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Courting Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud: Portraits

Through Oct. 28

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

3200 Darnell St.

Fort Worth

817-738-9215; www.themodern.org

Tickets: $10; $4 students and seniors; free for children 12 and younger; half-price on Wednesdays; free first Sunday of each month.

Posted 12:02am on Wednesday, Jul. 04, 2012

It resides in the final gallery of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's just-opened, massive retrospective on the life and art of Lucian Freud. At a mere 26 inches tall and 20 inches wide, the painting's relatively modest scale belies its intense visceral impact.

Completed nine years before Freud's death last summer at 88, Self-Portrait, Reflection doesn't engage in pointless hagiography. Instead, Freud all but revels in portraying the wages of his full life: his thinning thatch of hair; the veined, mottled hand; and the wattle sagging underneath the still-assertive chin.

One of the 20th century's most prolific portrait painters, Freud -- yes, the grandson of Sigmund -- was also one of his epoch's great nonconformists, a figurative artist thriving in an era gaga over abstract expressionism. For years, there has been avid talk of a major, career-surveying exhibition; one that would indelibly set the artist's place in history, as perhaps our most unwavering, unsentimental chronicler of the flaws of the human body and face.

That exhibit is now here, and -- unlikely as it may seem -- it's here, in Fort Worth.

Michael Auping, the Modern's obsessively focused chief curator, managed to persuade everyone, including Freud himself, that only one museum in the States would do it justice: Not New York's Museum of Modern Art, not Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, not the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Modern ended up being one of only two venues in the world for "Lucian Freud: Portraits," which originated this year at London's National Portrait Gallery.

It's arguably the most prestigious and high-profile "get" in the Modern's history. Even before his death on July 20, 2011, Freud's work was regularly setting records at auction houses. In 2008, his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) sold for $33.6 million to Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich; it remains the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. (Although it was part of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit, it is not included in the Modern show.)

In the year since Freud died, art world sources estimate the total value of the works on display at the Modern to have roughly tripled -- to a staggering amount well north of $1 billion.

"As far as I know, during my tenure, no exhibition has come close to that value," Auping says.

And the story of how the Modern landed this blockbuster is more than just a fascinating footnote: It's a case study in the high-stakes world of modern art exhibitions, where cajoling and judicious wheedling are de rigueur; where smaller-city museums must go toe-to-toe with the world's most famous art institutions; and where the artist, no matter how eccentric or elusive, remains king.

Says Auping: "Everyone who knows the history of this museum knows that there simply has never been this kind of show. We are breaking genuine new ground."

Making a play

The obstacles to mounting a show on the scale of "Lucian Freud: Portraits" are considerable: Obtaining the art -- there are 92 works on display -- often from private collections or museums loath to lend out their most prized works, is one challenge.

Ponying up the dough to bring the show to Fort Worth is another. Modern officials estimate that this exhibit, which they first began planning in 2008, cost between $500,000 to $700,000 to open.

What most museum directors agree on, though, is that the potential benefits, in terms of prestige and attention, more than justifies the effort.

"A museum could simply rely on its permanent collection, but it wouldn't reach as many people as when it puts on a bigger show," explains Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, who played a key role in helping organize another recent blockbuster exhibit, on the Italian painter Caravaggio.

"Also, those bigger shows affect the reputation of the permanent collection, the heart of the museum, by raising the overall status of the museum."

All of that, however, is perhaps easier said than fully realized, especially when it comes to a complex show like the Freud exhibition, and especially when it is a museum like the Modern trying to pull it off. Indeed, the Modern's approximately $10 million annual operating budget is a mere fraction of the budget of, say, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, to cite a venue where you might more commonly expect to see a Freud retrospective.

Five years ago, the 62-year-old, California-born Auping, the Modern's chief curator for the past 19 years, spied a rare window of opportunity: He began hearing through the museum grapevine that the National Portrait Gallery of London, to honor the Queen's Jubilee and the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, would be devoting an entire exhibition to Freud.

"I knew that was the one modern-art show in London we really wanted to jump on and help organize, because if we weren't fast, we would quickly lose our chance," Auping says.

So Auping grabbed the first plane out of DFW for London to "insinuate myself into this process, to try to get a piece of it for us."

He arrived to the National Portrait Gallery without knowing a single high-ranking official directly responsible for the Freud show. Another potential roadblock: Whereas most museums are able to secure a highly prestigious touring show if they can contribute several of their own prized works by the artist to the prospective exhibit, the Modern has never had a Freud in its permanent collection.

What the curator did have was moxie and a conviction that Freud's work belonged in Texas.

"It will always be inherently harder," says Auping, "for a museum in a smaller city to attract the same kind of attention in order for them to successfully do a bigger show. But my response to that is to think of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as being like the Oklahoma City Thunder. They may be a small-market team, but they are still playing in the NBA. The Modern is a major franchise doing major shows, but we just happen to be in a small-market town."

Auping initially approached the National Portrait Gallery with the idea that the Modern could act as a co-organizer of the costly show. "I felt that, financially, sharing the cost would make more sense," he recalls.

Although the National Portrait Gallery officials were receptive to the possibility of a collaboration, there was one crucial hurdle -- a requirement that might have made many a museum curator pack his bags and head home: Auping would have to secure Freud's personal approval to take the show to Fort Worth.

What made that even trickier was that Freud was known as a notorious, reclusive eccentric, often reluctant to grant meetings with even the most well-known museum leaders. Think of Auping as Dorothy receiving the Wizard's ultimatum about securing the Wicked Witch's broom stick: How do you even begin to tackle such a challenge?

"With artists, you just never know," he says. "Lucian could have taken a severe disliking to me and that would have killed the deal. I definitely didn't want to come on as some overzealous salesman, saying our museum is the greatest in the world and he must show here."

Auping's tack in approaching Freud, instead, was a simple one: To talk about Texas.

"I told Lucian how grateful people would feel to see his paintings in Texas," says Auping. "And that most American audiences were simply not used to his type of art and that, more importantly, he had never really shown in the midwestern part of the U.S. I kept on saying how much of a big deal it would be for us."

Much to Auping's delight, Freud seemed totally seduced by the idea.

"He would eagerly ask me, 'Are there still cowboys there?'" recalls Auping. "Indeed, with Lucian, I rediscovered the idea that Europeans are genuinely fascinated by Texas. As capricious as it sounds, Lucian was a quirky guy and having his paintings show in Texas, where cowboys still are, that really intrigued him."

So as rapidly as Auping could deliver his best Texas-centric sales pitch, Freud gave his full approval to him and the Modern to take on the show. Perhaps most astonishingly, for an artist who almost never talked publicly about his work, he even agreed to a series of interviews with Auping for the show's scholarly catalog. Finally, this monumental agreement between the mercurial artist and the persistent curator, to bring one of the decade's most sought-after exhibitions to Texas, was finalized with a handshake.

Buying insurance

Though Auping defied the odds and bagged the Freud show, getting it onto the walls would be yet another challenge -- and not without risks.

There is an enormous logistical dance required to first obtain works of art that are worth as much money as Freud's pieces.

"You have to make a clear argument for the sheer importance of the exhibition being put together," says Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, of the process of convincing other museums and private owners to lend their work.

Then there is the delicate coordination involving the physical transport of the works. Moving them can cost as much as $25,000 for each piece of art traveling from Europe. For the Freud show, all of the pieces were delivered by special couriers, beginning about a month ago.

These couriers accompany the work to where it will be exhibited. The borrowing museum must pay for the courier's plane ticket, hotel room and food (usually $200-$300 per day), typically covering two or three days of the courier's time.

For the Freud exhibition, the Modern also had to secure a federal government-sponsored insurance policy to cover three-quarters (or roughly $800 million) of the estimated total value of the Freud show. The Modern submitted its application for the insurance policy in January, and it only was informed three weeks before the first of the Freud works were to arrive that the policy had been granted. (The National Endowment of the Arts runs the insurance program.) Even with the policy in place, the museum still had to pay for insurance to cover the remainder of the value of the work.

There is also the matter of the sometimes discomfiting nature of the artwork itself. Freud specialized in piercingly disturbing portraits, many of them featuring subjects who are stark naked. He never flinched from his subjects' physical imperfections; in most cases, he exposes their innermost anguish and turmoil so that it all but pours off the canvas.

Which is to say: For all the prestige associated with bringing them here, might these paintings alienate potential museum patrons or the Modern's old-guard donors?

The museum's leaders resist any such suggestions.

"We simply don't view this show as controversial, and we are not worried about offending anyone," says Marla Price, the Modern's director. She adds that it will be very clear to anyone entering the exhibition that "nudity is a big part" of the work on display.

Notes Auping: "Of course you never know if the nudes will rub people the wrong way. All I can say is that for our Ron Mueck show several years back, which had a fair number of incredibly realistic nude sculptures, that show became the highest attended one we've ever had. We just will do what we do, and we'll see."

An incredible gathering

Back at the Modern, only a few days before the Freud show's July 1 opening, Auping, breezily elegant in a crinkled white shirt and olive pants, is still wandering the galleries making his final curatorial tweaks.

Auping stops in on one of the show's final galleries where he must still consider which 12 Freud etchings to line up on a chosen wall.

"I want this etchings wall to be a serene and elegant wall, almost like books that you want to examine up close and get drawn in by," the curator explains.

No one at the Modern expects that "Lucian Freud: Portraits" will be a juggernaut for ticket sales. Freud's work is daunting and often despairing; parents aren't likely to bring along the kids. (Even if it does prove unusually popular, it's unlikely to earn back the cost of its mounting. "Big exhibitions do lots of things, except make any money," flatly says the Kimbell's Lee.)

Still, Auping looks upon this exhibit as being potentially something far more significant than a commercial hit. It may very well plant a pivotal flag, establishing once and for all, that Fort Worth's Modern deserves to be counted among the world's most important museums.

"We hope and expect it to do very well," says Auping. "It proves, again, that Fort Worth continues to compete with larger cities when it comes to showing a very major artist. I mean, it's such a coup for the city and us to be able to say that this great show came to only two cities: London and Fort Worth."

A full year after his last encounter with Freud, and still days before the exhibition opens to the public, Auping reverentially enters the exhibition's last gallery, filled with the painter's final works: portraits of David Hockney; the restaurateur, Sally Clarke; and Freud's gallery assistant and frequent model, David Dawson, who will be coming to Fort Worth in September to deliver a talk at the Modern.

And, finally and most hauntingly, Self-Portrait, Reflection.

"I have to say that when I look at that self-portrait I almost hear his voice," Auping says. "Yeah, I am filled with a bit of melancholy. As a curator, I get selfish and, for this show, I spent five years of private time with this artist. It was all about me and him. And now I must share him with everyone. This show will be on the walls for four months, which will fly by, and then I will probably never in my lifetime see all these paintings together again."

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