Ablaze with richly-worked layers of impasto, J.Y.M. in the Studio III is a sumptuous oil painting by Frank Auerbach. A female figure, reclining in a chair with her legs outstretched and hands crossed in her lap, is brought to life in a dramatic black-and-white chiaroscuro spiked with hints of ochre, teal and purple. Executed in 1964, during Auerbach’s early rise to acclaim, the painting is one of an important series of eight titled J.Y.M. in the Studio which the artist created between 1963 and 1965. These were the first of his works to name ‘J.Y.M.’, or Juliet Yardley Mills: one of his most important models, who had been sitting for him since the late 1950s. The first of the group is held in London’s Arts Council Collection; J.Y.M. in the Studio VII is in the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal. In these works, writes Catherine Lampert, Auerbach ‘introduces strong black contour lines, hinting at something sculptural, as if wet, malleable pigment might be underpinned by aggressively rendered marks’ (C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London 2015, p. 87). While marbled with flashes of peacock brilliance, the present work is structured with all the spotlit splendour of Auerbach’s early monochrome oeuvre, charting the play of light and shadow across the flesh with electric intensity. Simultaneously visceral and elegant, it demonstrates the artist’s desire to capture the living physical presence of his subject: a quest he has continued to pursue for more than half a century since.
By the early 1960s, Auerbach had established himself among the ranks of what would later become known as the ‘School of London’, a cohort that included Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. The latter, in particular, shared much of Auerbach’s sensibility: the two artists favoured painterly intuition over carefully-studied precision, viewing art-making as a means of pinning down human sensation. Auerbach would frequently rebuild his painterly surfaces in pursuit of this goal, stripping away layers of pigment and reconstructing them over extended periods. Having studied under David Bomberg, who exhorted his students to seek out ‘the spirit in the mass’, he subsequently found much to be admired in the work of Willem de Kooning, shown at the Tate during the late 1950s. The present work’s abstract painterly qualities witness this influence: significantly, Auerbach had studied de Kooning’s canvases in black-and-white reproduction long before he saw them in the flesh, understanding their architectonic force independently of their vivid colours.
Another important source of inspiration was Alberto Giacometti, images of whose work had begun to circulate in London during the late 1940s. For Auerbach, who worked stoically in the small, bare confines of his Mornington Crescent studio, tales of the Swiss sculptor offered a great deal of hope. Like Giacometti’s figures, Auerbach’s earthy, near-sculptural paintings were a way of grappling with the ‘human clay’ of raw existential experience. ‘We wanted to say something profound and precise, something sharp about truth’, he explained. ‘… The image of Giacometti who created a rich oeuvre, inventive and refined, with modest means in a small room, was very attractive. It made a life in art seem possible’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ibid., p. 92). The well-worn Windsor chair, featured in the present work and in many more of Auerbach’s paintings through the years, serves as a reminder of this belief that even the humblest settings could reveal the human figure anew.
Yardley Mills, a dynamic, vital woman whom Auerbach had first met when she was a model at Sidcup College of Art in 1956, brought an energy to her sittings that can be vividly felt in Auerbach’s bold, charged paintings of her. Following the J.Y.M. in the Studio series, she would go on to feature in many of his most distinguished portraits; J.Y.M. Seated (1996) was chosen for the cover of William Feaver’s definitive 2009 monograph on the artist. ‘I was so happy’, Mills recalled of the sittings. ‘You see I had this terrific excitement when I was going. I loved getting up at 5. And I tore down those dark streets’ (J. Yardley Mills, quoted in C. Lampert, ‘Auerbach and his Sitters’, in Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, p. 26). She loved modelling, but in particular she relished the opportunity to witness the artist’s creative development first-hand. ‘We had a wonderful relationship because I thought the world of him and he was very fond of me’, she explained; ‘... there was no sort of romance but we were close. Real friends’ (J. Yardley Mills, quoted in ibid.).