Frank Auerbach Reclining Head of Julia, 2011 indian ink on paper 57.8 x 75.6 cm
"To put down an ideogram of a table so that people will recognize it as a table is not the work of a painter, but to sense it for a moment as a magic carpet with a leg hanging down at each corner is the beginning of a painter's imagination."
Wriggle Room by Tom Wood
In 2015 there will be a Frank Auerbach retrospective at the Tate Gallery, for me this is momentous news, for my generation of artists, Auerbach was and is the real deal. As the Guardian newspaper describes him, he is 'the painter's painter' and whilst I have never wanted to emulate his work I have envied his single minded sincerity and industry, nothing has stood in the way of his pursuit of understanding and making paintings. As fashions have changed and the market has moved onto bigger and bigger monumental works sometimes on an industrial scale, Auerbach has had none of it, no shortcuts, no tricks, no flirtation with new materials, no self publicity, just domestic scale works in thick oil paint recording the people and scenes around him. There have been many imitators but none have captured the relentless sincerity and singularity of his vision. The works are not beautiful, some are downright ugly with great nasty accretions of black paint, the peaks and troughs appearing angry and random and yet within these works lies an honest struggle to use oil paint in all it's greasy, unco-operative slipperiness as the vehicle for some elemental truths. More than anything Auerbach speaks of time passing, each painting records a passage of time in whch the artist and the model have sat in a room colluding and trusting one another in the search for the elusive meaning of what it means to just be alive, to share this world with someone else, to breathe air together, to drift in the bubble of ones own thoughts only to be periodically dragged back into the reality of that space at that time. They are paintings that stand as signifiers of life in all it's visceral messiness.
The paintings are almost aggresively there, the first thing you notice is the great volume of paint, a ridiculous amount of paint to record something so fragile and tenuous as the presence of two people in a room. But the paint is not important, it's just an accretion, the by-product of the effort of looking and understanding. This is where imitators get it wrong, they see the paint and not the effort, their thick paint is a facile sign denoting effort without actual real industry. To see Auerbach at his clearest I think we need to study the drawings, here we can often see a patina of earlier abandoned efforts supporting calligraphic ciphers maybe denoting a nose or a mouth, these black scribbles occasionally coalesce into a recognisable face but at other times they never quite make it. I like these drawings best where the marks appear to have gone rogue, wriggled into their own territory, decided it's more fun to wander than stick to the plan. The drawings as the quote above suggests are the painter exerting his imagination, I desperately wish I had that skill, that confidence, that sangfroid which said, what the hell, lets dawdle awhile.
The adherence to truth when confronted by the real presence of a person is almost overwhelming, all those facts there for the recording, how can one turn away, it's seemingly impossible, perverse almost. But for me at least the truth lies elsewhere, it lies within. Each drawing is reminiscent of the garbled platitudes typical of when one person meets another. In the everyday world we have social codes to mediate these meetings, in the art room we evolve codes based on skills, knowledge, maybe precedent or even pleasure. I've written about the pleasure principle before, the glide of a pencil, the flow of a wet brush etc. Precedent is the stuff we've done before, knowledge which we've learnt , skills, well that goes without saying, these all govern what we do in the life room. Back to Auerbach, he has his model and all the other stuff, precedent in spades etc but each time he attempts to disregard the lot and try and find something elemental, truthful, even if it requires crude marks and hour upon hour of apparently fruitless scrawling, scratching and rubbing out. Eventually a few marks emerge that seem to summarize the person, or the time or the mood or the light something real and true is caught and the drawing ends. We can't all do it and probably nor should we but as a mere spectator I find it thrilling that in this increasingly vacuous age there is still someone so attached to the fundamental nature of art that nothing will stop them making it. When the Auerbach circus arrives , as no doubt it will, tickets will be bought, arts correspondents will pontificate, marketing people will gear up, but just remember that underneath all that dross is the art, the real deal, a man who has devoted his life to showing us how paint and charcoal can still tell us something perceptive and moving about the simple act of sharing time and space with someone else, ignore the thick paint it's not important, look at the life, the endeavour, the desire, the profound simple truth embodied in each and every work.
Paintings and drawings by Dick, Ian, Roger, Sandra, Steven, Sue D-Y, Sue, Tom and Tony