Curators Voice: Starr Figura on Lucian Freuds Etchings

In this new column, ARTINFO hears from curators of current shows. Theirs is a crucial role in the art world: In deciding what to include (or not to include) in an exhibition, as well as how the works are installed, and what texts (if any) accompany them, curators are integral to how art is presented and understood. And although some of these experts write scholarly essays in exhibition catalogs, many don't get the chance to share their perceptions—which have often evolved over years of preparing a show—in other ways. “Curator’s Voice” is intended as a place for just that.

First up is Starr Figura, assistant curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art. Among the many exhibitions that she has organized there are "The Compulsive Line: Etching 1900 to Now" in 2006, "Masterworks of German Expressionism" in 2002, "Giorgio Morandi Etchings" in 2000, "Giacometti to Judd: Prints by Sculptors" in 1998, "New Concepts in Printmaking 1: Peter Halley" in 1997, and "Projects 53: Oliver Herring and Leonilson" in 1996. Most recently she is responsible for "Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings" which opened at MoMA on Sunday. She discussed the exhibition with ARTINFO last week.

Starr, Lucian Freud is most often thought of in terms of his expressive paint handling. What can we learn from his etchings?

It’s an amazing way to get deeper into his creative processes. Etching is an alternative means for him to get to know his subjects. It’s a different aesthetic: Whereas the paintings involve the physical substance of paint—his thick impasto—the etchings are much more linear, so it forces him to conceive of things in a different way. It’s a shift in perception as well as a shift in means of execution.

More than once in this show, as with the portraits of Bella, you’ve hung etchings and paintings of the same subject side by side. Why?

When you look at the etchings and paintings together, it encourages you to look at everything more closely. With the etchings, you think about what’s going on with the lines—the way they’re feathered or hatched or bunched together. He’s not trying to imitate brushstrokes, he’s trying to build up form through the accumulation of lines. And when you look back at the paintings you’re reminded of how he uses paint to re-create a surface with all these different textures.

It’s remarkable how he’ll return to the same sitter, sometimes in almost exactly the same pose, years apart. Why does he do that?

Freud’s art is about getting to know a person. That’s why he’ll go back to the same person and do a similar composition: He’s still involved with that person. They’re still in his mind, and he feels that there’s more that he can get to know about them, physically or psychologically or emotionally.

You’ve also sometimes included Freud’s actual etching plates. Why?

Having been a print curator for a long time, I know that a lot of people don’t really know what etching is. They might think they know, but they don’t understand what’s involved. It is a rather arcane technical process, and unless you actually see one being made in a print shop it’s very hard to understand. Apart from the fact that they are beautiful objects in themselves, I hope that when people see the plates next to the prints they’ll grasp what’s involved.

Freud seems to be particularly interested in the physical imperfections of the human body. Why do you think that we’re fascinated by his pictures, not revolted by them?

Different people have different reactions. I’m like you: I find his work fascinating, but a lot of people find it grotesque. It’s a question of what you want from art. If you are open to what art might present to you—if you hope that art might help you to see things in a new way—then it doesn’t bother you, and you can get a lot from his art. But if you want art to make you feel good, or put you at ease, then you’re going to have a hard time with Freud.

Having spent so long studying Freud’s work, how would you describe his stature among contemporary artists?

He’s definitely one of the most highly regarded artists, but he doesn’t really fit into any category. He stands apart, but he’s definitely up there.

He’s certainly regarded as a major figure in Britain. Do you think he’s underrated in this country?

I don’t think he’s underrated, but I think opinion is a lot more divided here than it is in England. A lot of people, including curators, don’t quite know what to make of his work. There are those who respond to it—and once you get it, you really see something amazing—but there are a lot of people who have a hard time with his art. Though he’s still understood as someone who’s very important.

He’s been working in much the same way for decades. Does he take any interest in what other artists are doing?

I’ve asked him that. He is interested in what other artists are doing, but it doesn’t affect what he does in the slightest.

And one final question: What’s been the biggest surprise for you in working on this show?

Basically it’s been a slow and steady process of accumulating information, and also insight, hopefully. And that’s still ongoing. But the most unexpected thing that happened was that Freud actually came to attend the opening reception and to see the show, which is something that he almost never does.