For decades, Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932, London) has been known for turning
his memories and experiences into brushy, colorful paintings on old
wooden panels. He is a painter I’d always wanted to love, but I had
never fully understood or been moved by his chunky brushwork and vivid
color. The way he slapped the paint on seemed somewhat random and the compositions formulaic. Using
vivid, jewel-like color as a surrogate for feeling appeared too easy,
too lacking in nuance. But thinking about his current show (on view at Gagosian through June 18), I realized I had misjudged him.
[Image at top: Howard Hodkgin, Love Song, 2015, oil on wood, 43 × 61 1/2 inches, © Howard Hodgkin. courtesy of Gagosian Gallery]
I don’t think my change of heart is a matter of nostalgia for a
painter who was popular when I was a student. Rather, it stems from my
growth as a painter, and an appreciation for subtleties embedded in his
work that I hadn’t valued before. For example, I’m more open to a casual
approach now, and I find more meaning in process. I like Hodgkin’s titles,
which inject a sense of narrative into his loose abstractions, as well
as the intimate scale, which emphasizes the role of personal
circumstance in art. And I love the way he treats his paintings, made
on old wooden panels with paint splashing over the framed edges, as
objects in themselves.
extent I blame the language that his handlers have used for obscuring
his work by mythologizing it. According to the press release for the
current exhibition, for example, it includes paintings that:
fleeting private moments and intense recollections. Paintings such as
Morning and Dirty Window turn memories of domestic moments into
experiences of pure color; while Love Song and Blues for Mrs. Chatterjee
avow how words fall short of ever truly being able to describe
sensations and phenomena. Completed between 2014 and 2016, Hodgkin’s
paintings create pockets of time and silence, demonstrating afresh the
expressiveness, the mystery, and the seeming simplicity of his art.
all sounds sort of dreamy, but in substance it seems vacuous. This week there’s a
short piece in The Guardian in which Hodgkin himself talks about his
work, and his take is both more cynical and more concrete. Here are
I don’t have any music or radio playing in the
studio. It’s hard enough to concentrate as it is without adding any
Having other paintings on my studio walls is
too distracting. While I’m working on a painting I use canvas screens to
cover the other, finished or unfinished pictures.
I work on an
enormous number of pieces at once. I suppose it’s a fear of being unable
to work. The older I get, the more I am afraid of this great void
I’m famous for knowing when a work is finished. People
ask me: “is this picture finished?“ and I always say yes. By that point I
usually wish I’d never seen it before.
Every artist suffers from block or doubt. You deal with it by carrying on working.
older I get, the more dissatisfied with my work I become. It’s too
demanding for the sort of silly, sensitive person that I am. It makes me
miserably unhappy. The only hope is to go on working.
consider myself very successful. Being well-known or having lots of
exhibitions have nothing to do with being an artist, those things are
just chance. I have no interest in the younger generation of artists
whatsoever. I think it’s a great pity that some of them go on pretending
to themselves that they are artists.
You don’t need to be in a particular frame of mind to paint, you just need to be broke.
ineffable “sensations and phenomena” as others suggest, but from an existential need simply to move forward and make something
of an often vexing life. That’s an approach I can appreciate.
“Howard Hodgkin: From Memory,” Gagosian, Upper East Side, New York, NY. Through June 18, 2016.
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