Francis Bacon at the Met: A Postscript

09/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The figure has revealed itself again as an undying historical constant in an ambitious centenary retrospective of work by British painter Francis Bacon. The most important aspect of this show was its demonstration of how an already relevant painter can become even more relevant in the years following his death. The show closed this past week, and here are some thoughts on work that has an edge that sharpens over time.

This was a mega-show about a mega-life, and yet because of a relatively low output for a postwar painter, it was not an over-curated, over-inclusive show designed for an art viewing public with a small attention span.

Bacon painted many "studies" but he painted nothing trivial. Each single painting or triptych sucks much psychic energy from the viewer. They are all of significant scale, though a sober (not a word usually associated with this artist) one. But size does matter, and it matters most when the narrative and composition have visual strategies of how to consume the viewer, and more importantly, consume the painter himself. Conceptual sobriety is an essential tool of Bacon, and was the key to making his psychic chaos readable.

Bacon painted in a tiny flat that had fewer square meters than what most undergrad students might now feel entitled to for their tuition. And yet, it seemed he could not paint anywhere else. But this restriction, aside from defining his comfort zone, probably forced a resolve and focus that helped bring his narratives to some sort of closure, even while developing his serial "studies". It seems this artist, with all his reputation of debauchery and nightlife, still maintained an ascetic presence in his studio, which forced an efficiency beyond comprehension.

Now most of us who have admired Bacon for a long time do so because he represented a healthy aloofness that many other postwar figurative Britons like Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Graham Sutherland also possessed. However, he stood out as the most audacious of the titans. In the empire's capital, he enjoyed an openly gay life with the courage of Freddie Mercury. And while the rest of the postwar era was celebrating the absence of the figure (with exceptions like deKooning), Bacon shoved flesh -- convulsing, combative and often butchered -- into the public's face.

Abstract Expressionism used the the paint itself as the agent of sensuality. On heroic macho-scaled canvases, it could be argued that they produced a certain claustrophobia outside the four corners of their stretchers. One could even go so far as to say they changed the scale of museums and their needs for larger interior spaces. Bacon, in the meantime, seemed to spend his time investigating a different claustrophobia inside the four corners of the stretcher. His articulated geometries define some extra confinement for his protagonists. His flat minimal colorfields as background team up with these geometries to cause some spatial implosion.

This has been the second retrospective on Bacon at the Met in the last 35 years. In this more comprehensive and complete survey of the artist's work, we can appreciate all the previously sorted out aspects of Bacon's work. However, with a little more hindsight provided by seventeen years since his death, one can see an interesting relationship to the architectural world, the post-digital age, and some other unlikely critical allegiances that make his work more relevant than ever.

We have always celebrated Bacon's hubris, his lifestyle, and his heavy drinking. His mythic existence is everything we expect and embrace out of a mid-century artist. His vivid sexualized paintings define him. His studies of Raphael and Velasquez's clergymen are what place him at the crossroads of many art-historical paths -- some unwittingly, some intentional. Some of these paths are traditional, others are contemporary. Some relate to centuries before his birth and some relate to issues after his death that he obviously could have no idea about.

As paintings, the secondhand portraits of Pope Innocent X are beautiful, menacing grand portraiture, with an authentic postwar angst that echoes the frenetic expressions of the sculptor Franz Xavier Messeschmidt, Edvard Munch and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The Catholic Church has become an easier target over time than it was in the 40's and 50's, so it is difficult to imagine the climate in which these paintings were executed and first viewed. These studies show an incredible indictment of what the artist perceived as a masked cruelty of the clergy. In this case he is possibly making the parallel between Innocent X and Pius XII who had seemingly turned a blind eye to the then-recent European war atrocities. What was a wonderful bonus to the Met exhibition was the inclusion of some newly-found studies that the viewer can compare with the established portraits. In their multiplicity one can really study the evolution of Bacon's figural painting process.

In these portraits, with serial repetition to the point of exhaustion, his investigative process ironically speaks of Minimalism.There is even a well-founded relationship between the spaces that Bacon creates, with his mysterious geometries, and the processional spaces of Richard Serra. In both cases the designs are at once kinetic, as well as menacing , while the contained spaces have lives of their own. These same spaces can be zen-like and calm in another instant.

The flat color field backgrounds also speak of Minimalism, though they seem to be chosen for mood by a mischievous decorator. This palette is rarely chosen for calm and can range from those found in quattrocento frescoes, to oranges and pinks and crimsons that provide the same nervous reaction as a bull may have to a matador's cape. Bacon can show a fine line between tasteful and raucous, and like his other painterly gifts, his use of color contributes greatly to his paintings' odd historical context.

When Bacon's figures do finally disappear or implode within the space of his minimal color fields, he does achieve a kinetic distortion that only the gimmickry of Photoshop and other digital age programs now afford us. It is only fitting that someone who was innovative in some ways, steadfast in others, and courageous enough to desanctify both contemporary and historical oracles, would also serve as aesthetic prophet to developments in visual arts way past his time. Bacon has brought many contemporary figurative issues to the forefront, denuded them and modernized them. However, like many artists who spawn throngs of imitators, he was exposed in this show as having heavyweight relevance beyond his lifetime innovations and persona as a figurative painting icon.