The paintings in the first room of Frank Auerbach’s Tate Britain retrospective date from the postwar years, yet their glistening surfaces—almost sculptural in thickness—look as if they still may not have dried. The accumulation of earthen paint in Building Site, Earls Court Road, Winter (1953) harbors a bleary, benighted image of urban renewal: architectural structures are rendered as mere planes, while the world beyond is evoked by a wedge of gravelly light. In E.O.W. Nude (1953-54), a body bathed in gray takes shape from encrustations of grime-colored oil paint. There is a tussle in these early works between the substance and the subject of the paint that has come to define Auerbach’s art.
These paintings were made when Auerbach first moved to his studio in the Mornington Crescent region of north London, where he has remained ever since, in the same room painting every day. Curated by Catherine Lampert, the exhibition moves decade by decade from the 1950s to the 2000s (with a final, eclectic room), adopting a sparse and appropriately Spartan format: eight works per gallery, with minimal text. Despite the chronological sequence, a brief opening statement disavows any wish to demonstrate development. And perhaps that notion is irrelevant in attempting to describe Auerbach’s oeuvre: it has accumulated, rather than evolved, with a kind of doggedness (he has admired the same quality in Constable), just as his very paintwork accrues through Sisyphean cycles of scraping away and building up.
Throughout his life, Auerbach has gone back again and again to the same sitters and the same views of London. (E.O.W. is Stella West, a lover whom he painted during the ’50s and ’60s. She was 30 and he 17 when they met.) Yet it would be impossible to call his work stagnant or self-repeating. He distills long-familiar subjects into new arrangements of hard line and pregnant color, often seeming to carve into his own paintwork with the brush. Blue and maroon zigzags dance (or tear) across a field of acidic yellow in Primrose Hill, Summer (1968), while the scattered linear hatchings of portraits such as Reclining Head of Julia II (1997) act as a loose matrix, holding Auerbach’s shearing, turbulent color in position—and keeping the image intact, just.
The large E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden II (1964) encapsulates the dual tendency toward integrity and dissipation in Auerbach’s imagery. It portrays—or intimates—bodies in an indistinct yet bordered space, their presences captured in swiveling ocher and russet marks. Out of hard coagulations of paint, Auerbach evokes the incoherent nature of the event in the garden: the figures and the space simultaneously materialize and dissolve, as if into heat ripples. In E.O.W.’s Reclining Head II (1966), a body lingers somewhere within the streaks and globules of red, white and yellow, but it is tentative and shifting. The more Auerbach layers and sculpts the stuff of paint, the less graspable the attitude and mood of E.O.W and other sitters. Capturing the subject is also a kind of undoing.
This retrospective lays bare the oddity of the fact that Auerbach continues to be placed (commercially and curatorially) in the category of British postwar art—as were his contemporaries Bacon and Freud, although both managed to transcend that provincial club by their later years. One wonders why this major exhibition is taking place at Tate Britain when those of Gilbert & George (2007) and Damien Hirst (2012) were considered appropriate for the international profile of Tate Modern.
But the show, in its eloquence and concision, transcends and—in the end—trivializes these quibbles of categorization. The survey reveals Auerbach as a painter who succeeds, in his moments of profoundest localism, in being transhistorical and international.