Catherine Lampert, a former director of the Whitechapel Gallery and author of a new book on Frank Auerbach, has curated a major retrospective on the artist.
She is also painted by Auerbach every week
Your new book about Frank Auerbach is called Speaking and Painting. It seems fortuitous that Auerbach is so eloquent. Do you think that is unusual? Lots of artists — Warhol, say — seem almost wilfully inarticulate.
Catherine Lampert: Frank is so vivid and impromptu. He always has an analogy to hand. Anish Kapoor has a book called I Have Nothing To Say. He in fact says things beautifully, but you feel that he has a script. Frank can say what he is thinking — about how a portrait need not look like a person, for example — in a way that is new each time. When I first got to know him, it seemed odd that he had never wanted to join a committee or stand up for the arts. He was just in the studio, painting.
But isn’t there a kind of dedicated purity in that attitude?
Yes, though he did once say that if there wasn’t life going on around you there would be no subject matter. He is out on the streets at six in the morning, drawing joggers and people with pushchairs. He is immersed in normal life. He says he has more conversations with minicab drivers than with anyone else. A lot of artists with his kind of reputation and fame aren’t mingling.
You write very fluently about the tactile qualities of different paints. Do you paint yourself?
The majority of my friends are artists and I am with artists all the time. I went to university and to art school. At 18 or 19 I was fixed on art, but wasn’t original or good enough to carry on as an artist. From 1973 onwards I was an ‘exhibition organiser’.
Frank Auerbach, Head of Catherine Lampert, 1986. © Frank Auerbach. Private Collection. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London
How has the art world changed in the time that you have been involved with it?
There is much more public interest in living artists. It is a relatively new thing that artists have become ‘auction phenomena’. There is now a surplus of exhibitions, and I think that exhausts people. In 1988, when I went to the Whitechapel, it was a smaller field and it was much easier to do a historic exhibition. The market makes putting on an exhibition more difficult and expensive, because insurers base their premiums on the highest price that an artist has sold for.
Is it harder to curate an exhibition of a living artist who is a friend? Is there more pressure than doing a historic exhibition?
Yes, it’s harder. For the upcoming Auerbach exhibition, Frank wanted to select the paintings for the first six rooms himself; I selected the last two. His rooms are completely his own vision, and he is trying to make the pictures as different as possible from each other. My two rooms have to be complementary to his.
And presumably he could say: what on earth did you choose that piece for? You wouldn’t have that problem with Rodin.
Well, I know. But Frank and I know each other well, and neither of us wanted to choose the ‘iconic’ pictures. Every time I see an Auerbach I am struck by how well it looks on the wall. And the part about staging exhibitions that I like best, and think I am best at, is arranging the space.
How did you come to sit for Auerbach?
I organised his 1978 show at the Hayward, and was given the task of interviewing him for the catalogue. I was keen, and he hadn’t really spoken publicly for 20 years, so it went very well: he had plenty to say. After that he asked me to sit. It became part of my life and of his. It has been going on without interruption since 1978. I sit for him once a week.
Frank is on his toes the whole time, working constantly… He is moving and blotting and scraping back. It’s physically extraordinary
You use the word ‘collaboration’. So is it an active thing, sitting?
Frank likes the urgency of knowing that I am arriving on Friday at 5pm. No matter what he feels like, he makes use of that time. I meanwhile have got to do my best to stay still and be alert. But I always come out in a good mood. When I was very busy at the Whitechapel it was always a useful way to calm down.
So it is a sort of meditative undertaking?
Yes, but Frank is on his toes the whole time, working constantly. He might occasionally take a sip of cold tea, but he never switches off. He is very disciplined for those two hours. He is moving and blotting and scraping back. It’s physically extraordinary.
Is it a bit like writing a poem, the constant drafting and redrafting? Or is his merciless scraping-back to the canvas far removed from tinkering with words?
I think it is more like he is working on a theorem, and suddenly seeing the unity of parts. For Frank it all has to cohere; there is a moment when he sees how it is all going to come together. It’s like solving a mathematical puzzle.
Maybe it’s like archaeology, the repeated removal of layers to get closer to the hidden artefact?
No, I don’t think that is right. It is more about the idea that we are all of us in motion, never still. And then there is a question of the reality that we perceive as, say, a chair. How do we render it in two dimensions? There has to be some new kind of spatial and diagrammatic way.
In the book he uses the phrase ‘going for the essence’. I suppose the scraping is a kind of pursuit of truth.
Yes, but Frank is also clear that what he is making is a picture, that it has to work as an image. And because of his method, it all has to come together in two hours. It’s like he’s an actor, and has to put in a brilliant performance that night.
And in that moment you, the sitter, are his entire audience.
I guess that’s true.
Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert is published by Thames & Hudson. The Frank Auerbach retrospective will be at the Kunstmuseum Bonn from 4 June to 13 September and Tate Britain from 9 October to 13 March 2016. Interview by Jonathan Bastaple
Main image at top: Frank Auerbach in his studio © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine — Subscribe here. For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily