(A young Lucian Freud, who died in 2011.)


It is more than just good fortune that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is the only American venue for the Lucian Freud retrospective.

It is also poetic justice.

For Freud, certainly Britain’s greatest living realist painter and perhaps the best in the world, often makes viewers uncomfortable with his portraits. His palette is restrained, perhaps somber. His subjects — even his own mother — can look forlorn and melancholy, seemingly stripped of dreams, ambitions or illusions.

And their flesh — quite often unguardedly naked, splayed even — betrays the wrinkles and splotches, the flabbiness and fat of physical imperfection. His subjects look burdened by their self-awareness.

Or, at least, that’s how someone raised on the dream factory’s vision of beauty — a vision Los Angeles certainly has had a key role in manufacturing — might see it. As a result, says art historian William Feaver, who organized this show for the Tate Britain, Freud’s work often is criticized as depressing and his subjects’ ample flesh called “putrid.”

Indeed, some of this show’s most dramatic work, such as “Leigh Bowery (Seated)” and “Benefits Supervisor Resting,” are large canvases of quite large people, often the artist’s friends and family. They are not pretty people — or pictures — by conventional standards.

“That’s because people have been totally brainwashed by advertising over the last 100 years,” Feaver says. “In advertising, everybody smiles. On TV, everybody smiles. In real life, nobody smiles much. You can’t keep it up – and you look inane if you go on smiling. And you can’t sit for someone if you go on smiling.

“It’s a cliche that everybody’s beautiful, but it’s true. You have to go on looking at them and study them  — use your brain to make them more interesting. When Freud paints a very large woman or man who would be obese by our standards, there’s something magnificent and operatic. It’s a product of fantastic concentration.

“I think he’s got a poet’s honesty. He just looks at things like all poets do – without preconception, as if it’s for first time. And gradually he’s gotten better and better at looking at a body.”

In short, Freud searches for the truth in his subjects; he doesn’t flatter or glamorize them.

This retrospective is the largest to date from throughout Freud’s long and still-active career, with 103 oil paintings plus watercolors, drawings and etchings. The preponderance of the work consists of portraits, but the occasional still life or cityscape proves Freud a man with a keen eye for all aspects of his environment.

It’s tempting to say the search for an interior truth comes genetically to Freud. After all, he is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. His father Ernst, an architect, was the youngest son of the pioneering psychoanalyst.

Yet Freud had only a slight relationship with his grandfather – geographic distance and historical events wouldn’t allow it. Born in Berlin in 1922, Lucian and his family emigrated to England in 1933, escaping the Nazis. He became a naturalized British subject in 1939. (His grandfather didn’t escape Vienna for England until 1938; he died in 1939.)

Lucian was already drawing by the time he arrived in England. After studying drawing and painting at school and serving a stint in the British Merchant Navy in World War II, he had his first solo exhibition in 1944.

This exhibition includes examples of his early work – accomplished realism with just enough sense of drama to give the work a contemporary sensibility. The intense, large-eyed gaze of his subjects, for example, has a slightly frightening effect.

Feaver makes a persuasive case that Freud’s work is always autobiographical — and not just because he sometimes paints self-portraits, nude (1993’s “Painter Working, Reflection”) or clothed (the new “Self Portrait, Reflection,” in which the veins seem ready to burst out of his hand). He doesn’t accept commissions and only paints from life using models.

“He can’t work from anything but what’s in front of him, and he only paints what interests him,” Feaver says. “Everything else follows from that. And he paints people that are prepared to sit for him and are, to his mind, people with a bit of an inner life that interests him. They can sit still for a long time without looking like dummies.”

This well-organized, uncluttered show reveals how Freud began to find his great strength – his patience to stay working on a single painting as if painstakingly exploring a rugged, uncharted shore – in the early 1950s. His large 1951 oil painting, “Interior at Paddington,” features a young man in a creased olive trench coat, holding a cigarette and looking away from us, standing behind a large potted plant. Remarkably, both seem equally mysterious and inscrutable, yet compelling.

To like Freud’s work is to be intrigued by the mysteries inherent in his subjects. With time and age, he has gotten better at conveying those mysteries. The 1988-89 “Standing by the Rags” shows how he can imbue a female nude portrait with a sense of movement. And his new “David Hockney” portrait, while a relatively small work, shows that age hasn’t rendered Freud any less unsentimental in depicting subjects.

As good a painter as Freud is, and as heralded as he is in Britain, his work still is relatively unfamiliar to the American public. (However, he’s much in demand among American collectors.) True, he’s not user-friendly; his work isn’t superficially complimentary.

But also, he and other heralded post-war British painters like the late Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach (there are Freud portraits of both in the show), worked outside the fame and celebrity of art-related American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Freud isn’t an abstract expressionist like Jackson Pollock or a pop artist like Andy Warhol. He never declared painting dead. Rather, he’s kept working steadily at portraiture and realism.

“We’re incredibly conventional about believing that there’s a progression to contemporary art,” Feaver says. “But all the great figures are oddballs, and they don’t fit into any progression. Great artists, like great poets, always stand on their own two feet with a few acolytes and friends to admire them. It takes a generation for them to start fitting in.”


Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday through May 25. Closed Mondays.

Tickets: $8 adults, $5 students, 12 and under free. Call (213) 621-2766 or visit


More ‘Ecstasy,’ Less Agony at Los Angeles Museum


By Steven Rosen (Correspondent) / Los Angeles Daily News /2005

One room makes you larger, and one room makes you small … 

It’s natural to paraphrase lyrics from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a 1960s-era psychedelic-rock classic, while describing the “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” art show at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. 

This is an exhibit inspired by the legacy of the hippie era, during which often-drug-induced attempts at consciousness expansion became a mass social movement and impetus for widespread, often-rebellious artistic expression. 

For this show, some 30 international artists have submitted works – many room-size installations, including films – that address the quest for the ecstatic experience. The show’s origins are in an earlier MOCA exhibit, 1992’s “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s.” That contained Charles Ray’s “Yes,” a luminously smooth portrait of the California artist high on LSD. “Yes” is in this show, too. All the art here was created since 1990, and certain pieces were done specifically for the show. 

Some “Ecstasy” work means to consciously evoke and revive the druggie, blissed-out spirit of that 1960s experience. Others wryly comment on it or critique it. And some look for fresh, new artistic means to heighten and change the viewer’s consciousness today. 

There is gentle humor but also a utopian questing in German artist Klaus Weber’s sweetly idealistic “Public Fountain LSD Hall,” the show’s first piece. It is a three-tier antique-crystal fountain made by the same company that once fabricated a Victorian-era fountain for the Crystal Palace of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Liquid – containing legal amounts of potentized LSD, the museum says – gurgles forth. 

Nearby is a display about the artist’s proposal to isolate and encased a town center in a glass and steel box and install a fountain that circulates trace amounts of the psychoactive drug that allows for heightened perceptions. It was proposed for Dresden but who knows – Pershing Square, maybe? 

MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, the show’s organizer, said in an interview that “Ecstasy’s” title isn’t meant to imply this show is solely about drug-inspired or -induced art. (Ecstasy, itself, is the colloquial name for a drug popular among rave-party aficionados.) 

“It has multifaceted meaning about collective experience,” he said. At the same time, drugs most certainly do have something to do with this show’s existence. “Throughout the 20th century, artists have alluded to or made use of mind-altering drugs and mushrooms to extend consciousness and take them outside the realm of reality,” he explained. 

And one would be hard-pressed to miss the drug reference in the room-size “Upside Down Mushroom Room,” by Belgian-born Swedish artist Carsten Holler. After walking down a long, dark entrance, visitors arrive in a room to find 10-foot-tall fabricated mushrooms bathed in bright light. The effect is dizzyingly mad as a March hare; it makes one feel like Tom Thumb to sit underneath these giants. 

But another artist who uses mushrooms as a subject, Roxy Paine of New York, goes for a more elegiac and loving effect. In “Psilocybe Cubensis Field,” she has individually molded and hand-painted 2,200 life-size psychedelic mushrooms and placed them on a section of the Geffen’s cold gray floor as if it were a tiny field. 

Clustered or separate, they look fragile and vulnerable, a bit like the birds in “March of the Penguins” or even an indigenous village in the remote wilderness. Paine has brought an artistic approximation of nature – a reverse earthwork, in a way – into the post-industrial expanses of the museum. 

One phenomenal work explores notions of ecstasy quite apart from any drug connections. It is Austrian-born, Brooklyn-based Erwin Redl’s “MATRIX II,” consisting of row upon row of vertical strands of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in a dark room. There are 5,000 lights in the 200-square-foot space. The effect of looking upon them, or walking through them, is disorienting and consciousness-altering, but in a calming, peaceful way that turns the room into a sanctuary. 

Redl said his inspiration is the spare, post-Minimalism Light-and-Space environmental art of James Turrell and Robert Irwin, as well as earthworks like Walter De Maria’s “Lighting Fields” in New Mexico. It’s not about drugs and the 1960s at all. “I love that period for the freedom it inspired, especially the music, but not really the psychedelic art,” he said. “For me, it (art) is about purity of space.” 

“Ecstasy’s” most famous – some might say notorious – piece already has been shut down by city officials because it lacked proper permits. MOCA is looking for another site. It was a site-specific work by Japanese installation artist Tatsurou Bashi called “Kariforunia,” located atop a 30-foot-high flagpole near City Hall on First Street between Main and Los Angeles streets.

There, the artist built and furnished a spacious room with a lovely, mind-expanding view of downtown L.A. and a closer one of the top of the pole and its state flag. The pole was right in the middle of the room. 

Figuratively and literally, it was far-out art. While it was briefly open, I climbed up into it via a temporary staircase and encountered two proud workmen installing finishing touches. “When I drive by from now on, I can tell my son I touched the top of this flag pole,” one said. 


Where: Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave. downtown Los Angeles. 

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; through Feb. 20. 

Tickets: $8 adults; $5 students; free 5-8 p.m. Thursdays. (213) 626-6222.


(PHOTO: Carsten Holler, Upside Down Sculpture, location of installation unclear)