Friday, December 1st, 2006

The Scabrous Intensity of Lucian Freud

Acquavella Galleries
18 East 79 Street
New York City

November 2 to December 6, 2006

Lucian Freud Eli and David 2005-06 oil on canvas, 56 x 46 inches Courtesy Acquavella Galleries
Lucian Freud, Eli and David 2005-06 oil on canvas, 56 x 46 inches Courtesy Acquavella Galleries

Exhibitions of paintings by Lucian Freud are always an event. Widely considered Britain’s pre-eminent living painter, the 83-year-old artist has for several decades imparted a uniquely scabrous intensity to masterful renderings of his acquaintances and other subjects in his London studio.

At Acquavella, the most recent figure paintings and etchings show him hardly missing a beat. As always, his portraits and figure paintings seem at once acidly detached and invasively intimate. “Eli and David” (2005–6) depicts a casual-enough scene: a whippet resting in the lap of a bare-chested, trousers-clad man. The artist’s confident brushstrokes place colors side-by-side, tangibly rendering volumes and even the man’s distracted expression and the dog’s sleepy oblivion. Mr. Freud’s palette, however, has a decidedly discordant edge, with caustic grays dividing vibrant yellow-pink and reddish brown skintones; dark reds settle eerily in the deepest shadows of face, hands, and dog’s legs. Even more disconcerting are the bits of crusted paint dragged and deposited by his dissecting strokes, tokens of the sitters’ transient fleshiness.

The faces in several up-close portraits in the exhibition practically condense out of rich, jostling ochres and siennas, interspersed with those insistent grays. Working their way across the features of a painting like “Man in White Shirt” (2002–3), these notes of color gel as individuals — here, as the slender, dense presence of a face emerging from a shirt’s silky folds. This exotic updating of Old Master techniques explains why, when most contemporary paintings sport simple strip frames, these paintings feel completely at home in more ornately traditional ones.

The intelligence of the sitters shines through these portraits’ raw surfaces, but Mr. Freud’s nudes can sometimes seem more like carnal specimens. The artist’s habit of depicting male and female genitalia prominently, with as much focus of detail as faces, suggests an indulgent voyeurism. The three recent paintings of nudes at Acquavella all happen to feature female models, but, at least in the case of “Naked Portrait” (2004), the artist has mellowed slightly; the young woman’s patient, upturned gaze, along with her somewhat less unflattering pose, suggests the artist’s empathy towardher vulnerability. The burnished, silvery tones of the rumpled sheet and flesh make this one of the exhibition’s most memorable works.

One of these paintings of nudes is unexpectedly dainty in size and texture, if not subject. Mr. Freud has left most of the surface of “Small Naked Portrait” (2005) unpainted, but with a relative handful of silky brushstrokes — radiant pink-yellows edged by subdued gray-browns — the artist has palpably caught the impression of limbs splayed revealingly across warm-toned sheets.

Lucian Freud The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer 2004-05 oil on canvas, 64 x 52 inches, Courtesy Acquavella Galleries
Lucian Freud, The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer 2004-05 oil on canvas, 64 x 52 inches, Courtesy Acquavella Galleries

The largest work here, “The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer” (2004–5), may also surprise viewers. Unlike typical recent work, it contains an explicit narrative — a female nude clasping the legs of the artist himself, standing fully clothed in his studio — and also renders the model with a gracefulness closer to classical conventions. It’s a daring move by the artist, though for me the humor is rather undercut by a relaxing of the usual tension in his art between detachment and invasiveness.

Moreover, like other, larger canvases here, it tends to highlight one limitation of his virtuosity. Mr. Freud’s vigorous rendering of his subjects tends to start from their centers, progressing outward in further modelings of forms. He shows less interest in composing from the outside in — that is, in pacing the overall pattern of color across an entire surface. You won’t find anything quite like the grave, measured momentum of the lifted blossom in Rembrandt’s “Woman with a Pink” (c. 1650s), or the out-flung limbs in Courbet’s “Woman With Parrot” (1866), both hanging nearby at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By comparison, parts of a foreground chair and the artist’s own legs in “Painter Surprised” tend to melt into an indeterminate zone.

By any standards, though, Mr. Freud’s several etchings are masterful. The deep, crosshatched tones of “Before the Fourth” (2004) vividly bring out the quiet gleam of the surfaces of a reclining pregnant woman, her lengthening form animated by periodic swellings of hip, belly, and shoulder.

Older prints and paintings are on view in Acquavella’s upstairs gallery. Here one can savor the etching “The Painter’s Mother (first version)” (1982), in which spare lines impart a stately measure to the subject’s creased features. And don’t miss “After Breakfast” (2001), a small painting with the gem-like intimacy of a Dutch genre painting; the artist separates, with a truly tender discrimination of hues, the volumes of a female nude from a sheet’s surrounding folds.

As with Mr. Freud’s previous exhibition at the gallery, a first-floor room is devoted to recent photographs of his studio by hisassistant, David Dawson. One of these depicts studio walls thickly encrusted with paint wiped from palettes and brushes. Another shows the artist at work, naked from the waist up, as fierce and sinewy as his paintings. Several others poignantly picture his models posing, their smooth-skinned, youthful forms being transformed in paint under Mr. Freud’s caustic gaze. These aren’t entirely heartwarming images — the artist’s obsessive purpose suffuses their space — but they’re eloquent testimony to a lifetime spent uncovering painting’s carnal complexities.