Executed in 1962.
The roll-call of sitters in the first two decades of Auerbach's career is small indeed. In the period leading up to the early 1960s less than a dozen named sitters appear in his work, all of whom were close to the artist. The paintings and drawings of Helen Gillespie form a small group within this small circle, with only three drawings and nine paintings appearing in the catalogue of Auerbach's oeuvre (see for example figs.1 and 2). Spanning a five year period from 1961-1966, they form a tight but potent body of work, remarkable for their quality.
The three drawings of Helen Gillespie, dating to 1961-2, are incredibly bold statements, and sit at a point in Auerbach's development where the concentration on the rendering of the darks and lights within the images is reaching an extreme, and indeed Head of Helen Gillespie II is almost a drawing formed in reverse. From around 1956 Auerbach had used the rubbing away of his drawings to create the highlights of his images. Using a heavy paper, layers of charcoal and graphite build up and are rubbed away, a process that is repeated again and again. As the paper begins to fail, patches are stuck over the weakened sheet, or as here a whole new sheet, and the process continues. With each successive reworking, and as admirable qualities and nuances are erased, the tension to create a still greater work builds. Reaching the point at which the work '...has its own laws, and when the thing suddenly stands up and you feel, well, there's this strange thing ... it's an independent object and there's nothing you can do with it' (Frank Auerbach, in conversation with William Feaver, October 2007, reproduced in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York 2009, p.230) requires an incisive critical eye.
As the sheer physicality of the support builds up in a way that we do not usually associate with drawings, the intensity of the images, such as in the series of head studies of E.O.W and Leon Kossoff, almost drills through the confines of the object to create a depth our logic tells us cannot be there. In these drawings, the sitters are resolutely static, their gaze intentionally drawn away from ours, almost as if they are uncomfortable with our looking at them. However, in around 1961, in a series of three drawings of Gerda Boehm, and then followed by the three drawings of Helen Gillespie, Auerbach seems to be aiming to activate the presentation of his sitters. As with the earlier examples, the drawings are worked and erased over and again. However, at the final point of working the artist has introduced bold jagged sweeps of coloured chalk, sometimes red, sometimes blue or white. Not always relating directly to the actual forms of the drawing, these lines both highlight and enliven, and the obvious force and vigour of their execution is quite startling. Indeed in Head of Helen Gillespie II, close inspection of some of these red lines shows how the chalk has simply crumbled into the surface under the pressure of the artist's gesture.
In Head of Helen Gillespie II, we see Auerbach's early drawing style at its zenith, the head of the sitter revealed to us as though we had lit a candle in a darkened room and, as our eyes become accustomed to the light, the form and presence of the person before us is revealed.
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