Lucian Freud

Look at Lucian Freud’s grand image of the late Leigh Bowery: perched on a box or table, his body extends, tapers, reaches (pictorially if not physically) up to a skylight, graceful in its awkward pose. Full frontal nudity. There’s a penis, but also a face, feet, and hands—all given the same degree of detail. Is this uninhibited realism, or artistic indecision? If it’s hard to tell, perhaps the painter is waging psychological war against philistines and aesthetes all at once. Freud’s portrayal of Bowery—a performance artist renowned for costumes, cosmetics, and prosthetics, not nakedness, and for affectation of feminine characteristics, not masculinity—violates decorum while also countering current fashions in artistic transgression. The penis is indecorously present, yet deadpan, inactive as cultural icon; it hardly makes a statement, one way or another. Much more remarkable is the sense of stretch and compression in this nearly ten-foot-high picture, which nevertheless conveys corporeal closeness. The effect is not derived from Bowery’s actual bulk, but from scale, perspective, and the trackings of Freud’s brush.

Whatever a society regulates—for instance, sexuality and the public display of the body—vigilant critics will notice, often at the expense of everything else. In a pseudointerview conducted by Bowery shortly before Freud’s 1993–94 Metropolitan Museum retrospective, the painter preempted questions that nevertheless still pursue him: “In your work the pictures of naked women are always of straight women, while the pictures of naked men are always of gay men. Why is that?” queried Bowery. The reply was flippant, yet a plausible guide to future critical genius: “I’m drawn to women by nature and to queers because of their courage.” So Freud has consistent principles. Indeed, to be seen at his recent show at Acquavella were the same kinds of pictorial and psychological gestures (and one of the very paintings) that had brought on the carpings of philistines and aesthetes alike at the Metropolitan.

Leery of salaciousness yet willing to bite at sexualized bait, a number of prominent reviewers, including Donald Kuspit and Linda Nochlin (in the March 1994 Artforum), had doubted Freud’s status as maverick original. “We have seen it before,” wrote Kuspit, evaluating studio portraiture by a standard more appropriate to medical illustration: the painter’s dispassionate representation of “purely anatomical sexuality” never reaches “complete, clinical exposure.” While Kuspit regarded Freud’s realism as demystifying but ultimately restrained and something of a modernist or verist cliché, Nochlin responded as if the Metropolitan exhibition were promoting exhibitionism. She particularly emphasized those instances where Freud went (nearly) all the way with “head-on crotch views—male and female beaver shots.” This proclivity, she argued, generates sexual mystification and, especially with a penis in evidence, “visual sensationalism.” Deciding whether the painter’s depiction is constrained (Kuspit) or excessive (Nochlin) actually makes little difference, since both critics turn their vision straight to the genitals, as if these bits of anatomy were Lacanian (not Freudian) traps set by Lucian to lure the literal-minded eye, leaving it to other eyes to see the bigger picture. Kuspit and Nochlin both judged Freud’s art lacking, their vigilance caught by the groin.

Perhaps Freud is an artist American critics love to hate because he defies classification, caring neither to update himself as postmodernist nor to master the more tasteful conventions of modernist materiality (he idolized the unruly Francis Bacon, after all). Freud’s homelessness on the New York scene may well characterize all current School of London painters—they don’t fit an American’s scheme of things, including mine. Among them Freud is not my favorite (I prefer the taut pictorialism of Frank Auerbach); and I grant that he doesn’t resolve his compositions (probably because he doesn’t feel the need), nor does he clean up his color or surfaces, or clarify his confusing subject matter. Yet I find his accomplishment compelling.

This is an artist who enjoys contrariness, if not contradiction (how modernist—and postmodernist—of him). He says he likes the “erotic element” in Constable—does he mean the sensuality of the paint scumbles? He frames his indelicate paintings preciously in antiqued gold and under glass. Why? In part, the motivation is protection: Freud’s oil paint is thick, needs extra time to dry, and remains unvarnished. But he also offers an aesthetic reason: the glazing optically levels his heavily encrusted surfaces, allowing viewers to concentrate on what he calls the “forms” and not the paint. If I take Freud at his word, he seems to be using the glass as a distancing mechanism, a device to shift the viewer’s attention from the particularities of texture to the generalities of contour, illumination, and volume. Yet everything else about his pictures might be regarded as inducements to coming close and closing in—even the glass itself, which, precisely because it’s protective, encourages a viewer to peer within the prophylactic frame. You feel you can breathe on Freud’s paintings without making real contact; the painting is safe and so are you. Getting up against the glass, looking in as you regard the heavy, irregular surface and respond to Freud’s myopic perspective, the body parts may indeed become “forms,” but only of a local, degenerative sort—bits and pieces that evoke a fragmented, conflicted person, a body and even a soul wanting integration. The intensified familiarity at which Freud aims his art, both formally and psychologically, eliminates all generality in favor of this extreme particularity. His intimacy distracts and destroys as well as focuses and cherishes. This is why a fleshy knee, a roll of abdomen, a knot of brow, or countless details of textured fabric, all visible in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, can each suspend the viewer’s attention, keeping the eye from slipping into banalities of total design.

If, as Freud has argued, paint can “work as flesh,” then the bumps and crevices created by his use of chremnitz white (a heavy, leaden pigment that gathers in large granules when spread) have been designed to arrest the eye as it takes its pleasures, just as any part of the body or its contiguities might arrest the fetishist. Paint, not the genitals, becomes the lure.

Paint and sex—a sticky matter indeed. Yet Freud is right to remind critics why the one clearly isn’t the other. Bowery: “You’ve worked from your lovers a lot.” Freud: “Yes, but you can’t do two things at once.”

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art and director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas at Austin.