Freud’s was not one of those postscript deaths, the final headline in a life that had long ago ceased to matter or progress. It was an interruption—the ultimate inconvenience for a man who still had plenty of work to do and plenty of people who wanted to see his work. The restaurateur Jeremy King, who was more than a hundred sittings into an uncompleted etching when Freud died—having already sat for a painting completed in 2007—recalls that the artist “never came to terms with the fact that he was slowing down. He constantly said, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, Lucian, you’re actually much more active than any other 68-year-old I know, let alone 88.’ And the moment he lifted his hands, most of his ailments seemed to melt away. The concentration and the adrenaline pushed him through.”
From his mid-60s onward, the pinochle years for most men his age, Freud had been enjoying a fruitful and vigorous late period. This wasn’t a function of critical recognition, though it happened to be in this period that critical favor finally smiled upon him, with Time’s Robert Hughes judging him “the best realist painter alive,” a sobriquet that stuck. Nor was it a matter of commercial success, though it was in 2008 that Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) fetched the highest-ever auction price for a painting by a living artist, selling at Christie’s to the Russian petrogarch Roman Abramovich for $33.6 million.
Freud simply did great work as an old man, some of his greatest. “In a sense, I think he knew this was his last big push at making some remarkable works. I could just see that he was really ambitious, pushing as hard as he could,” says the naked man in that final painting, David Dawson, the artist’s longtime assistant and the owner of Eli, the whippet star of several late paintings. (Freud had bestowed the dog upon Dawson as a Christmas present in 2000.) When Dawson started working for Freud, 20 years ago, the artist was in the middle of a series of nudes of the drag performer and demimonde fixture Leigh Bowery. Bowery was a huge man, lengthwise and girthwise, with a bald, oblong head—a lot to work with in terms of topography, physiognomy, and epidermal hectarage. Yet Freud went bigger still, painting Bowery larger than life-size. Freud had his canvases extended northward, eastward, and westward as it suited him; often, he would work the upper reaches of a painting from atop a set of portable steps.
Worth checking out.