Frank Auerbach: painting uncertainty


Picking up on something I wrote a while back after visiting a major retrospective of Frank Auerbach’s work held at Tate Britain:

Frank Auerbach creates a cathedral of perception and then invites his viewers to do the same in this presentation of his life work at the Tate.

Visitors around the gallery are hanging on for dear life as they struggle to pin down the sliding and careening swirls of paint into some sort of fixed reality: “Oh, yes, now I see it!..”,  recognising something for a moment that then slips awayAuerbach is a philosopher akin to Heisenberg as he forces us to question our own sense of certainty, not only as we perceive it in the visible world but also in our thinking. These paintings also force us to think and to feel, reminding us that these are not mutually exclusive activities.

In the hallowed space of the Tate everyone looks up from the grid for a moment, and is surprised because Auerbach’s paintings celebrate the constancy of that familiar view, recalling your own view as you step outside your door in the morning. This is not a mood, some invented aura suffusing the work, rather the feeling of something that permeates the ground we stand upon. There is something redemptive in this experience that floods the senses, opens the mind and the heart; something glorious and intangible, a reminder of what Wallace Stevens called “the precious portents of our own powers”. Auerbach reminds us that we need to take care how we use these powers. As the viewer struggles to ground their views, opinions and perceptions in certainty, and we are advised on the nearby Pimlico tube “to mind the gap”, Auerbach reminds us of the fickleness of our certainties and the whimsicality of fate. He heightens our awareness of life and death, mortality, climate change, war, the ever present march of time.

Unlike his close painter friend, Leon Kossoff, whose shivery skeins of paint build the image, Auerbach rather tilts at his canvas, far more of a swashbuckler. As he attacks the image again and again, oft-times in later works scraping down the whole image to begin again, showing a speed of working where the performance of the brush stroke begins on a quiet street corner as we wait for the bus, and then propels us into the air in a cascade of marks as St George takes on the dragon once more. And so the imagination is freed much as it is by Blake upstairs as he evokes the beast and beauty within the imagination.

In Painting and Alchemy James Elkins writes about the psychological pull of the brush stroke; Auerbach pulls us about the room. While Richard Diebenkorn, whose 2015 show at the Royal Academy bears comparison, often works back across his canvases, quietening and battening down his strokes into broad expanses, thus imparting elegance to his compositions while keeping the surface alive, Auerbach’s surface is continually moving, yet arrives at the quiet grandeur of which he speaks -making him a worthy compatriot of Rembrandt in the 2013 exhibition ‘Rembrandt-Auerbach: Raw Truth’, which twinned the two artists’ work in the Rijks Museum collection.

In Jake Auerbach’s film about his father shown alongside the Tate exhibition, Frank speaks of the power of the artist’s initial feeling towards the subject, without which there is no point. Then he speaks of a visible tension in the composition, like a sail becoming taut with purpose in the wind in order to voyage out. If it isn’t there the work fails. Later, as I move about the other rooms of the Tate, I am looking for this muscularity of purpose and, sure enough, there it is in Blake and Palmer, though absent in some of their contemporaries exhibited alongside.

In Auerbach’s works there is the space of landscape, the perspectival pull of the drawn line as it leads one in, only to  confound with an edge of painted blocks, almost decorative in their flatness. Things happening on the edge of the composition continually remind us of the flatness of what we are looking at. Later, prompted by Auerbach speaking about Sickert in Jake’s film, I go in search of his work. Sure enough, Sickert like Auerbach doesn’t pin down a reality, but  rather evokes a feeling. Like Sickert’s, an Auerbach painting is “a page torn from the book of life”.

In his numerous interviews, notably with Catherine Lampert, Auerbach invokes poetry, referring to the lines of Robert Frost: “A great painting…is a shape riding on its own melting into matter and space, it never stops moving backwards and forwards.” The paintings, in their celebration of the quotidian, in their sheer painted weight and volume, and yet so redolent with light, also call to mind the late works of Monet. Like Monet’s, each painting is an evokation of this relationship between the inner and the outer world of the artist. Like Monet, there is a struggle and a reckoning, as strong feeling meets the demands of paint and composition.

For Auerbach, again like Monet, there is weather outside the studio and a weather within the studio. Auerbach is a colourist of the found palette, oil and occasionally acrylic colours run about in one another. ‘Summer Haze’ is a feast of dissolving pinks and ochres, while ‘Summer Heat’ contrasts in its strident use of inky blue blacks and bold primaries; a surprising take on an English summer. These paintings also speak of the solitude and even loneliness of the painter’s days, spent in overalls in a quiet room pushing paint around. A darker work wintry in palette makes me wonder on the painter’s disposition at the time: isn’t every painting after all a self portrait?

After the thoughts, the reverie, the push and pull into buildings, across streets, jostling past people barely there, the this way and that of walking a busy London street, the dragons that emerge in our imaginations, suddenly we are landed back in the squish and scrape of the paint.

If sometimes the paintings become airless in their alchemical layers of paint and colour, it is nature that is evoked and it is nature that I seek as I leave the exhibition, wandering into a park, and the colours of autumnal London in their gear of light and shift, again evoking the paintings and a glittery warmth that is at once human and alive. I am drawn into the layers of colour as seen in reflections on a pond, layers of rock, something silvery and golden in moving trees. And so the artwork reaches back out into the world through my thoughts and perceptions.




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Swimming the distance of memory

Geographies of paintings done and redone. Having walked the long-mediated underground from the Metro station into the glammy Zorlu centre, arriving in Mamon, announced as it is, 250 m  then 150m, then 100 only; a grey airless tunnel and I try to remain jolly, focussing on my fellow commuters who with winter’s wet arrival have begun the retreat into their black coats. I randomly open Ruskin while standing in a bookstore. He writes of how iron-oxide is such an important aspect of the land and its countenance, its days and its nights, its light and its shade. I am reminded as I read of these half tones and semiquavers, of roofs and rosy hues of evening hills in Ireland the summer before last, and the in between colours of some of the small paintings I did afterwards. But in July, on the other side of the world, the Karoo on a winter morning throws off the colour of bruised fruit. The varnished-gold sky has traces of rich indigo, pathways of the night.  That winter’s day dark olive green shadows bake into the earth, russet and grey. And then wanting to write something on the recent visit to South Africa and the returning to Istanbul, I found suspended in my drafts here another piece on returning from Ireland written a year ago. So here it is, together with the paintings.

Mica14 copyMica 2013


Red Road Home 2013


Scud Oil on canvas 2013


Damplight 2013

Junction 2013

Ireland sketchbook 2013


Returned now to Istanbul after some weeks in Ireland, immersing oneself in so different a climate and culture. What remains and how does one speak, write or paint of landscapes that unfurl between land and sky, dropping slow colour across earth and water, running like ink into roads and fields? I return with a wad of drawings stiff with pastels, water colour, crayon, splats of slate grey, teal blue, all the greens. And remembering standing in shallow rock pools looking across a long blonde beach towards the green fields, suddenly electric and moving so that emerging later from a swim in its waters I was compelled to draw, fingers trailing across the sand, long lines of hillside suddenly pitching against a farmstead roof, archaic in simplicity. Attaining sacredness as shapes of barn and house, triangle or rhombus, symbols of human habitation, peaceable and pieced, quietly into the landscape.

But elsewhere churches sharpen their spires upward appearing dark and godless against such a wriggle of field and a roar from the wild sea close-by, deceptive in its apparent emerald blue tranquility. And what of women, the names that are writ in water from my ancestors as they boarded ships from Ireland? What bleak lives, what wrenches, what conflicted existences drove them into perilous journeys to distant shores of England, South Africa, New Zealand? Was it just a sense of adventure, or flailing for a different truth to what was presented in the church homily? Or was it a fall from or against theır positions of lifetime subservience? Reading in the papers of the Magdalene laundries, and discovering Edna O’Brien who bought the pink house down the road from where we stay, and how she was hounded for her lifestyle and her books, for an artist one and the same, in the way of breathing and seeing… and all this must now find its way into the paintings.

Now, in a morning reverie, I take a bus towards my studio, and there is a mist that obscures and a mist that reveals.  Is this a kind of limbo that I find myself in now, returning to Istanbul and the Bosphoros, even after anointing myself again in her waters, eating salty fried food close to her shore. What am I to paint?

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Painting crows

What remains after a visit to the homeland? How to weave these skeins of memory, recent and past, into the work. I am left with a sense of the animation

in the Karoo, our last stop before we were bulleted back via the long road north into Johannesburg, our take off city. Back ın the studıo I am at first reluctant to look out at the Bosphoros, or to be lured back by the strangely complex cargoes of the ever passing ships in their sea of blue. I immerse myself in the Bosphoros where I meet up again with my friend Seta and swim with the women who are now bronzed clean from a summer of sun and swimming – and they welcome me.

What moved my friend one day to take me to her deceased father’s apartment? Untouched since his death, a fisherman and a musician, she invited me to enter her portal of memories. A room lined with long playing classical records, old photographs and paintings. A host of coats still hanging in the wardrobe. Here she visits daily? Weekly? İ have been in several apartments in this city where personal histories pile up, memories and old ornate furniture that finds no traction in the jolly primaries and tasteful greys of IKEA chain stores. So it is something of a banal tragedy when on my customary walk down the hill with its burgeonong fig trees and grape vines there are two old chairs crashed on the road. Old chairs fallen off a truck or tossed carelessly from the adjacent apartment block.

Continue reading

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Late night maneuvering for Open Studio 2013


Photograph: Ya2eed Kamaldien

What is it about the prospect of an open studio that pulls me back into the paint, has me reworking a painting that has been la2ily checking me out from a corner of the studio. Or how about getting going on some of those blank page canvases right now. Something great about picking up a slick wet canvas and nailing it there and then onto the wall.  Then there’s the fun of placing this next to that and a chance narrative of splat and slide, blue and crimson black, umbrella and bridge.

Open Studio 13

 Date: Friday 6  december 17:00 – 20:30
                  Saturday 7 december 11:00 – 16:00

Exhibition continues 9 to 13 december (by appointment) 

Address: 2 Comlekci Sokak, Cayirbasi, Istanbul

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Picturing the homes of two heroes (kahraman (Tr): hero)

I often have occasion to pass by the pink yali on the Bosphorus where Argonauts one of my recent Istanbul paintings now lives.


Paying the painting and the home of its discerning collectors, the  Kahraman family a visit I was struck by how the bold abstraction of the painting “The Argonauts” and the contemporary funkiness of the painted ceramic bowl “Trafik” spoke happily to the ornate decorativeness of the old Ottoman Yali. Although this is an historic Istanbul home its interior has a fresh upbeat perkiness which keeps the chandeliers tinkling and adds new bloom to the rose strewn carpets. A delightful home for works of art, old and new.

IMG_2312 copy IMG_2315 copy Image

In the loft bedroom where the owner’s budding designer daughter  stays when home from London, “The Argonauts” continues its journey with the ships viewed from the balcony.


Inspired by my visit to the Kahraman family, I continue to Ortakoy and the tranquil family home of Kristin and Kahraman Cicekciler.  Kristin is the collector of the large oil painting Hull and more recently Halic  Lantern. Here Kristin has cleverly arranged carefully chosen objects and colours, bringing a monumentality to the piece.


An intriguing  mannequin, espied in the window of a prominent Istanbul retailer takes on a sculptural presence as she appears to watch over the painting.


The apartment houses a significant collection of paintings, and the owner clearly has a special fondness for each of them. Kristin shows me “Halic Lantern” in its easy but elegant new home among the books and the paintings.


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Thinking about Running and Painting

Sometimes I run to my studio along the Bosphorus. A way to get my vision tuned afresh. The fishing boats are out casting their yellow spirals and pitching their tents on the silvery plains. Hot sepia tea is being served at the borekci near the studio, and the fish carts sell their wares outside the neighboring mosque. It only remains to pick up a fresh loaf from the local bakery for lunch, then into the studio for the day’s work.

So it was with interest that I discovered that 82 year-old painter Alex Katz, recently exhibited at Tate St Ives is a runner. Katz who describes his painting as both “aggressive” and “optimistic” includes giant flowerscapes as part of his recent work. Pursuing realism at a time when it was unfashionable to do so (alongside the Abstract Expressionists) his is a roving, cavorting imagination with a daring and disciplined “abstract grammar” that lend his images a force. I have been enjoying tracking his interviews, realizing that he was always the footnote in my study of Art History at university. Not unlike Richard Diebenkorn, another long time favourite painter.

Alex Katz talks about painting but he also talks about watching films, dancing with his wife and muse, Ada and about running. After a long day in the studio painting large canvases he rejuvenates by running.
Haruki Murakami in his book “What I talk about when I talk about running” points towards talent, focus and endurance as the key ingredients for both writing and running. AS one grows older, he says it is focus and endurance that keeps one in the race. To that I would add, the sheer pleasure of breathing.


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Picking plums on the Bosphoros.

From our studio window we watch a small boy nimbly scale the fence, and inhabit the garden. His absorption is complete as he sets about filling his pockets, with the green fruit (“erik”) of the plum tree, first his front pockets, then the back until his jeans threaten to give into their load. Pausing occasionally to sample his wares, tugging at the higher branches, until he has feasted and can gather no more, without hurry, and completely unaware that he is being watched, he disappears again.

Beyond the studio, the restless surge and hum of the world. The Bosphoros bringing spring storms, and a world immersed in deep colour, purples and greens that start to find their way into the new paintings…

Finally settling back into the quietude of my Bosphoros studio after a couple of months working in South Africa, and then another of orientating myself back on Turkish shores. Finding myself with a lot to absorb, and integrate; preparing for new work to come.

Three weeks spent in the international Thupelo artists workshop at the Bag Factory, Johannesburg, places my feet firmly back on the ground of my home land. Each day we gather early for breakfast, before setting about our work, free of any of the distractions that might ordinarily keep one from one’s studio practice. It is a privileged space where the emphasis is on the working process, one’s own, and the witnessing and sharing of others. And we are privileged to be sharing the space with the studios of Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane and Pat Mautloa, art stalwarts of the struggle years, who lend warmth and gravitas to the flux and flow of the workshop. The historic Market Theatre, bastion of anti-apartheid activist theatre, and also incidentally, the venue for my very first solo exhibition “Going Home” (1992) is just round the corner. As we walk our daily ten minute walk, to the studio through markets, past Pep Stores and “Killer Prawn”, only sometimes resisting the allure of potato samosas and the haberdashers and shoe shops of the Oriental Plaza, the street names remind us that we are indeed in the company of good artist souls; the sharply observant contribution of the 60’s writer Can Themba, and the sweet and feisty singer of whom he wrote, Dolly Rathebe. After the workshop, In Cape Town, I will start the search for a singer to take part in “Ek se^” the public performance piece I will be staging as part of the Infecting the City public arts festival. More about that in another blog…

But back in my Bosphoros studio what remains of Johannesburg? A city forged of mud and earth and human hearts; glittery and strange edifices, that angle and climb across a depth of sky; trees made of clouds and clouds made of trees; walking in Fordsburg and the growing familiarity of the neighborhood mosque and its visitors. At street level at night, missing drain covers and missing people.

Recollections of the Bag Factory, a busy cave;, my happy collaboration with long time close friend and fellow painter, Jenny Parsons; witnessing the quiet containment and intricate pleasures of our fellow studio artists, Igshaan and Lerato, and working alongside another stalwart, the indomitable, Helen Sebidi, “Mama Helen”as she is affectionately known. Not forgetting the jiving energy of the Fela Kuti studio next door, or Benan’s beautiful hard won portraits, Akirash’s body painting project, Fiona’s ( also our youtube documenter) quirky bioscope. And too much more to mention here.

Now back home again in Istanbul the muezzin calls me outdoors into the evening light of a rainy Tarabya, threading his call with the colour of ripe plums.


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Meeting at the coalface: open studio

Meeting at the coalface

Arriving at my studio the morning of Open Studio I see a huge gathering of people with barrows, carts and trucks. They are all buying coal. Studios are often tucked away in corners of the city far from the gentrified realm of the galleries; art happening in the midst of life. The meydan (open square) just outside our studio is also the site of many a late afternoon wedding, and countless football matches. I buy my bread and cimits just round the corner, from the local bakery that wafts its warm smells across the neighbourhood. On Friday the open air vegetable market is where I do weekly shopping. Across the road on the Bosphoros the fishing boats are aflurry for the winter, an ever-changing spectacle as I encounter it on my morning walk or speeding along on a minibus. Tea is to be had a few footsteps into the traffic, but a great place to draw. And all this makes its way bidden or unbidden into the work.
It’s the season of Open Studios when artists get to take stock and also clear stock in their studios.
For the studio visitor it is an opportunity to gain some insight into what makes an artist tick and to see just what exactly is it, that they do in the studio all day. It takes away some of the rarefied atmosphere of the gallery, and gets behind the mystery of the finished piece. They get a glimpse into the delicious process of sketchbooks, rough drafts, botches and brilliance, struggle and triumph and sheer hard work that are the grist and grain of the artist’s life.

An apt quote here from David Hockney I am an artist who is always working. I know some people think I spend my time just swimmng around or dancing in nightclubs. That’s fine. But I don’t actually. I work most of the time. ”

Visitors to an open studio are wonderfully curious, even about the business side of things… “How does an artist price their work?” Often visitors are completely unaware of the high commissions that galleries take on an artist’s work, sometimes well earned but sometimes not. In Istanbul galleries routinely expect a gift of an artist’s work from the exhibition. And so an open studio is an opportunity to enlighten and educate collectors or prospective collectors of art.
An Open Studio is also often a space where artists get to assert a hard-won independence, an arena of work and play where they have independence from the gallery, or various galleries or consultants with whom they work.

And with that ,I am off to the Art Fair ,Contemporary Istanbul, to enjoy being on the other side as the viewer. Here I will sidestep the punted mega-artworks, in my quest to discover artists who in the words of David Hockney, “love the world with new eyes”.

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no comment work in progress

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Drawing the line

Heading back into the studio, pots of glaze lined up on the table, all geared up to paint Jane’s pots; what a treat. Another good way to get back into things if you got out of them is to go in sideways. Choose another medium.
Finding myself on the metro again, drawing, discretion has to be exercised, some people don’t like being drawn but most I suspect are intrigued by the activity. While others put on their earphones and tune into their iphones I take out my smallest sketchpad and a black felt liner; sometimes I keep my sunglasses on, not a deliberate thing to mask where I am looking exactly but it helps sometimes. The person next to me watches intently, only once did someone get adamant “draw me, draw me!” Sometimes smiles are exchanged. I am infinitely challenged by this activity. In the studio people are often completely absent both from the studio, and then from the work that I make there, but on the metro I like to capture the different moods and aspects of the commuter. I like to think it is a way of connecting with my fellow travellers, and yes, sometimes one does pick up on hidden joy, anxiety or even grief. But its also a way to stay completely in the moment, taking me away from the concerns or worries of what happens next. And so a forty minute metro ride passes by enjoyably.
Later in Robinson Cruesoe bookshop I find a copy of a monograph of drawings of Antonio Lopez Garcia edited by Francisco Calver Serraller. I had copied this quote into my sketchbook during a recent browse:

“I didn’t know it at the time, but i had hit upon the only thing that matters:
the ability to express an emotion that you first must feel, which is separate from the skill and the accuracy which allows you to copy the real world.”
Here is a lifetime of great drawing, drawings that combine infinite precision with the subtlest suggestion. And all the while one is struck by the humility of the artist. He never stopped learning; exploring…and even in their printed form these are drawings that impinge on one later in the day as one watches the treasured forms of people moving around in their daily lives.
In the same bookshop, the painter, Neo Rauch’s sketchbook, and again what joy to flip through the artist’s most immediate interpretations of his world, alive as his vision is, with references to Art History, contemporary life, the particularites of his culture and his own peculiar way of seeing.
Earlier in the week I watched a video of Ai Wei Wei on Tate Channel. I enjoyed his immersion and absolute commitment to art as life, and his all embracing explorations through different media, but I was surprised when at the end of the interview someone asked him about his drawings. Would he ever exhibit them? No, he said, he doesn’t draw anymore; his mother has all his old drawings…why draw when you have access to so many other media, suggesting in his reply that the time of drawing has gone.

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