New York

Frank Auerbach

Marlborough | Midtown

There’s not much left of mimesis in Frank Auerbach’s new paintings and drawings. Where previously there was a balance—however uneasy—between the picture (usually a portrait or a London street scene) and the gestural handling that gave it dramatic substance, the new work tilts—almost, it seems, irreversibly—toward gesture. The medium—and its handling—seems to be the message here. The particularity of the people and places identified by the pictures’ titles seems to have been sacrificed to the particularity of touch. But the paint has personality—Auerbach’s personality. One recalls Dostoyevsky’s remark: “The painter seeks the moment when the model looks most like himself” (“himself” being the artist, not the model). “The portraitist’s gift lies in the ability to spot this moment and hang on to it.” Auerbach’s paintings and drawings are self-portraits in principle if not in appearance: They are “signature paintings,” and their signature—brisk, dense, staccato marks, blunt but animated—give us a real sense of the artist’s character.

And it is clearly still a vital character, still energetic after a half-century of work. The new paintings show that a late style need not be an empty variation of an earlier one. There’s a new uncanniness to Auerbach’s gestures here, a controlled effusiveness. Control is evident in the fact that the gestures are organized into the semblance of a picture even as the picture seems to be falling apart. The two versions of Reclining Head of Julia, both 2005, for example, present an array of quixotic squiggles that unexpectedly add up to a ghostly figure or face. Julia, Auerbach’s wife, is once again his obsessive theme in these new works, all of which seem in perpetual process. Perhaps the artist is unable to definitively identify Dostoyevsky’s narcissistic moment of likeness because he doesn’t really know how he looks when he isn’t painting—because he’s more familiar with and certain of the friends and loved ones he portrays than he is with and of himself.

Along with Leon Kossoff, Auerbach is a member of the school of Lucian Freud, which was, in effect, founded by Francis Bacon. And there is an aggression to Auerbach’s works, albeit one often passed off as high spirits, which suggests the painter of the “Screaming Pope” (one recalls the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s account of aggression as a “disintegration product” of a collapsing self ). Auerbach’s portrait drawings—a group of eight were also on view here—are expressionistic constructions of black lines set against a background of lighter gray lines, confirming the nebulousness and transience of the figure. This sense of evanescence, with its melancholy import, is also present, albeit ironically, in the five far less somber Mornington Crescent paintings. The optimistic coloration of these works, ostensibly dealing with the changing seasons, belies their fundamental mournfulness. Auerbach’s heightened impressionism announces the final efflorescence that disguises the instinct for death.

Donald Kuspit