From within the swirling build-up of thick, sculptural impasto emerge the features of a woman's face. Portrait of Helen Gillespie I, painted in 1963-64, shows one of Frank Auerbach's preferred early subjects, Helen Gillespie, who featured in several of his paintings from the early 1960s. Here, she has been captured in a frothing wealth of oils, which appear, through their turbulent peaks and troughs, through the sweeping brushstrokes and the kaleidoscopic range of colours which are evident on closer inspection of the surface. This is an apparition that appears to be coalescing before the eyes of the viewer, some form of pulp congealing in order to convey not the mere likeness of the sitter, but instead some condensed and captured part of their essence. It is in a painting such as Portrait of Helen Gillespie I that we can see the heart of Auerbach's artistic quest: 'I felt that there was an area of experience - the haptic, the tangible, what you feel when you touch somebody next to you in the dark that hadn't perhaps been recorded in painting before' (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (ed.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh.cat., London, 2001, p. 23).
It is in part because of this intimate yet existential desire in Auerbach's pictures, this attempt to capture some sense of a person's life as well as their appearance and character, that has led the artist to focus on people in his circle as models, people with whom he has some form of relationship, be it friendship or family ties. In part, this is because the process of Auerbach's portrait-painting is so lengthy. But it is also because, to Auerbach, the picture only really becomes real if it is in some way condensing the relationship between the artist and the sitter. And that relationship should be personal. It is for this reason that some sitters E.O.W., J.Y.M., Catherine Lampert, and Helen Gillespie have been painted several times, Auerbach returning to themes, and to relationships, that interest him, that are alive enough to make a painting that itself lives.
Looking at some of the portraits of Helen Gillespie that Auerbach painted during the early 1960s, one can perceive a gradual development, a change in his pictorial means. In comparison to the Head of Helen Gillespie from 1961, which was shown in the 2001 retrospective of Auerbach's works at the Royal Academy, London, one can see that there is a heavier use of thick, black line-like areas to articulate some of the facial features, a technique that would evolve into a style in its own right, with faces and other features conveyed through an agglomeration of glyph-like zigzags. At the same time, the palette in Portrait of Helen Gillespie I is less reliant on the ochres of the earlier painting; this lightening of Auerbach's palette has been attributed to the contract that, in 1962, he signed with Helen Lessore, long a champion of the artist; this afforded him financial stability, which in turn meant that he could afford better oil paints and a wider range of colours. Perhaps this is even evidenced in the sheer thickness of the surface of Portrait of Helen Gillespie I, although looking at his previous works, it is apparent that financial limitations had not been reflected in any sparseness of the surface.
This in itself reflected the process by which Auerbach created, and indeed creates, his portraits. In his earlier works especially, he would build the pictures up to an immense thickness; however, he would also often scrape away the work that he had already done, starting almost from scratch, the detritus of the former incarnations of each likeness piling up around his feet: 'All my paintings are the end result of hundreds of transmutations' (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 26). It is a telling indication of the laborious process by which Auerbach ekes out the likeness of his sitters that this painting has a date that spans two years. His output of oil paintings during this period was still low, though not as low as it had been some years earlier, because of the amount of time and effort that each painting involved, meaning that Portrait of Helen Gillespie I is a relatively rare work from the period. The thick, variegated surface of this picture appears almost to have a geography of its own, with strange pits and mounds introducing stranger plays of light and shadow, introducing an almost sculptural feel to the picture. This work, this sitter, appears to be caught in the process of creeping from the wall and into our domain, a tangible, palpable mass emanating from the canvas. This is an effect that is accentuated by the relative restraint with which the background has been painted. It does not have the same thickness of paint, and this in turn thrusts the area of the head further into the foreground, into our world, Helen Gillespie and her relationship becoming a little more alive.