New York

Francis Bacon

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

“In old age,” psychoanalyst Anthony Storr wrote, “there is a tendency to turn from empathy toward abstraction; to be less involved in life’s dramas, more concerned with life’s patterns.” This is certainly the case in Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1991—one of the most astonishing paintings in the recent exhibition of paintings from the artist’s estate—in which the painter subdues the drama of his lifelong themes while at the same time showing their basic character. Among the last paintings Bacon made, the quasi-religious work distills his art and attitude in a way appropriate to the solitude of old age.

Triptych is in effect a crucifixion (a favorite theme of the artist’s): two figures nailing each other to the cross of sexuality, flanked on either side by good and bad thieves. In the center, one of Bacon’s familiar wrestling male couples in turbulent Muybridgean motion symbiotically merge. The naked bodies are ill-formed and peculiarly embryonic here, at once fresh and soiled—innocent and guilty—revealing Bacon’s ambivalence toward the human figure. Similarly deformed bodies turn up in the other panels as well: On the right, Bacon has put his own face and, on the left, that of a Spanish friend. In contrast with the vividly rendered rosy pink bodies, the men’s heads are painted mostly black and white, almost as if they were photographs. With this coloration, Bacon seems to ask whether the head determines the body’s sexual violence or whether the body has a wild will of its own. One recalls Freud’s famous metaphor of the ego/rider thinking it directs the id/horse, but the latter going where it wants. The same is true in Triptych: The body clearly dominates, as the grim, isolated faces seem to suggest.

These faces are unusual for Baconbecause their mouths are closed (unlike Pope Innocent X’s dramatic visage in the two Studies after Velázquez, 1950, on view here). The signature anguished scream, with the sadistic display of teeth, has collapsed, as if to acknowledge that rage will do nothing to solve the problems of sex and death, to which Bacon finally resigns himself with detachment. More crucial is the distance between Bacon’s early Pope works and these later “endgame” canvases, in which the brusque streaks of paint that cage the figure have congealed into deft planes. Transparent, intense gesture has become pure, opaque, and meditative.

Apart from reminding us that we all live in a small hell of our own making, Bacon’s aesthetic importance has to do with his use of abstraction, geometrical as well as gestural, in the service of what Clement Greenberg dismissively!), called “human interest.” By using abstraction to allegorical ends, Bacon prevented it from becoming a dead end, as it did in the post-painterly abstraction Greenberg advocated. Bacon also suggests that abstraction must be alloyed with representation to keep the image of suffering—usually the domain of the old masters—convincing and fresh. More than any other artist since van Gogh, his idol as an adolescent, Bacon is a master of narcissistic injury. If van Gogh used the religion of nature to express his suffering, Bacon embeds his pain in a distorted Christian iconography. Both verge on but avoid theatrical kitsch because of the abstract aesthetics that render their explosive imagery somehow peculiarly astringent. Bacon’s art is a triumph of contradiction, but in these taut last works he struck a balance between the extremes (without reconciling them), suggesting that he had finally found contemplative peace. His eschatological masterpieces convey inevitable truth without sacrificing personal meaning.

Donald Kuspit