New York

Francis Bacon

Marlborough | Midtown

Francis Bacon’s new paintings demonstrate again his secure mastery of a by-now-familiar vocabulary, and yet, with the artist aged 75, still strike new notes. Bacon’s position seems toweringly high at this moment. Through the ages of abstraction and minimalism he remained one of the very few representational painters about whom even dedicated formalists could feel good. Now the forefront of things has caught up with him, in both his quoting—of Cimabue, Van Gogh, Velázquez, Ingres, and of photographic images—and his kind of exploration of space. The opposition between the illusionistic, three-dimensional space of representation and the flat, concrete space of minimalist abstraction offers a conceptual dilemma which Bacon was among the first to bring into the open, exploring, as he put it, “the difference, in fact, between paint which conveys directly and paint which conveys through illustration.” Since about 1950 his canvases have involved limited areas of illusionistic depth surrounded and separated by areas of flat paint suggestive of fabric. Certain areas remain highly ambiguous as to which view of space they more openly express. Recent work called post-Modern has been prominently occupied with this question, juxtaposing and interpenetrating the two kinds of space in ways that often question the reality of either.

In Bacon’s new work his familiar vocabulary of depth definition is used. Hints of perspective poke through orange grounds (a feature of his earliest paintings) and create momentary theaters for the drama of the representation. Furniture also performs the space-thickening function of wresting an illusionistic platform from the engulfing trend of the ground. As in the “Pope” paintings of 1951, areas of three-dimensionality are sometimes marked off by surrounding perspectival boxes or booths.

Most of the new works show naked male humans whose anatomy streaks off into speed blurs and melts into drippings on the floor. Seen through the distorting veils of time, the figures are headless, often have legs and feet where arms and hands are expected, and, in their four-legged-monster aspect, seem homoerotic icons of a buttocks-centered humanity. These figures act out what Bacon has called “the shortness of the moment of existence between birth and death,” undergoing before our eyes an impersonal drama of absorption into the void/ground. Cadaverous as if on operating tables, partial as if on meat racks, they briefly and weakly state the message of their existence and their desire. Space itself, the property of being embodied, erodes them instantly, flattening the illusionistic self into mute object-hood. Here Bacon turns the contradiction between the two painterly models of space into pure content, crucifying his figures upon it. Though elegantly sweetened by pastel amid the acrylic, these works still exert something of the “exhilarated despair,” as Bacon called it, of the earlier works. Two paintings of less familiar type take Bacon’s sense of spatiality and expand it, first into an outdoor urban scene in Statue and Figures in a Street, 1983, then into cosmography in A Piece of Waste Land, 1982. These pieces hint at new wonders that may flow from Bacon’s confrontation with the facts of body, space, and the world.

Thomas McEvilley