What convinces an artist that a work is finished? Larry Poons once said that "the art of painting is knowing when to stop." Frank Auerbach, who is celebrated for heavy, even obsessive overpainting, says that a painting is finished when it "stands up and takes on an existence of its own. It just stands there and looks at you, and you think, 'I can't fiddle with this, it's got nothing to do with me.'"
The German-born School of London veteran has pulled out all the stops for this show of 28 recent paintings and eight new drawings, his first New York exhibition in five years. Lately, Auerbach's been painting at a fast and furious pace, but the vibrant works on view here are as thoughtful and introspective as ever.
The signature style he has developed since the 1960s is still in place -- layer upon layer of messy oil paint slathered on using dirty brushes. Sometimes he scrapes large hunks of paint off the canvas to start again, with the ghost of the earlier composition haunting the work. But his approach has mellowed a bit. He has lightened his palette somewhat and his brushwork is looser than before. In these paintings, the atmosphere is quite palpable, but you can still breathe the air.
Auerbach's landscapes, such as Mornington Crescent Looking South and the Studio series, for instance, are among the most brilliant works of his career. His searing yellows recall the emotional intensity of van Gogh. It seems that Auerbach, whose work in the past was often compared with de Kooning's, has now moved closer to his ambition to rival modernism's "Old Masters," especially van Gogh and Soutine. Certainly, Auerbach's portraits of his friends Catherine Lampert and David Landau, for example, exude the vitality and emotional energy of folks who can indeed stand up and work a room.
Frank Auerbach, Sept. 23-Oct. 30, 1998, at Marlborough, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y 10019.