The gloopy glory of Frank Auerbach's portraits

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The gloopy glory of Frank Auerbach's portraits
Installation view. © Frank Auerbach; Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London and Luhring Augustine, New York.

by Jason Farago

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A few weeks ago I reread “The Emigrants,” W.G. Sebald’s sublime 1992 requiem of four men driven, in the face of totalitarianism, from Central Europe to England and America. In its last and most moving chapter we meet refugee Max Ferber, a painter whom the narrator watches in a dusty Manchester studio, working and reworking a series of portraits with almost obsessive repetition.

“He applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded,” Sebald’s narrator observes. He watches the artist paint and scrape, draw and erase — and then marvels that somehow “Ferber, with the few lines and shadows that had escaped annihilation, had created a portrait of great vividness.”

When Sebald first published the novel in German, Max Ferber was called Max Aurach — and he is based in large part on Frank Auerbach, the British artist of oily, encrusted paintings that teeter between durability and disintegration. Auerbach, who turns 90 in April, is the last surviving member of a pathfinding generation of postwar British figurative painters, and 25 of his industrious paintings and drawings, made across four decades, each the hard-won product of months or even years of labor, are on view at the Manhattan gallery Luhring Augustine.

Though he had a career retrospective a few years ago at Tate Britain in London, “Frank Auerbach: Selected Works, 1978-2016” is his first substantial exhibition in New York in 15 years. Viscid, murky, closely held, these paintings are definitely not the sort you love at first sight — but they are so rewarding to fathom in person (though the gallery has produced a handsome digital walk-through and a catalog). It might have a particular value for young artists who are living through a revival in the fortunes of portrait painting, though of a safer kind that translates seamlessly from canvas to Instagram. In Auerbach’s dense, congealed surfaces, they may discover how even the most compelling of portraits has to come up to the edge of failure.

Auerbach was born in 1931 in Berlin. At the age of 8, his father and mother sent him via the Kindertransport to an English boarding school; both his parents were later murdered at Auschwitz. The educational institution swiftly Anglicized the orphan refugee, and in London he would come under the tutelage of David Bomberg, a still underappreciated painter who channeled Jewish themes into a hard, angular modernism.

The British capital of Auerbach’s youth was a war-scarred, coal-stained place, and even as London reemerged as a global financial capital, his art has retained something of that postwar grit. His color palette has a dark metropolitan grime: burned oranges and sallow yellows, the dirty browns and olives of a filthy bus window. In “Head of Julia” (1985), a portrait of his wife, Julia Wolstenholme, the sitter’s skin, hair and shirt occupy a narrow band of brown and ocher smears, only a bit differentiated from a background of bilious blue-green.

Auerbach’s portraits converge through fluid, vigorous lines, full of zigzags and hairpin turns, applied with an almost vulgar density. In “Catherine Lampert Seated” (1994), another frequent Auerbach model has been stylized into a tangle of lines that would be cubistic if they weren’t so wide and sloppy. To the left of the sitter is a hard-to-interpret helix of sickly, mossy yellow-green: a calligraphic whirlwind that, from another painter, would read as a gesture of impertinence.

But get up close. Observe the raised edges of the brush strokes: raw, trembling. Thicker even than van Gogh’s. They’ve cohered through wet-on-wet mixing into a strange, alienating hybrid color, made even stranger by the apposition of equally thick background strokes of soiled coral.

Auerbach gets here by painting, repainting, repainting; by scraping off earlier versions of the composition dozens, if not hundreds, of times. (“His paint bills are extraordinary,” related Lampert, who curated the Tate retrospective and has sat for him since 1978.) Sometimes the pigment gets so heavy that the paintings can appear almost like bas-reliefs. At Luhring Augustine, you’ll want to look at these portraits both head-on and from an oblique angle, to see the accreted oils in all their gloopy glory.

His use of impasto, far from being a painterly end in itself, records the painter’s close looking. Which, when you think about it, has an irony: The pigments ripple and undulate, clot and coagulate, and resolve into images that, while arresting, seems not to be observational at all. Especially when he isolates the sitter’s head, the portraits can feel closer to the aberrant art brut of Jean Dubuffet than to his fellow Londoners Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff or Lucian Freud (his good friend, and a fellow German Jewish emigrant).

Look at another portrait of his wife, from 2009. It hardly looks like a portrait at all. Julia appears to be just a dense knot of thick golden strokes. The impasto is both a veil and a mirror, and much of the pleasure and challenge of these paintings comes from the tension between the careful observation in the dusty studio and the thick, fossilized surfaces of the finished paintings. You looked at someone for a whole year and saw … this?

Auerbach’s world is small, though small can also mean concentrated. He almost never leaves London, and he has been working nearly seven days a week, for more than 50 years, in the same dusty studio in Camden Town. His cityscapes are hardly as authoritative as his portraits, but here, too, bizarre color combinations and thickly applied oils offer the comfortless peculiarity that can arise from a lifetime of looking.

This show also includes half a dozen portrait drawings, all in gritty black and white. Unlike the paintings, whose impasto reveals almost nothing of their many earlier versions, the charcoal drawings retain spectral traces of Auerbach’s add-and-subtract technique. “Head of David Landau” (2006) records another of his frequent sitters through nervous charcoal tremolos, the pate a thicket of angles, the right ear picked out as a sharp chevron. But to either side of the sitter’s head, in lighter gray, are half-perceptible shades of the same man: earlier efforts that hover behind the composition like specters.

There was actually a charcoal portrait like this one in Sebald’s novel, a book that left Auerbach entirely displeased. When “The Emigrants” was translated into English, the painter refused its publisher’s request to reproduce the drawing. But the more I looked at “Head of David Landau,” the more I felt that Sebald’s fictional refugee painter could himself be another one of Auerbach’s subjects, a figure built out of erasures and emendations, cohering through the chance survival of a few lines not scrubbed away.

In Ferber’s dusty Manchester studio, Sebald’s narrator beholds “a long lineage of gray, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.” It is an art whose resolution, and even beauty, comes from the few strokes that defy oblivion.

Frank Auerbach: Selected Works, 1978-2016

Through Feb. 20 at Luhring Augustine, 531 W. 24th St., Manhattan; 212-206-9100,

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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