With its iconic intensity, Head of Julia is a classic Auerbach portrait. A picture of his wife painted in 1983, Head of Julia has been created through the artist's idiosyncratic accumulation of mesh-like brushstrokes. Out of the forms and brushstrokes emerges a face, a presence. There is an intense substantiality both to the painting and more particularly to the head itself. The contrast between the lush, glistening oil of the head and the flatter background accentuates this, while also revealing a key part of Auerbach's artistic process. He has scraped at the surface of the painting, probably starting again and again, erasing one day's efforts and beginning with another's. Yet the ghost of the previous forms remains in spirit, making Head of Julia an accumulation not only of paint, but of paintings. The relative flatness of the background points to the repeated scrapings of oil from the canvas, a process that has resulted in the floor and surfaces of Auerbach's studio being caked sometimes inches-thick in paint.
Auerbach is a painter of the familiar. The landscapes and portraits form the basis of an extensive mental and emotional topography of his private world. He creates pictures of the elements of his universe with which he is intensely involved. Both in the application and the removal of paint, he is absorbed in a process of emotional exploration, or even channelling. His painting is a by-product, is something instinctive and not conceptual. The swirling brushstrokes and heady sense of matter that form Head of Julia perfectly demonstrate the abandon of his painting. Describing this process, Auerbach said, 'As soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject' (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (eds.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., London, 2001, p. 27). Nowhere is this 'creative identification' more evident than in this striking portrait of his wife.