New York

Lucian Freud

LUCIAN FREUD DOESN'T BEAUTIFY FLESH, but he revels in it all the same. What in life might be distasteful becomes matter for specifically pictorial delectation. If the skin has a slightly sickly cast, that's all the better to explore the strange tints and undertones it can take on under certain conditions of light, for example in Naked Portrait with Green Chair, 1999. And if the body happens to be oppressively heavy or, more rarely, uncomfortably bony (as in the impressive Naked Portrait with Red Chair, 1999) what better occasion for lingering over its capacities as malleable sculptural form? Best of all is Freud's exploitation of facture: For instance, the passages of highest illumination tend to be the ones where the surface becomes most nubby or tacky. In Naked Portrait with Green Chair, it's as if the still-wet paint representing the areas around the woman's left knee and the inside of her right thigh had been smooshed up against the formalists' mythical picture plane as against a pane of glass, then pulled back to make the paint stand up like gooseflesh.

The effect can be thrilling: It conveys a sense of intimacy and immediacy that belies the judicious distance at which the figures are placed. With the exception of some studies of garden foliage and the smaller, close-up portrait heads, the compositions are set in drab studios: solitary female nudes, mostly, lying on beds or daybeds or sitting in leather chairs. We look down on the figure at an angle and from a distance, so that it never fills the frame; the setting becomes at least as important as the subject. These are portraits, but not portraits of individuals: The pictures are about Freud's world, not theirs; and this world of fascinating flesh also includes the plain fact of the dingy studio, which he doesn't seem to like. He's no Philip Pearlstein, taking perverse delight in giving every detail of scenery the same cool scrutiny as he does the body's folds and creases. You get the feeling Freud hates painting those worn brown floorboards over and over again, but he must think his aesthetic doesn't allow for editing them out—no suave Matissean field of uninflected color for this painter! Masochistically, he slogs through each damned one, leaving his sitters, on whom he has lavished such painterly attention, buried alive in dead space.

There are funny goings-on in a few of these new paintings. Make what you will of the naked man in bed with his pooch in Sunny Morning—Eight Legs, 1997; what's more mysterious is the pair of legs emerging from under the bed. Then again, the guy on the mattress looks to be the same fellow who turns up in the background of Large Interior, Notting Hill, 1998—still naked, but now suckling a baby as his clothed, older male companion sits immersed in a book with a tattered dust jacket, dog sleeping at his feet—so maybe it's just that Freud has found a particularly odd couple. At the very least, such paintings demonstrate his sense of humor. But they may also attest to something more: a desire, only half-fulfilled, to enliven neutral space by using a cockeyed narrative to turn the bare studio into a resonant space between two people.

Barry Schwabsky