When Frank Auerbach first came to public notice – emerged rather than burst – in the 1950s he was noted as a “British Expressionist” in the white hot enthusiasm for the American abstract colourists Clement Greenberg (not to mention the American government) was punting around the world with spectacular success.

It was a gross misreading of his work. Auerbach was not concerned with conveying an emotional response but has spent his life examining his changing relationship with objects, people and scenes to which he has returned repeatedly for 60 years. He is part of an extraordinary post-war flourish of British talent that was too often only seen in the context of the likes of Pollock, Rothko and Newman and, difficult though it can sometimes be to read, Auerbach’s work is never abstract in the sense of internalised perception. His paintings are not mere expressions, they are evocations, and although the paint is applied very quickly and often in large amounts, the process can be prolix. Often they require long consideration by the viewer, a case in which patience is always rewarded as a form gradually becomes plain from a maelstrom of paint. That is Auerbach’s inimitable magic.

Hampstead Road, High Summer, 2010, Oil paint on board, 562 x 562 mm © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Hampstead Road, High Summer, 2010, Oil paint on board, 562 x 562 mm © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

This exhibition is not just a retrospective, it is the artist’s own statement on his life’s work, chosen, he says, not particularly chronologically and certainly not stylistically or by subject or context, but so that ‘each work be considered as an absolute which works (or does not work) by itself’. Yet there is a chronology in that six rooms are each devoted to a decade, with the seventh being a kind of summary by his friend and long time sitter the curator Catherine Lampert.

Auerbach builds his paintings, and famously his impasto can be several inches thick so that some of the frames here are more like vitrines, so deep do they have to be to accommodate the mountain of oil paint. But as he shows with his choices, he can excavate an idea as much with sparse almost faint strokes as he can by piling paint on with a palette knife (and the piling on is not a process of correction, he will scrape off ounces of pigment if he feels it is not going right and start again).

One of the wonders of Auerbach’s art is that he gets so much from so little, and it would be easy to assume that each image of a sitter or a scene is a new attempt to get it right, writing-off what went before. It doesn’t work like that for him: each essay is an articulation of the truth he sees at a moment, and sometimes developing over years, and each offers answers to a perception of a new verity. He has got a whole world out of Mornington Crescent. In Lampert’s room she has included three images from 1988 called J.Y.M. Seated in the Studio in which his long-time model Juliet Yardley Mills is painted in exactly the same pose. They could almost be like different state impressions from a print process, but they are individual paintings in which Auerbach has found different qualities in the scene through using different pigments – none is a preparation, each is a resolution.

E. O. W Half-length Nude, 1958, Oil paint on board, 762 x 508 mm © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Arts
E. O. W Half-length Nude, 1958, Oil paint on board, 762 x 508 mm © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Arts

He introduces himself in the first room by covering a huge span of his early work. There are two portraits of his friend and stalwart sitter Stella West (‘E.O.W.’). One is a charcoal drawing of 1959-60 in which the exquisitely drawn features – almost a Henry Moore face – look out expressionlessly and slightly austerely from a piece of paper that is dotted with marks, bits of stuck-on labels, old adhesive marks, as though she is an authoritative presence in a space of casual chaos (there is a self-portrait of 1958 in the same vein). Four years earlier he had painted a Head of E.O.W. in a dark study in which the sitter’s melancholy face emerges from a background of thick dark swirls, mordantly pale and looking down in an almost sculptural statement of features. And then again, Head of E.O.W II of 1961 is so impasto it cannot help but be a flurry of movement, and in this impression there is gentleness, humour, affection, fun – action painting in which the action is in the image, not the energy of the artist.

Auerbach’s story is remarkable but not unusual for the mid-20th century. He came to England aged eight on the Kindertransport leaving behind the parents he was never to see again. Naturalised British in 1947 he studied at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, but with his friend Leon Kossoff did David Bomberg’s famous evening classes at Borough Institute which perhaps gave him the con dence to be so different. His first solo show was at the Beaux-Arts in 1956 and he was taken up by the critic David Sylvester, and his reputation grew so that in 1978 the Arts Council gave him a Hayward Gallery retrospective when he was still in his forties. In 1981 he was a strong part of the RA’s seminal New Spirit in Painting, curated by Christos Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota, in which he took his place alongside not only Francis Bacon, R B Kitaj and Lucian Freud but Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Pablo Picasso as representing the most inventive work of the 1970s.

Mornington Cresent, 1965 © Frank Auerbach courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art
Mornington Cresent, 1965 © Frank Auerbach courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art

By then he had found his place, Camden, from which he seldom budges, painting what he sees about him and each time extracting a new essence, and at 85 he is painting with undiminished enthusiasm and invention – the most recent painting here is one of his studio from 2014. Primrose Hill appears frequently in his show, cold, stark and slashed with blood red ssures in Spring Sunshine, angular but festively green and red in Winter Evening of 1974-5, and then in 1971 a joyous sweep of flowing warm summer strokes in Primrose Hill.

His portraits are not so much likenesses as descriptions, and he has included two of his son Jake in 2008-9 and 2009-10, both head and shoulders in exactly the same pose, but the rst is oil the other charcoal and pencil, and the effect is the same as having a different conversation with the same person. In fact, the next Auerbach exhibition should be in the National Portrait Gallery.

In this exhibition Auerbach shows himself as an artist who has accomplished, the points in his life of those accomplishments being irrelevant, and in his catalogue essay the arts historian T J Clark has a phrase which sums it up perfectly: ‘. . . full of grimful glee . . .’.

Frank AuerbachTate Britain, until 13 March 2016

By Simon Tait

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