I learned to keep my mouth shut around most people. I nod politely when people start the "greatest painter" discussion around him. (This is especially difficult when people compare him to Titian, the mega daddy of all painters of the nude.) I think that a lot of people think that he does what you are supposed to do in painting. You have to try really hard. You have to show your work (or your "process"). You have to use a lot of paint to indicate that you are serious. You have to be in the presence of the model and really look. The fact that the amazing Philip Pearlstein does all these things is lost on most people because the paintings aren't as visceral as Freud's, although in my opinion, Pearlstein is a much greater artist.
The thing that annoys me most in this discourse is that none of that stuff is true and, just like than any other painter, Freud's paintings are filled with conceptual and visual gimmicks that have nothing to do with looking and have everything to do to enhancing some sense of drama or tension in the work. Benefits Supervisor Resting is indicative of this. The figure seems to be hurtling into the space at lightspeed, arrested by the edge of the filthy sofa. The flesh is an inventory of mark and surface, Cremintz white paint pilled and cracking across the body. Most people are attracted to and repulsed by the investigation of the flesh in the work, as it Freud is the first artist to investigate the body in this detail. "He's really looking," friends often say to me. For someone who is doing a lot of looking, the color in the flesh is remarkably similar across his later work. His corrections are almost exclusively additive. We are supposed to think that some connection between the body of the paint and the body of the model.
The floor and the curtain are the things that excite me in this picture. Things are tilted at an impossible angle, not because it is really like that, but because these distortions say something about the condition of the body. His achievement to me has nothing to do with "realism." It has to do with his painting a 300 pound woman somewhere between a mass of dun-colored mud and at the same time, using the space around her to make her seem weightless.
Early in his career, Freud made these weird, flat, elegant paintings that no one could figure out. Quince on a Blue Table is my favorite picture from a painter I don't like. It seems effortless. I don't know how this image happened. He doesn't show me how it's done and in the amalgamation of things, shapes, and colors I understand something about painting's ability to make something unreal appear more than real.
I know I'm alone in this. So I usually keep my mouth shut about him and let everyone say what a great artist he is. Now that he's gone, perhaps Matthew Collings will be vindicated in his analysis of Freud.