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Frank Auerbach and Getting Back to the Studio

I was at the Denver Art Museum this last week – and I’m looking forward to writing about that soon — the flower paintings at the “In Bloom” exhibition.  It was quite something.  But before I get to that I need to write about the Frank Auerbach podcast, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/podcast-frank-auerbach-in, from a few months ago, that a friend had sent to me and that I just finally got around to listening to last night.

I’m not sure what it is exactly that hit me.  Certainly his commitment to painting — and his straightforwardness.  There was a simplicity and dignity to his responses, and a modesty.  He reminded me of my teacher, Andrew, whom I miss dearly – the thoughtfulness and deep regard for the activity of painting (not to mention the accent).  The lineage of painting, as a deep human activity.  I found the conversation very stirring and I could locate within me parts that often lay dormant.

Auerbach, Primrose Hill, 1962

It wasn’t just stirring – it was also disturbing.  To listen to his words and speech, and to realize that I had forgotten,  had been forgetting something essential, something crucial really.  It’s not just a question of painting; it’s a question of the dignity and clarity and fullness of life that the activity of painting brings to us.  The putting into form – this…this life.

Frank Auerbach in his studio in Camden Town. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Auerbach

It’s just such a challenge, isn’t it, in this world we’ve created, to carve out the time to paint, and I mean deeply paint, and to do that with decency (Auerbach confesses at one point in the interview how his commitment to painting as a younger man led him to make decisions that were quite not decent) – when money is not to be made – at least these days – and the calls from the barrage of one’s life, the good stuff – one’s precious children, and the necessary stuff – one’s financial obligations, among everything else, are unceasing.  How does one remember?  How does one really get to it?

I don’t know how to say it now.  This uncertainty.  These last months having so little time to paint.  And the lack of ground that that engenders – or perhaps, reveals.  And then that groundlessness, and listening to Pema Chodron this morning in her talk entitled “Unconditional Confidence” speaking of her teacher’s term, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s term, “ubiquitous nervousness”.  And what was it Giacometti said about his constant practice of painting and sculpting?  “It helps to keep the fear away.”  And what does it mean then to allow and face that fear?  And what does that have to do, does that have to do, with painting?

How does one touch ground and lose ground at the same time?

Auerbach, JYM II, 1984-1985

I wrote this note to myself after a recent painting session.  Thought I’d share it:

So is it bad form to discuss a lapse in studio time? I mean is that like airing your dirty laundry, mentioning how long it’s been since you were last in the studio? (“Bad form”?)

But then I don’t know how to mention and give context to the utter pleasure of being in the studio today and, well – painting. What singular pleasure! I don’t know what it’s about – just that it’s good. That it’s good to do. …why? I don’t really know.  But here we are.

Something essential. Something human. Something about seeing, and being, and making. Somehow getting all those pieces together and living them. That’s sort of what we do. And it enlarges life. Vivifies it. Verifies it. Gives it its due and allows us some kind of clear participation. As we are. Human beings and all… 

Interior with Five Chairs III, work in progress



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