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February 9 - May 25, 2003 at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Downtown

by Marlena Donohue

“Painter Working, Reflection,"
1993, o/c, 40 x 32 1/4".

“David Hockney,” 2002,
o/c, 16 x 12 1/4".

“The Painter's Mother Resting I,”
1976, o/c, 35 1/2 x 35 1/2".

"Leigh Bowrey (Seated),"
1994, o/c, 96 x 72".

"Landscape with Birds," 1940,
oil on panel, 15 1/2 x 12 3/4".

I met a student of Lucian Freud’s, a life drawing teacher and an energetic painter. “You can die in the folds of his paint, they make you cry,” she said in a thick foreign accent, almost in a reverie. “What did he teach you?” I asked. “Mostly, to be in the right place at the right time.” The catalogue confirms that his short stints of teaching were for Freud a distraction, not so much from mingling but from Freud’s special way of mingling--which is to know through paint.

As to the right place, it does not get much more right than this. Part of the enclave of British avant-garde that included Freud’s good friend Francis Bacon, the private, literate and intense Lucian has hob knobbed with the best (portraits of the Queen Mother and pal David Hockney are included and convey the point).

The grandson of Sigmund inherits in a de facto fashion the immense mystique of the Freud name; tabled as retrograde and dualistic today, the imprimatur of the theories and the moniker hang there. You will feel compelled to intuit great reverberations of angst and id in the folds and fibers of paint so lush, so deliciously sensual, that one cannot help but wax a tad lyrical.

Usually there are one or two works you want to highlight in a review; here each and every painting is a journey into the sheer expressive power of form. Freud’s famous grandpa said that our arrogance causes us to focus on the differences between the animal and the human; in that now hackneyed observation is the idea that below personality, under the facades and glibness of real-time, we are each a fairly simple and similar bundle of instincts for repose, for sustenance, for pleasure, and connection. Whatever Lucian’s relationship to the elder Freud, that model--wrong or right--is writ large here. Every streak of puffy blue or highlight of dense imbedded ochre yearns quietly, without apology for something or another.
Freud was born in Berlin in 1922; the famous grandfather lived in Vienna, but visited and brought the grandson things like prints by Breugel. Clearly wealthy and connected in pre- and post-Nazi society, the Freuds were among the few Jews allowed to leave with their belongings. Once in London the artistic child went to several schools, leaving this one, pranking his way out of another to finally enter the East Anglican School of Drawing and Painting.

The earliest attempts of the 1940s by a still teenage Freud introduce the MOCA retrospective, which originated at London’s Tate and makes its only U.S. stop here. The works will exhaust you. They will tire your retina in the best way, for all the moving pigment ambling over and sculpting shapes with a life of their own. Also exhausted will be your threshold for raw, exposed humanity, which in day to day experience--a place I sense Freud does not much fancy--we can process only in small doses.

Besides the collection of truly overpowering works dating from the 1940s to the present and including canvases, drawings, and prints, there is a sumptuously illustrated catalogue, the essay of which provides a good chronology of events, but no real handle on the work or the man. In it there is the insightful inclusion of a very early red nude man with oversized hands and feet straddling, rather erotically, a massive and compliant stallion that stretches its neck back to meet the man lip to lip. It is the 1940s, Freud is but a teen and heir apparent to the artistic/philosophic atmosphere of surrealism, and already this tiny work (not lent but in the catalogue) goes well beyond dream imagery to stake an eccentric territory between innocence and intense, mature prescience. This unique way of seeing remains to the present.

Time magazine critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1987 that Freud had become the greatest living realist. You can feel the had become part; the physical work, the agitated perception, the fighting to find the form and the piercing, assaultive, ultimate clarity of observation. This starts as a kind of forced, brittle gift in early works like Woman with Roses (1948), and finds its real voice for the first time in Girl with White Dog (1950).

A lot has been made of Freud’s subliminally sexual content, including the use of his many children from wives and lovers as nude models, both as adults and youngsters. The oddly stiff, oddly sensual Large Interior, Paddington (1968) shows his supine daughter as a toddler undressed from the waist down; his grown daughters and his lithe son pose quite naked, not nude, and there is a quality of the erotic and the violent in the remarkable self portrait of a jagged, aging Freud regarding us wearing only unlaced boots to protect his feet from splinters while he paints. However, to focus on sexuality is to pathetically miss the point.

The show is a compendium of people in Freud’s life--a series of wives and girlfriends, children, friends, teachers, patrons, models, cult characters like the late gay performer/dresser, Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990). The works begin with people but are never portraits in any conventional sense; these are not maps of personality (sorry grandpa), or even documents of appearance or identity (genders interpenetrate, faces look different yet the same). What we have here is this evidence--translated to color, velocity and bite--of forces more subtle than sex: energy, desire, senescence, fracture, decay, innocence. And traces of hope. And before any of that is the lush, dense pigment applied, we are informed in the mature works, with hog hair brushes for maximum motion and maximum lift.

If the self-taught Freud became great, the work here lets us see that he did it with an ardent, relentless will. The fierceness of process is so strong it attracts, exhausts and appalls, as in the image of Leigh Bowery, shaved and naked on a vertiginous floor whose panels sweep towards you in fast strokes like a van Gogh café. The same is true for Big Sue (1994), the obese social worker seated with her head tossed back like a Francois Boucher Venus: utterly open, utterly unashamed, in sensual repose. In this work can be seen via Freud’s mastery what Cézanne was talking about: Sue's radically foreshortened, monumental knee drawn up against folds of transparent flesh is revealed to be no more than concentric circles of paint, swirls of thick pearls, blues, grays applied to construct an unremitting emotional and physical presence.

Freud’s subjects never look at us (only the self portraits do). Everyone seems to be waiting: his wives set to bed rest by marital stress, his friends before palms, the rich financier and his son, a man with face marred by crimson scars next to his daughter, who is all hope and wonder. Freud finds the sitters’ silent, human center, but he and his paint remain in a frenzy of discovery, and that special tension powers this great stuff.

[Forum Gallery in West Hollywood will also be opening a exhibition of works on paper by Freud this month--Ed.]