Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M. II, 1984–85, oil on canvas, 26 × 24".

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M. II, 1984–85, oil on canvas, 26 × 24".

Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M. II, 1984–85, oil on canvas, 26 × 24".

Frank Auerbach’s unambiguously palpable paintings keep getting more mysterious the more I look at them. T. J. Clark, in a characteristically rich, knotty, and self-dramatizing essay for the catalogue of this oddly shaped retrospective, writes of seeing one for the first time and thinking it “a crazy inconsequential daub.” That was not my initial impression, but it’s where further acquaintance with the work seems to be leading me. Curiously, the phrase Clark used to sum up his erstwhile disdain for the paintings started to sound like apt praise.

After reading curator Catherine Lampert’s 2015 book Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, as well as her 1978 interview with the artist (reprinted in the exhibition catalogue), I am impressed with how deeply unilluminating the painter’s words are about his practice. Yet, to turn back to the paintings, what is clear above all is a sense of resolve: Auerbach is battling toward a determinate goal, even though it is one that he can’t evoke verbally. When the paintings are relatively unsuccessful, the evident ferocity of his struggle is still remarkable; but at their best, the works convey with astonishing clarity the feeling of something fleetingly glimpsed yet poignant in its impact.

Maybe that’s why, at least this time, I much prefer Auerbach’s portraits to his paintings of London cityscapes. The head—usually it’s just a head rather than a whole figure—gives a focus to the image; it’s where the ephemeral phenomenon flares up and dissolves: the torsion of the neck in Head of J.Y.M. II, 1984–85, for instance, or, in Head of Catherine Lampert, 2004, the unfilled washer of an eye that allows everything around it to go haywire. It was different the last time I saw a big show of Auerbach’s work, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2001. Then, I was fascinated by the cityscapes and the big, sometimes almost ostentatiously heavy-handed gestures with which the artist seemed determined to wreak his blessed rage for order on urban welter.

In the portraits, by contrast, Auerbach seems willing to sacrifice his strenuously attained command of form and structure in favor of some elusive essence—not of the sitter’s characteristic features (you couldn’t pick these people out of a police lineup) or of some psychological disposition (you never feel you’ve gotten to “know” them) but of some possibly impersonal phenomenological moment of interaction. Looking back at the reproductions in the catalogue, I can hardly make out anymore what that was—it seems to live only in the space between the eye and the paint. It is the thing I can no more name than Auerbach himself seems able to do, but it is “inconsequential,” to use Clark’s word, in the literal sense that it has no consequence. It almost seems to stand outside time, though it is perhaps recurrent in memory.

The Tate’s exhibition has been organized into seven rooms. The works in the first six were chosen by Auerbach himself, each room representing a decade, except for the sixth, which covers the years 2000–14. The last and largest of the rooms has been chosen by Lampert without regard to chronology, but with an eye for pieces in which, as she says, “the marks themselves seem imbued with tangible, unguarded feelings and the rectangle has a ‘tense, surface character.’” The paintings themselves seem born of an effort “to present things raw”—as Auerbach approvingly paraphrases D. H. Lawrence’s account of Cézanne—that appears to have something to do with their extraction from anecdote or even chronology. And likewise, throughout, Auerbach and Lampert have avoided a narrative or statement of development so that each work can be, as the artist says, “considered as an absolute which works (or does not work) by itself.” To the extent that they’ve succeeded, one leaves the exhibition with a newfound ignorance that may be truer to Auerbach’s art than the understanding with which one entered.

Barry Schwabsky