For many years Auerbach was hailed as a master in the making. He was always deemed to be good, but never quite great. More recently he has been rather taken for granted, widely regarded as one of our finest living painters, but one who has probably said all that he has to say. His recent paintings and drawings, roughly the last six years' work, suggest that this is not the case. He has adopted a brighter, broader palette, and the mood is warmer and more cheerful than in the past. The subjects are the same, now familiar, streets and faces, but their combined effect is one of powerful intimacy not repetition.
Auerbach's style has changed a little over the years. He used to pile the paint on layer over layer, working slowly and re-working, searching for the image and building a deep surface of paint. The effect was sometimes muddy, a little cloying, sometimes more like corrosion. A while ago he stopped piling it on and began to scrape back the surface between sessions. He still paints thickly: there are still sweeps and rolls of pure paint squeezed straight from the tube, but the sense of in-built history, of the painting's own past behind the final image, is achieved in a more subtle way. A painted portrait can take Auerbach well over 100 sittings to complete, yet the final strokes that define the face are made in a few moments. This is perhaps what he means by defining painting as "playing a small trick with time".
Up close these pictures are often unreadable, lost in the lines of paint, but they are almost always revealed at a distance. It is a mystery how he does this. At arm's length they hardly make sense. One wonders if he has his brush tied to the end of a broomstick. The drawings are the same, but almost more so: at pencil distance they seem like a series of chaotic scribbles, but from afar they are definite and very deliberate portraits.
Auerbach rarely makes prints, but a handful of etchings included in the current exhibition (the best of which is a fantastic little Giacometti- like portrait of his old friend Lucian Freud) show that his constant reworkings, the rubbing out of pencil or scraping back of paint, is a process of seeking the image rather than hiding mistakes. You can't get away with mistakes in copper plate: all the marks remain behind the final image, as in a way they remain behind all of Auerbach's work.
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