In late 1988, I was newly single and needed a roommate to share the Midtown Sacramento apartment from which my ex had moved. I proposed the situation to M, a young woman with whom I had become acquainted a few years before and who had recently done some modeling for me, and she accepted. She was a budding songwriter who also played bass,1 and had a small record collection – all vinyl; neither of us owned a CD player during the few years we were roommates.

In the Venn diagram of musical tastes, ours had some overlap which grew as she heard the records I played. She didn’t act as DJ much, but one LP I recall her owning is Japan’s live album Oil on Canvas, which is notable for the Frank Auerbach painting that graces the jacket. With its heavily impastoed surface and virtuosic brushwork, the portrait of Juliet Yardley Mills, who sat regularly for Auerbach for over forty years, is representative of his arresting technique and as far as I know is the only example of his work on a record cover.

I didn’t know a lot about either the band or the painter, but was vaguely familiar with both. I’d heard a couple of Japan’s albums and some of leader David Sylvian’s solo work, but didn’t know any of the records well. As for Auerbach, I was aware of paintings similar to the one on the album cover and that he ran in the same circles as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, two other renowned British figurative artists,2 but that was about the extent of my knowledge.

That situation didn’t change much for many years, but when my friend Laureen Landau passed away in 2009, she left much of her estate to a mutual friend of ours, the aforementioned ex, who, from Laureen’s possessions, gave me a black leather blazer of which I am very fond, and several art books, including a Frank Auerbach monograph.3 Of the work reproduced therein, the portrait heads interest me the most, and I have a preference for the charcoal drawings over the oils. Also appearing in the book is a compelling series of forty photographs documenting the progress of a single drawing, Portrait of Sandra. Auerbach would rub out the drawing prior to each session with the sitter and start over with the pentimento of what had been done before as a foundation. He worked and re-worked all his drawings until they were so abraded he often needed to patch them where the paper had been worn through. The resultant layers and textures from this working method give the images a captivating expressionist quality.4

Earlier this year, The Courtauld Gallery in London mounted an exhibition of Auerbach portraits from the mid-1950s to the mid-’60s. I didn’t make it to Merrie Olde for The Charcoal Heads, although I did stroll through the gallery and see the show in the online virtual world.5 In addition to the seventeen titular drawings in the show, there were six oil paintings from the same period, all depicting sitters who appear in the drawings. The work is simultaneously sensitive and brutal; it evokes an emotional desolation that could be viewed as reflective of not only the circumstances of Post-War Britain, but also Auerbach’s personal trauma – in 1939, at eight years old, he was sent to England from Germany via Kindertransport. He never saw his parents again; they were among the over one million people murdered at Auschwitz. Still in his early twenties when he made the earliest of the pieces in the show, he was astonishingly young to be producing work of such sophistication and depth.

Frank Auerbach is now ninety-three years old, and still works every day in his studio. In 2023 he had a show of new self-portraits, both drawings and paintings, most of which were done when his regular models couldn’t sit for him during the COVID lockdown. His process hasn’t changed – he still rubs out all his drawings and scrapes down all his paintings prior to starting again. Although he said the show included “what may be [his] last paintings,” I imagine he will continue that practice until he is unable to work at all.

It’s been well over thirty years since M’s and my living arrangement came to an end. Despite her moving to several different cities up and down the West Coast in subsequent years, she has modeled for me occasionally since then, and we’ve managed to stay in touch all this time. Maybe she’ll take a page from Auerbach’s models, and sit for me regularly for the next few decades.


1 Shortly after she moved in, I was listening to Keith Richards’ first solo album, Talk is Cheap, which had just been released and was in heavy rotation at the apartment. The first song on side one is called “Big Enough,” and while it was playing, she asked, “Who is that on bass?!” It’s Bootsy Collins.

2 Decades into their respective careers, all three painters were deemed part of the School of London, figurative artists based in and around England’s capital. Besides these three, the only other artist associated with the group with whom I was familiar at the time was David Hockney. 

3 Robert Hughes: Frank Auerbach; Thames & Hudson (1992).

4 Like Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, Auerbach has denied any expressionist intent in his work.

5 In the actual real world, I purchased the catalogue. Barnaby Wright and Colm Tóibín: Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads; Paul Holberton Publishing (2024).