To begin the new year, InSight considers a formative moment in the work of Frank Auerbach. In the late sixties and early seventies, a radical shift from relief-like impasto to scraped-down finish took place in his paintings.
InSight No. 116
Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W., 1972
Over a series of paintings made on paper, canvas and board in 1971 and 1972, Frank Auerbach’s (b. 1931) work took a wintry turn. Cool hues of blue, black, grey and white came to dominate. One painting of Stella West, illustrated above, was painted wet-on-wet using brilliant, unmixed hues of blue and white, overlaid with an armature of broad, flat, extended strokes in black and dark blue. As with all of Auerbach’s heads, the result is a startling idiomatic transformation loaded with suggestions of space and volume – an extraordinary reconciliation of pictorial representation and formal exaggeration.
Auerbach’s pictures are never made in series and seldom belong to a projected programme of work. As he said to Judith Bumpus in 1986, ‘Every time I finish a picture it takes a form or colour I don’t expect’. Nevertheless, a close inspection of his output shows that he frequently becomes interested in certain narrowly defined formal problems. The result is a collection of pictures, closely related in their choices of colour and shape, over the course of which Auerbach exhaustively interrogates the limits of his chosen problem. In 1971, the year before Head of E.O.W. was made, Auerbach produced another portrait of West using an identical palette, illustrated below. In 1972, Head of E.O.W. was one of three paintings that showed West in profile, all of them using a palette of blue and white and dark blue for the accents.
Auerbach’s first art dealer Helen Lessore well understood these episodic shifts in his work. In an essay, she described several instances of ‘sharp change’ and commented: ‘Over and over again one can see this sequence repeated in the course of his painting life.’ The formal character of these changes is apparent from the fact that different sitters are sometimes treated using the same colours and shapes. It was not only Stella West who was depicted in the wintry mode of 1971 and 1972. Laurie Owen, Paula Eyles and J.Y.M. were also used for pictures of this type. Changes of direction were mostly prompted by the artist rather than his subject, it seems.
One lasting change in Auerbach’s work took place in around 1968, when he ceased to make demonstrably ‘thick’ paintings. Where his paintings of 1967 are richly laced with additive reworking, subsequent years show paintings with surfaces just one layer thick. Loaded brushstrokes touch down on pitted, scraped back supports. Although the paint is thick in places, the impression is of a bravura finish achieved in a single sitting. As Auerbach explained to Richard Cork some years later, in his earlier work, ‘I was so unsure of what I wanted to do. I felt I would really be throwing the whole painting away if I scraped it all off, so I would always leave some of it on and scrape some of it off’. Where scraping back had been used locally, only when the image became turgid and intractable, from the late sixties and early seventies it was used systematically. After a sitting, the entire surface was removed in preparation for the next session. In concert with this coherent method came a consistent ‘idiom’. Through an endless cycle of changing formal parameters, Auerbach has largely continued to use the mode he established at this formative moment of his working life.
Piano Nobile’s recent exhibition, Frank Auerbach: The Sitters, included five paintings that the artist made between 1970 and 1973. From work to work, a detectable shift of attitude is apparent. No two are alike, yet the relationship between the form of the painting and the form of the subject is notably different between 1970 and 1973. Where the earlier works used darkened ‘accents’ to serve a tonal function (indicating shadow and the relation of dark to light), later works use them instead as clamps or points of emphasis. These years stand out as a significant period after the implicit rejection of ‘thick’ painting, with his personal ‘idiom’ growing clearer with each passing year.
Notwithstanding his desire to search out new formal parameters, certain old parameters have returned from time to time – though only in pictures made several decades later. In 1998, a painting of David Landau recast the narrow palette of blue and white from the early seventies, with Auerbach using the mode of execution that characterised his work in the nineties – finer brushes, flatter textures and a greater tendency to blend accents into the pictorial scheme. Such paintings have equal force to their precursors, even as they register as echoes of earlier ideas. As Auerbach has matured, the game of producing ‘a new thing’ has grown trickier and evinced ever more subtle moves. With an unfailing nerve, he continues to play his own game with aplomb.
1. Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W., 1972, oil on board, 27.9 x 35.6 cm, Private Collection
2. Head of E.O.W. (detail)
3. Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W., 1971, Private Collection © Frank Auerbach
4. Frank Auerbach, Portrait of Laurie Owen, 1971, Private Collection © Frank Auerbach
5. Installation shot from Piano Nobile’s exhibition Frank Auerbach: The Sitters
6. Frank Auerbach, Head of David Landau, 1998, Private Collection © Frank Auerbach
7. Head of E.O.W. (framed)