Lucian Freud has died. Not to minimize the sadness this must cause his survivors, his passing has hit a segment of the art world quite hard. "I always wished I could paint like him," says the upstate New York painter Tracy Helgeson, summing up the feelings of many of us who admired his work.
Freud had a simple method, which was to arrange for models to pose in his studio for hundreds of hours while he rendered them with a loaded brush. His stroke was planar, slow, and decisive. Flake white, which is pigmented with lead and commensurately weighty, preserved every line raked into the paint by the hog bristles. His palette was neutral, causing the occasional cheery color to ring out with unexpected force. The final results were edifices of deliberation. Portraits and figures attained remarkable presence on the canvases, true, but even the floorboards took on an existential heft.
Beyond the considerable artistic achievement of his work, we looked up to Freud as a symbol of seriousness and investigative tenacity in an art world characterized by puerile whimsy and fashion. By way of illustration, in 2003 The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles mounted a retrospective of Lucian Freud alongside a sizable exhibition of paintings by Laura Owens. Walking from the latter to the former was like changing a radio station from Kajagoogoo to Beethoven. That's all I remember of Owens.
A few hours of looking at Freud, though, made an indelible mark. People wandering about the exhibition began to look Freudian, fleshy and worn by time. Such was the power of his vision. Ever after his works became a standard by which I measure other contemporary figurative paintings, mine included. How seldom any of them begin to compare.
This article also appeared at Artcritical.