Most young painters seem able only to reflect on their inability to do what Frank Auerbach does: construct equivalents of observed reality which do not seem naive, oblivious, obsolescent or reactionary. He makes much contemporary painting seem like a mechanism designed to teach someone to emulate his process. Next Door III (2011–12), the show’s largest oil painting, at a little over 50 inches high, is a cityscape seen from the entrance of the studio in the London suburb of Camden that the 81-year-old Auerbach has occupied since the 1950s. This selection of recent work consisted largely of variations on this motif, mostly in colored pastel on 8-inch-square sheets of paper, hung in grids. The artist has painted the view so often that its patchwork of diagonals is impressed upon the cultural retina like a Richter candle or a Warhol Marilyn. But unlike them, Auerbach’s painting is not an image of an image, and not really an image at all, but an investing of awkwardly viscous oil paint with an accretion of subjective perceptions.
Auerbach once said that he wanted his paintings to be like nothing on earth, but like their subjects, and Next Door III‘s deep canyon of stacked rooftops is surely a reimagining of the facts tempered by awe, desire, nostalgia and sleight of hand. An abiding contradiction between a rigorously empirical intention and a language of abstract notations characterizes the work of the group of painters—particularly Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Francis Bacon—who emerged in 1950s London, pitching a dissenting representational idiom at the modernist mainstream, even as their work assimilated some of the contemporaneous discoveries of Pollock and de Kooning. Auerbach’s version of this approach is a strenuous but unself-conscious gesturalism, the consequence of a mind and hand consummately absorbed in arriving at an unpremeditated solution that equates to the painting’s subject without illustrating it. Such flights of fancy do not detract from the hair’s-breadth accuracy of the draftsmanship. No attention is free to intentionally make “Auerbach marks.” The mire of postmodern self-reflexivity is circumvented, as the marks, assimilated by the order they comprise, fuse into often outlandish, but always precise, metaphors for the reality they capture.
At Marlborough, clusters of sketches combined with a few oil and acrylic paintings evoked Auerbach’s discipline of allowing repeated brief sightings to accumulate over years into paintings densely packed with observations, like archeological strata. An Auerbach is a series of reiterations and erasures, restatements and qualifications. The earthy palette results from a final overworking of a mass of applied color, its brightness dimmed as matter is harnessed into focus. The paintings tend to be under 20 inches across, due to the physical demands of creating a painting in a single sitting, over a ground that has previously been covered and subsequently scraped off over innumerable unsatisfactory attempts at reaching a conclusion.
The support of the painting Reclining Head of Julia (2012), with its rounded corners, appears to be a bread board. Auerbach re-creates jawline, cranium and collar bone from viridian strokes that intimate a universal, constructivist language, even as they render the unmistakable pride and self-assertion in his wife’s raised chin. She is subsumed into the objecthood of the painting—hence the bread board-but Auerbach registers that her acquiescence to the medium memorializing her is willful.
Photo: Frank Auerbach: Next Door III, 2011-12, oil on canvas, 52â?? by 46¼ inches; at Marlborough