New York

Francis Bacon

Marlborough | Midtown

The thing about Francis Bacon is that he’s an original. Who knows where he gets his bizarre notions of space or anatomy? Why are his people’s faces interrupted by floating discs that sometimes rest in places (where they act as natural sockets) but often don’t? What about those omnipresent shadows? Why does a naked man lock a door with the key held between his toes?

Actually, the last question is answerable, or at least discussable. The acrobatic doorman is a perfect example of Bacon’s economy, here in the service of narration. The balletic sweep of leg compresses the fact of locking out the descending figure on the other side of the door with the impression of kicking him out. Is the banished one a lover or bill collector? Hard to say. The crumpled paper on the floor could be a billet-doux, a Dear John note, or a reminder of accounts due (there are many illegible communiqués scattered throughout these canvases). It doesn’t matter because every lover in a Bacon scene is also a creditor, a taxman come to take something away—a pound of flesh, probably. Triptych—Studies of the Human Body conveys the idea that any coming together (central panel) is so violent that the participants must separate (end panels) to lick their wounds, flesh scooped out to reveal a rawness. Which brings us back to the subject of those floating discs. At first glance, Bacon’s faces and bodies seem to contain the normal amount of mass, but distort-ed, pushed this way and that; in fact, he detaches hunks which leave these holes or ellipses and then rubberizes what’s left.

Everything costs. Movement interests Bacon (Muybridge is invoked), but it’s pricey, so every sum spent on it must stretch. The door being locked seems to have just been slammed as well because of an incomplete oval, the comet’s tail of its swing, as economic in its expenditure of means as the curves denoting a windy day in a comic strip. In a scuffle, arms or legs will be lost, their attrition camouflaged by the smooth union between remaining parts—see The Wrestlers After Muybridge, for instance. Figure in Movement is even more to the point. Whereas Muybridge adds one unit to the next to depict motion, Bacon subtracts. The somersaulting creature in this painting rounds himself into an extended fetal knot, but the juncture where his head and shoulders were at the beginning of the tumble is depicted as a void; quite simply, one has a sense that the new position has been achieved by ripping it out of the old. In other words, while Muybridge, with his succession of figures, argues that there is a new self growing out of the old for each passing moment, Bacon argues that there is but one and its passage into the future, into the next move, can occur only at the cost of its erasure from the past.

Movement may be costly, but as long as you’re paying you know you’re alive. The alternative, Portrait of Muriel Belcher, the single completely immobile subject in this show, and as the only woman very much the “other,” is given the lineaments of a sphinx, a being about whom Oscar Wilde wrote: “Inviolate and immobile she does not rise, she/does not stir/For silver moons are naught to her and naught/to her the suns that reel.” This is a stillness unto death. No wonder Bacon’s other figures, even when seated, fidget enough to seem in transit. They may be stymied, but they’re not dead.

Bacon’s productions are decidedly sphinxlike. Words shatter on impact when launched against his impervious paintings. Maybe those scraps of incomprehensible letters are the Babel-like debris of this bombardment. Despite all the explications, mysteriousness seeps back in under the edges of these portraits and studies; they remain a riddle. By now Bacon has called off his famous search for the perfect painting, but the oeuvre is no less immutable, remaking itself, like his characters, oblivious to what it’s done before or what it will do again.

Jeanne Silverthorne