Lucian Freud got better as he got older — he was always a painter probing for the atmosphere that revealed character, the mood that seemed unsettling, but as an old man he was less concerned with mood than with clarity, with seeing things as they are.
Many — most — artists fall off near the end, if only because as their energy falters they retreat to the familiar, which they can’t reproduce with the vivacity of youth. But Freud got deeper, more unsparing, without descending to the brutalism of Francis Bacon.
It was part of his overall rigorous temperament — he could take a year or more on a single portrait, with multiple sittings that probably exhausted the sitter, if not the artist.
The Norton has a little summer blast of an exhibition entitled “Lucian Freud: Paintings and Prints.” It’s devoted to Freud’s late-life work — he died in 2011 at the age of 88. There are only 12 pieces in the show, but there’s not a throwaway among them; the artist’s sense of concentrated attention demands no less from the viewer.
There’s the great “The Brigadier,” exhibited earlier this summer as a stand-alone in the Norton’s “Masterpiece of the Month” series, which depicts a slightly bibulous-looking Andrew Parker-Bowles in an epic, bigger-than-life work.
There is an equally great self-portrait from 2002 in which Freud depicts himself as lean and slightly ravaged — he looks a lot like Samuel Beckett. It doesn’t show in reproduction, but the heavy impasto around the nose and eyes makes him look as if he’s developed a late-life case of leprosy.
There are also a series of etchings, the best of which is a head entitled “The New Yorker” from 2006, and another etching of a mountainous woman sleeping that carries some of the terrible honesty of El Greco.
Freud is working with material I didn’t know he approached — some etchings of sleeping dogs, one named Eli, another a 12-year-old dog named Pluto that Freud views with a touch of tenderness, adding white to the muzzle, and some other signs of age.
Around the corner from Freud there’s an accompanying exhibit of other, less renowned 20th century figurative artists: Ben Shahn, Fairfield Porter, Paul Cadmus, among others. There are two tremendous Reginald Marsh paintings of a couple of tacky women walking down the street that are pitched on the thin line between satire and reportage, and a Jack Levine painting entitled “Portrait of Anna Weissberger,” which Freud himself might have appreciated.
Freud was a deeply suggestive artist; his work is not exactly harsh, not exactly hostile, not even clinical. Just objective and unsparing, of himself no less than others. I imagine his paintings could be hard to live with, but impossible not to admire.
IF YOU GO
Lucian Freud: Paintings and Prints
When: Through Sept. 1
Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach