They sure know how to sell a show at the Courtauld. Whoever came up with London Building Sites 1952-62 for the current Frank Auerbach exhibition, probably doesn’t have a future career in marketing. But that’s exactly what the show is, as described; what, as they say, it says on the tin: the thirteen canvases the artist made from his observations of major rebuilding work resulting from London bombings during WW2.
I nearly didn’t go, and not just because of the off-putting title. I confess to being less enamoured of Auerbach’s work than his reputation suggests should be the case; too many portraits where the subject is so immured in a thick shroud of paint as to render him or her virtually unrecognisable. And at a first glance here (having just about caught my breath after climbing all those bloody stairs) I thought, oh-oh, here we go again. But, no … Given time and patience (perhaps all those stairs had a useful function after all) I found I was looking again and again at something extraordinary. Stand especially, not just back and away from the canvas, but over to one side – an angle of just past two o’clock, I found worked best – and it’s as if you’re staring right into the site itself, the thick, ripeness of earth and mud, its shades of brown (so many shades of brown) and yellow and red. (Interestingly close to the colours of the shit-covered Belfast cell walls recreated for Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger). Let the eye rest and gradually more and more detail seeps in: the crouched and bent figures of workmen, the lines and angles of cranes. Step back then from the reality of what you’re seeing and you see something else, a compostion of abstract shapes, the canvas divided into planes of differentiated colour, divided and anchored by strong lines – vertical, diagonal, horizontal. (Perhaps this is what you saw first, approaching, as it were, from the other direction.) And then there’s the richness of the paint, the strength and vigour of the mark.
Seeing these paintings, it’s not clear if Auerbach is working his way out of abstract expressionism towards a very solid version of realism, or if, somehow, the influence and the inspiration move the other way. But look at Shell Building Site: from the Thames, 1959, which is organised around a great triangular gouge deep into the earth and compare it to Willem de Koooning’s 1958 painting, Detour, that I saw in Munich recently, and which has an almost identical triangle reversed, and the link between the two works is, it seems to me, incontravertible. By which I don’t mean Auerbach saw the de Kooning and was so impressed he rushed off and did a version of his own. Nothing so crass. I don’t even know how familiar either artist was with the other’s work, though it’s hard to imagine that, for Auerbach at least, there wasn’t an awareness, a connection.
The two pieces that finally impressed me most – Maples Demolition, Euston Road, 1960 and Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962 – repay long and repeated viewings, the former seeming to achieve its effects primarily on the picture plane itself, while the latter is organised so as force the eye along a diagonal trajectory deep inside the painting’s illusory space. Look longer and you realise that the painterly qualities and the rendering of the subject matter in both are superbly in balance.