Among an abundance of outstanding works at the exhibition by Avigdor Arikha at the Marlborough Gallery, his 1975 painting “Anne’s White Coat” shines out. At 146cm x 144cm, it is a large canvas. The coat, sheepskin with an extravagantly fluffy collar and matching cuffs, appears suspended as if on an invisible hanger against a dark red void. So accomplished is the sense of depth, the garment sways in space, an effect intensified by the lonely, dangling belt. Constructed from comma-like scribbles loaded with yellow, pink, violet and grey, it is nevertheless the whitest coat you have ever seen, partly thanks to the contrast with the backdrop’s simmering cauldron of reds, which undulate through burgundy, aubergine and maroon to bull’s-blood black.
Profoundly substantial yet ineluctably mysterious, “Anne’s White Coat” could only have been painted by an artist who had come to believe that “the one thing that is not reachable, never knowable, truly infinite . . . is the world around us.”
Arikha was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Romania in 1929, and his early life was marked by the horror of internment in a Ukrainian concentration camp. In 1944 a delegation from the International Red Cross – impressed, some reports say, by drawings he had made of the camp – included him in a group of children bound for Palestine. There he lived on a kibbutz and enrolled at art school before transferring to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1954.
Over the next decade, Arikha would find himself in a milieu that included Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Giacometti and, crucially, Samuel Beckett, who would become a close friend. Grappling with questions about being, consciousness and presence, the relations between self and other and matter and space, this was a generation for whom doubt was the breath of life. At first Arikha cleaved to the Informel abstraction that was fashionable at the time. His sultry, tumultuous combustions of colour won success; the poet John Ashbery praised him for his “breathless urgency”, and in 1964 he represented Israel at the Venice Biennale.
Then, in 1965, he saw an exhibition of Italian painting at the Louvre that included “The Raising of Lazarus” by Caravaggio. The work was a revelation, not least because much of its power derived from the Italian’s custom of painting from live models. Arikha realised: “All I had been doing was painting from painting. I had not linked the act of painting to the fact of seeing and it struck me – a terrible blow – that our culture was manneristic [as it was when Caravaggio began painting in Rome].”
His career as an abstractionist was over. For the next eight years, Arikha devoted himself to making black-and-white drawings and prints from life. (He refused to work in colour and did no painting during this time.)
A clutch of etchings from this period shows an artist seeking ways to express the world without depriving it of its essential otherness. His wife Anne is summoned asleep in spartan, wiry lines; a similar medley of scratchings capture Beckett as he gazes down in profile. Private, immediate, inherently elusive, the works’ intensity draws on Arikha’s habit of drawing from life, or a memory, in a single session. By the early 1970s he had developed his own method of making aquatints that permitted a single acid bite (rather than the sequence that was conventional) yet nevertheless achieve a variation in light and dark tones. The result is that works such as “Self-portrait with Open Mouth” (1973), with its subtle gradations between the wild curls, complexion and spectacle-rimmed eyes, possess a spine-tingling human honesty.
The discipline of those colourless years must account in part for the assurance of the chromatism that followed. Painted in 2006, for example, “The Chair in the Studio” portrays an unremarkable armchair. Captured in the awkward, close perspective Arikha often employed, it pounces off the surface in a dazzling conflict between the steely greys and buttery whites of the cushions and the oily, terracotta reds of the wood.
His fidelity to the single sitting marks Arikha’s portraits, both of himself and others, with a marvellous vitality intensified by the absence of rhetoric or sentiment. Yet it is his paintings and watercolours of still lifes, and fragmented observations, that underscore his right to be considered the peer of great, late figurative artists such as Freud, Sam Szafran, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
While so many contemporary painters floundered in exactly the mannerism he had intuited, Arikha occupied himself with highlighting the brown depths of a broken baguette; constructing the layers of paint necessary to raise the vein on the back of a lonely hand; mixing exactly the correct shade of aqua for a pair of rubber gloves abandoned on a table.
The result is paintings that are an inquiry into the condition of being. They are scrupulous yet bold, anxious yet supremely confident, and splendidly free of the rhetoric, sentiment and agenda that afflict so much contemporary art. It is impossible to imagine a finer homage to Arikha’s art than that of Beckett, who described his friend’s vision as: “Siege laid again to the impregnable without . . . the gaze beating against the unseeable and unmakeable. Truce for a space.”
The works at Marlborough all come from Arikha’s family estate and one can only hope that some will be snapped up by public institutions. Let’s hope too that one of our major museums is planning a retrospective as soon as possible.
Until November 2, www.marlboroughfineart.com