Frank Auerbach (b 1931, Berlin) has made some of the most resonant and inventive paintings of recent times, of people and of the urban landscapes near his London studio. In the artist’s 85th year, Tate Britain presents a major exhibition of around 70 paintings and drawings from the 1950s to the present day. The exhibition reaffirms Auerbach’s status as one of the pre-eminent painters of our age and will offer new insights into the nature of his painting.
Painting 365 days a year, Auerbach produces his characteristically tactile and visually dynamic work in the same studio he has occupied since 1954. For half a century he has worked in an uncompromising way, scraping back the surface of the canvas to start and re-start the painting process. He begins afresh for months or years until the single painting or drawing is realised in a matter of hours, having finally surprised him.
The depth, texture and sense of space in a painting by Auerbach makes standing in front of one a unique experience. The vast majority of works in the exhibition are from private collections and seldom on public display, providing a rare opportunity to see these important works in the flesh. It includes early portraits such as Head of Leon Kossoff 1954, as well as landscapes such as Building Site, Earl’s Court, Winter 1953 which come out of Auerbach’s identification with post-war London as a raw unpainted city rebuilt after bombing.
Large works from the 1960s include E.O.W, S.A.W. and J.J.W in the Garden II 1964 and The Origin of the Great Bear 1967-68, a mythological landscape set on London’s Hampstead Heath. Primrose Hill 1971 and Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station 1972-74 also use expressive directional brushstrokes to suggest London’s foliage, street lamps and passers-by. Portraits of Auerbach’s longstanding model Juliet Yardley Mills, Head of J.Y.M. II 1984-85 and of his wife, Head of Julia II 1985 are also shown, revealing a freer, more fluid treatment of paint. Auerbach’s recent paintings of Mornington Crescent underline his identification with the area, such as The House II 2011, along with further portraits of the five sitters, Julia, Jake Auerbach, Catherine Lampert, David Landau and William Feaver, who visit his studio each week.
Focusing on this close group of sitters and locations makes Auerbach exceptionally aware of changes in the exact look and spirit of his subjects. He has an acute awareness of time gradually fading away, and has described how he has ‘a strong sense of wanting to pin experience down before it disappears.’
Auerbach has suggested the form and the selection of the first six of eight galleries, looking for distinct works which are grouped by decades. The art historian Catherine Lampert, who has sat for the artist for thirty-seven years, has complemented this by concentrating on the continuity of subjects and Auerbach’s ability to absolutely avoid repetition. Working closely with the artist, the exhibition is curated by Catherine Lampert with Elena Crippa, Helen Little and Sarah Olivey at Tate Britain. The exhibition was organised by Tate Britain in association with the Kunstmuseum Bonn where it was shown from 6 June 2015 to 13 September 2015.