Christopher Dark worked at the Marlborough Galleries in the 1970s, before moving to New York and changing career. Catherine Lampert notes in her recent book Frank Auerbach, Speaking and Painting, 2015, that, between 1971 and 1981, Auerbach worked with a broader range of sitters than at any other time in his career, identifying eighteen different people who came to the studio to sit for either a short sequence of drawings, or an oil or two. Other sitters connected to the Marlborough Gallery were James Kirkman and Geoffrey Parton (although this was later in 1987-8). Auerbach drew and painted a number of personal friends in this decade and other artists including Sandra Fisher, Tom Phillips and Stephen Finer, and also Kitaj, Kossoff and Freud, although not all of the drawings were perhaps finished enough to be included in William Feaver’s catalogue raisonné.
Auerbach produced four finished drawings of Dark; the present work being the third in the sequence (see Figs. 1-3). This is the largest of the four and the only one in a landscape format. In this version Auerbach draws the sitter from the side, looking slightly down on him, paying more attention here to Christopher’s prominent nose and the volume of his head. Each work was made on the same size paper but in this drawing Auerbach’s image has spilled over at the bottom onto an additional sheet.
In the early stages of Auerbach’s career his graphic work was quite distinct from his oil paintings. However, by the early 1970s his drawings and paintings were no longer separable. The multiple sittings required for this charcoal reflect the continuous and repetitive process by which Auerbach creates all of his work. In this period, he would often have art books open on the floor, showing portrait heads of Dürer, Hals or Rembrandt – great artists whose work set a standard which he aspired to reach.
Auerbach might take weeks to finish one portrait drawing. If the drawing was not completed in a single day, he would scrub it back to a grey blur, to begin work again at the next sitting. This is evidenced in an extraordinary sequence of black and white photographs Sandra Fisher took in 1973-4, which shows forty different incarnations of her own charcoal portrait, taken after each of the sittings 1. Sometimes, particularly in the late 1950s and 1960s, Auerbach would rub out and rework the image so severely that the paper would begin to disintegrate. The finished image, as we see here, displays the visible shadows left behind from earlier sittings, lifted by the application of white chalk, and a final, strong and decisive line captured on the final day.
Auerbach’s drawings, particularly the very heavily worked charcoals, are imbued with a unique and consistent poetic voice. His recent retrospective at the Tate Gallery, which the artist co-curated with Catherine Lampert, (9 October 2015 - 13 March 2016), included drawings which easily held their own amongst his best paintings, see for example the dense, early works, Self Portrait, 1958 and Head of E.O.W., 1959-60, and the later, lighter feeling drawings Head of Catherine Lampert II, 1985 and Reclining Head of Julia, 1994. On 1 July 2015, Auerbach’s hugely atmospheric Head of Gerda Boehm, 1961, sold at Sotheby’s for £ 2.2 million - almost twice the price fetched for Head of Leon Kossoff, 1956, which had come up for sale five years earlier. Unusually, these prices place Auerbach’s best drawings on a par with his oils, underlining their significance within his oeuvre and the art market’s renewed appreciation for his works on paper.
1 Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach, 2015-6, pp144-145