work in a reproduction, the features of the sitter’s face emerged, and I realized that the painting is of someone whose neck is tilted back. But finding the face hardly altered the tightly wound drama of Auerbach’s brushwork.

The Luhring Augustine exhibition presents an artist whose name has become almost synonymous with his single-minded dedication to the act of painting—and with, as an aspect of this, his stringent, monkish work habits. Soon to be ninety, Auerbach is known for working long hours in his studio every day and for being loath to move about London on any occasion, let alone travel outside the country. For years he has limited himself (with exceptions) to two subjects: the model before him, whom he usually needs to see again and again, and the streets, trees, and buildings of the area around Mornington Crescent and nearby Primrose Hill, a part of North London where he has worked since 1954. With paintings and drawings extending from 1978 to 2016, the current show starts when Auerbach had already firmly established his mature style, which might be thought of as a kind of personal expressionism. It is an expressionism that does not set out to show people or social life as ill or frightening, but rather renders the reality we all know with a choppy, urgent force.

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