… instead of treating reality as a sort of lucky dip, the painter might commit himself to achieve real penetration …
This is from ‘Auerbach’ (1961) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):
… His paintings are oil paintings and their thickness is simply the outcome of a gradual accumulation of layer upon layer of impasto. I mention this difference of technique because its import is far from being merely technical and because its consequences are perfectly visible: we don’t require inside information or chemical analysis in order to recognize that the substance of a Dubuffet seems rigid and opaque as lava, that of an Auerbach fluid and, for all its density, somehow transparent.
… with Dubuffet — and the other exponents of what Lawrence Alloway has aptly called ‘matter painting’ — the thickness of the material has a decided purpose of its own, whereas, with Auerbach, the thickness is no more than a by-product of another purpose.
The matter in ‘matter painting’ is symbolic. It symbolizes the idea of the massive materiality of the physical world. It symbolizes the relationship between man and the raw materials with which he builds, the inchoate matter which is at once responsive and resistant to his will to impose a form upon it and which both submits to his manipulation of it and inspires that manipulation. (‘My connection with the material I use,’ says Dubuffet, ‘is like the bond of the dancer with his partner, the rider with his horse, the fortune-teller with her cards.’)
[line break added] And, having this life of its own as a concrete substance (and not merely as a vehicle for the act of painting), the material in ‘matter painting’ gives the illusion of being subject to the same natural hazards as is the material of a building: observing fissures in its surface, contrasts between rough and smooth in its texture, we spontaneously associate these with natural phenomena, with wear and tear above all, but also the growth of moss or lichen and so on. Thus the thick opaque matter of these paintings seems not only to have a life but to have lived, to have been weathered and ravaged by time.
Frank Auerbach, Primrose Hill, Spring Sunshine, 1961-2/1964
… Auerbach’s paint is thick, needs to be thick because he needs time to bring his image to fruition, but when we look at the painting, it isn’t the paint that we notice: the image is what imposes its presence.
It imposes itself from the start, but it needs time to gain clarity (as it did for the painter). Auerbach’s pictures don’t sing out feeling or emotion. They impress us as having tremendous strength of design, and this strength gives them an authority which commands our continued attention rather than seduces or disturbs us into giving it. The image that emerges is an image of structure, of firmly articulated masses of great density in a space that is equally taut and architectural.
[ … ]
… It’s often lamented that there isn’t enough of nature in the art of today, that paintings have become ends in themselves. It seems to me that there’s too much of nature in the art of today, that most painting is packed with allusions to the physical world, is a ragbag of memories of things, and bits and pieces of things.
[line break added] I believe that what is wanting is not reference to nature but a more firmly focused reference; that instead of treating reality as a sort of lucky dip, the painter might commit himself to achieve real penetration into clearly defined areas of reality; and that his work might acquire imaginative breadth, not by claiming the freedom to hint at a rich variety of things, but by concentrating together all the richness and variety of his perceptions of some particular thing — his visual perceptions, his tactile perceptions, his perceptions from close to and from far away, his perceptions when he is standing still and when he is on the move, the changes in his perceptions and the play of memory upon them, in short the total experience of an object.
[line break added] It is because of the subtle and profound way in which Auerbach’s work gives expression and coherence to the complexity of our perceptions of simple things that he is for me the most interesting painter in this country.
Frank Auerbach, Railway Arches, Bethnal Green II, 1958-59