Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, admits there were some selfish reasons for his trip to London in late 2008. On one hand, he was going to negotiate on behalf of the museum with the National Portrait Gallery for the rare opportunity to bring to Fort Worth a major exhibition of work by British painter Lucian Freud. Freud is something of a rock star in his home country, and the exhibition, which opened earlier this year in London, broke attendance records. But Freud’s work is seen less in the United States, particularly in bulk, and it has almost never been seen in the middle part of the country. Securing the show for the Modern would be a coup, and, indeed, Fort Worth is the only U.S. venue for the show, “Lucian Freud: Portraits,” which opens July 1. But for Auping, wrangling the exhibition also meant he would get to meet the enigmatic painter himself.
Both Freud’s art and personality are anomalies in contemporary art. A grandson of Sigmund Freud, his seven decade career has been spent adrift of the painting trends that dominated his era, abstraction and conceptualism. Instead, the artist dedicated himself to figuration, visceral and strikingly honest portraits that possess a raw psychological intensity. You don’t just see the people in Freud’s paintings. As Auping puts it, “You can smell that person and sense their weight.”
Freud has a reputation for being reclusive and prickly. He is a popular figure in London, but he shuns interviews. And his virility is mythic. In addition to his wives, he’s had numerous mistresses, many of whom are often the subjects of his paintings. Rumor has it that he has fathered dozens of children, though Auping says the generally accepted number is 17. And for decades he has worked out of a small studio, the setting of most of his paintings and escapades. All of it, from the art to the personality, fascinated Auping.
“I began thinking about how we’re at the end of a time now when figuration has systematically disappeared,” Auping says. “What Freud’s paintings do is beg the question of humanness. Freud is a throwback to a time when art was really visceral.”
Auping first met Freud at a restaurant called Sally Clarke’s, about 75 yards away from the painter’s famed studio in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. The conversation, he says, was polite and measured. Auping hoped to interview the artist for the exhibition catalog, but he knew Freud granted very few interviews. So he treaded lightly.
“The first time, we had lunch,” Auping says. “And I was just saying we were really excited about how the exhibition was going to look, and we just talked.”
After lunch, Freud, Auping, and the artist’s assistant, David Dawson, strolled up the block. As they neared the studio, the artist turned to the curator and said, “Why don’t you come up and take a look?”
Auping’s response was to ask if Freud was kidding. “I’m convinced,” Auping says today, “that the fact that I didn’t ask is why I got asked to go into the studio. He was sizing me up, seeing how greedy I was going to be.”
The studio was unlike any Auping had ever visited. Consisting of two rooms on the third floor of a walk-up row house, it was a sparse, cramped place with just a chair, the painter’s materials, a couch, and a bed. Standing in the space, Auping says, immediately affected the way the curator understood Freud’s work. “That first time was like a revelation,” he says. The studio was more than a workspace; it was the setting of the paintings. And since so much of the paintings’ power comes from the dynamic created between the painter and his subject, the studio revealed itself to Auping as a kind of performance space. “There is a postmodern element,” he says. “A little bit of a cross between performance and painting.”
The presence of the bed, too, especially given the painter’s reputation, added another level of tension.
“Have you ever had sex with one of your models in this room?” Auping asked Freud.
After a pause, the artist answered: “What do you think?”
All of it is part of the setting Freud used to allow his models, who often posed in the nude, to present themselves in a way that was most psychologically revealing. “I think it has to do with the compression of the room,” Auping says. “And then Lucian tends to accelerate and exaggerate that compression by standing and moving close. He moves around a lot.”
On that first visit to the studio, Auping didn’t have a tape recorder, but Freud invited him back. The series of interviews they conducted over the course of 2009 are now included in the catalog that accompanies the new exhibition. Those interviews, as it turns out, are also some of the last recorded reflections by Freud on his work. The artist died in July of last year. Auping believes Freud knew his time was near.
“When he granted me these interviews, I was trying to figure out why he did it,” Auping says. “In the end, I thought he felt this will probably be the last. It was a strange experience. He approved the checklist for the exhibition, read the essays, approved the interviews, and then he passed away.”