New York

Francis Bacon

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

The revelation of this carefully selected, historically self-conscious retrospective of the work of Francis Bacon is the progression over the course of the artist’s career from a loaded, murky painterliness, to a spare, even linear, handling. This evolution toward an evanescent thinness, even when color is boldy uniform, goes hand in hand with his schematization of format and figures. Usually considered vitally and uniquely individual, Bacon’s grimacing faces and tortured bodies, his general sense of the sickness of human existence, his ironic secularization (profanation?) of the traditional format of the sacred triptych, his spontaneous appropriation of high art and media images, guided by inner necessity—which makes him look contemporary (if eccentrically excited) in this age of studied appropriation—seem secondary issues. Here Bacon’s signature tortured subjects progressively reveal themselves as tropes, even clichés, of stylized suffering.

Is the late economy of means successful? Certainly it is another way of sustaining the expressionist attitude at a time when its language of direct expression seems to betray it. There is the sense that the dryness of the late works may not be the result of a diminution of anguish—did Bacon become habituated to his own psyche, and thus less overtly mad, more sane?—but simply the exhaustion of artistic means with which to articulate it. Indeed, the late works look redundant, as though Bacon is pedantically driving home the predictably painful lesson life inflicts on those who expect comfort in it. The late works seem less visionary, as though Bacon, having grown accustomed to his insanity, now saw it with mundane eyes. The least that can be said is that Bacon seems tired—of himself? Of the habit of making pictures? In contrast to the compulsive early works, in the last paintings he may be taking himself, and art, for granted.

But perhaps his reduction of everything in his oeuvre to a predictable pattern is the indication of a new compulsion. With age, according to some theorists, one is supposed to see life less experimentally and more abstractly, that is, to finalize and order it. There is no sense, however, of a grand summing up in Bacon’s last works, no sense of wisdom—visual or existential—distilled from all the years of labor. At the same time they hardly constitute the whimper that T.S. Eliot thought came with the end. Rather, Bacon has become a mannerist of himself. His late works index his earlier works, but they look like a table of contents to paintings that were never made. That’s the way an artist signals that he’s at the end of his tether, has nothing more to say: his works begin to look like an index to themselves, an index easily confused with a table of contents. Why, one wonders, is there no living work to read, and only the denuded text?

Donald Kuspit