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Lucian Freud goes on the record

Posted 7:54pm on Tuesday, Jul. 03, 2012

It was never quite enough for Michael Auping merely to orchestrate one of the most coveted shows in the Modern's long history.

He wanted more. He wanted to persuade Freud to do something that he had assiduously avoided much of his life: Sit down for a series of interviews to talk about his work. They ended up meeting nine times during five years.

"Those visits became so personal to me that I only went by myself," Auping says of his trips to London. "Spending time with Lucian was like eating the most special part of a meal -- with no extras. It wasn't about the salad or the dessert. I was just flying over there for the main course."

For all of his meetings, Auping was aware that punctuality was paramount.

"I was so nervous about being late," Auping says. "I arrived at his Notting Hill home an hour early. All I could do was walk up and down his neighborhood. But I got so tired of walking that, finally after 58 minutes of walking, I just rang the bell early. And, Lucian, true to his precise reputation, immediately opened the door and said I was two minutes early.

"My retort to him: 'Lucian, I was a premature baby, and nothing has changed.'

"To which he said: 'Fair enough, please come in.'"

Freud, often dressed in his habitual attire of white shirt, pressed slacks, accented by a signature gray-black-patterned scarf, would quickly usher Auping down the street to his favorite neighborhood watering hole, the posh Clarke's. After a lunch where Freud enjoyed his favorite meal of mussels followed by tea, Auping and Freud would return to the artist's studio to begin the day's interview session.

"When I entered his studio, I saw the actual bed and chair where his famous subjects had maybe just posed or sat for him -- it gave me chills," says Auping. "This special place had the smell of people and the smell of paint. It was almost tawdry, with paint on the floor, not-white-linen delicate and staged. I felt the presence of the ghosts of his subjects who all but inhabited it."

Auping is not entirely sure why Freud decided to break with his own personal set of dogmatic rules about not analyzing his art. His best guess is that Freud had a spiritual reckoning about being at the end of his life, and that he felt a need to commit his thoughts to paper.

"He absolutely approved all that we talked about," Auping says. "He knew exactly how the catalog and the show would look, and he just went off to his room. I think he felt like he didn't need to go to the opening. His part was done, and he just would go to bed now. He was ready to pass away."

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