Royal Academy of Arts, London,
through 12 December.
Reclining Head of Julia 1995. 1995, acrylic on board
All this achievement begs one major question: why ever has it taken since l978 (the occasion of Rodrigo Moynihan’s exhibition) for the main galleries of Burlington House to be devoted to a single living British painter? But that is also another story, for which the present organisers are in no way responsible. Here in London, at last, we find the medium of paint, and critically for the past few years, given its proper due. Auerbach more than amply fulfils this bargain with posterity, at last filling the void at what is surely a vital moment in contemporary art. The six rooms here allocated (now shared not coincidentally, but deliberately for the planners) with the highly successful ‘Rembrandt’s Women’ exhibition (from the National Galleries of Scotland to 16 December) demonstrate common attributes in the work of two masters – courage, technical risk-taking of an obsessive kind, and a fundamental degree of originality of approach.
Auerbach demonstrates a kind of sombre restraint that embraces brush stroke and palette knife movement that comes at brilliantly timed and placed intervals. As Rembrandt’s more intimate works remind us, intimacy between the artist and the subject being painted is a fragile knife-edge, readily destroyable by one more or less indulgent brush stroke, one liberty too many imposed from either one to the other. Whether for Rembrandt’s inconstant exploitation of Stoclet, or Auerbach’s persistent dependency on Stella West as his own companion and sitter (EOW titles) over twenty years, this runs true.
Auerbach was tutored by David Bomberg: Bomberg was taught by Sickert. While it is appropriate to place Auerbach against the precedent of Soutine and Kirchner, his work also connects with that of closer contemporaries such as Giacometti, and New York -based de Kooning. Pervasive in this line-up is the experience, the tangible evidence of such intimacies of contact.
Catherine Lampert, in her catalogue essay, has diligently pursued this aspect of Auerbach’s work, his portraits, or better-described ‘heads’ (as in the room specifically dedicated to People); she has explored his relations with the people he painted here, as well as commenting on her own role as a sitter. Focussing on the perceptible presence on these occasions of ‘personality’ as transfigured by Auerbach, she finds that he explores this kind of aura quite obsessively. The sitters invariably tend to be well known to the painter, yet social presence is not acknowledged other than as a front to be opened up in the process of work in progress.
Bryan Robertson has referred to the way Auerbach uses paint ‘as an alchemist might employ known materials in a magical way in order to effect a transformation, so he manipulates paint almost as a mysterious vehicle which might, at a certain moment, suddenly reveal a new truth, an original disclosure, as well as embody a moment of perception.’ Since such comments were made, in ‘Private View’ (l965), Auerbach has developed the brilliant talent that he then possessed more and more. Each painting has emerged through this alchemical process. We see two phenomena: firstly the presence of developing technique and compositional system over the decades. This is accompanied, quite distinctly, by the self-evident metamorphosis of Auerbach’s own perception of his subject, whether a human subject as site, or the series of studies of building sites literally, as painted in the past two decades. In every case, the result is wholly within the artist’s tautology, and yet entirely unique and original too.
Craigie Aitchison – Two important exhibitions overlapped recently in England: the first was in Kendal, in the English Lake District, and the second at the Royal Academy in London.
New German Painting – book review
This book, edited by Christoph Tannert, provides a well-edited selection of contemporary work by younger artists and allows a structured 'road map' about what is actually going on. In fact, the scene is very dynamic and innovative, precisely as contributor Graham Bader indicates.
The Art of Ken Done
Janet McKenzie's book, The Art of Ken Done, is about an Australian artist who, apparently, has never been recognised by some of his country's leading art critics, and who poses problems because of the seeming naivete of his work and the fact that he is also a designer.
Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan
Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan, edited by Gregory Levine and Yukio Lippit, accompanies a major exhibition of medieval Chinese (Chan) and Japanese (Zen) figure paintings held at Japan Society in New York City (28 March-17 June 2007).* Like the exhibit - the first survey of medieval Zen figure painting by a US museum in more than thirty years - the catalogue is an important component in recent study and critical debate of the history, function and characteristics of such works created during this pivotal period in the development of institutional Zen in Japan.
Rothko through his paintings
Rothko through his paintings – The intention here is to elucidate Rothko's achievement in terms of the paintings themselves. The danger of the literary approach to Rothko is not that it necessarily mistakes his intentions, but that it diverts attention from the primary expression of his intelligence, his paintings.