Catching life off guard, with vivid results

Francis Bacon catches life off guard and paints it as the trap snaps shut. He doesn't always succeed. At times his subjects elude him, leaving behind only ghostly imprints of the reality he is pursuing.

But when he does succeed, the result is truly memorable.

Several such recent attempts -- including one smashing success -- are currently on view here at Marlborough Gallery. Painted within the past three years, these works include figure composition, studies taken from life and from Muybridge's 19th-century photographs of human bodies in motion, studies for portraits, and a large painting of a jet of water.

Response to Bacon's art is seldom neutral. He is much too powerful and disturbing an artist for that. In fact, there are those who believe his formal bag of tricks to be all he has to offer. His followers, on the other hand, see these devices as essential to his style and crucial to his art.

His critics argue that his images don't sit still, that they twist, smear, look jumbled-together, and even at times seem to be sliding off the canvas. But that is simply because what he has to say is so complex that it cannot be contained within simple, static forms.

Bacon's subjects are always in a state of flux -- or frozen between actions. Some are caught at the peak of violent movement, others in the process of sliding from frontal to profile view, and still others are caught in a corkscrew twist. Whichever it is, the viewer catches glimpses of all sides of the forms simultaneously. In a painting of a man seated with crossed legs, for instance, he paints not only the shape the legs make as they are crossed, but the arcs and blurs they fashioned while in the act of crossing.

But whatever his devices, they are never gratuitious, for Bacon is one of the most serious and dedicated artists working today -- and one of the great risk-takers of contemporary art.

This last point is amply demonstrated in this exhibition. Although there are several paintings in it which resemble earlier works, there are also at least a half dozen in which he broke new ground and attempted the impossible.

Among these, the strangest and most enigmatic by far is a large painting of an off-balance man reachin gout at an extreme angle with one leg to turn a door key with his toes. It's an extraordinary piece of work even if it doesn't quite come off.

On the other hand, "Jet of Water" is such a stunning success that it must stand as one of the most exciting and original paintings produced by anyone during the last few years. It's one of those miracles of which Bacon is capable and which set him apart as one of the unique creative figures of our age.

No one else would have dared do it -- no one else would have thought of it. It's like nothing ever painted before; a breathtaking leap of creative intuition.

There's not much to it: a few of Bacon's typical floor and sky props, a couple of cubes, two small bright-red arrows -- and a powerful jet of sky-blue water shooting upward and to the left.

"Two Seated Figures" is another successful painting -- although less dramatically so. Bacon has always been interested in the shapes people make when they sit, and in this work he has combined two such figures engaged in quiet conversation -- an unusual thing to be going on in a Bacon painting!

I was also impressed by his 1977 "Study for Portrait," and the central section of "Triptych -- Studies of the Human Body." The latter, based on Muybridge's photographic studies, is not a particularly handsome work, but in quite dramatically sums up a great deal of what Bacon has been trying to do these last 25 or so years.

All in all this is a worthwhile show to visit. It's a good, rough introduction to Bacon's work for those not familiar with it. And for those who know his work well, "Jet of Water" will come as a very pleasant surprise.

This exhibition at Marlborough Gallery will remain on view through June 7.

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