Rethinking Howard Hodgkin

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]

Howard Hodkgin, Morning, 2015�16, oil on wood, 19 7/8 � 25 1/2 inches, � Howard Hodgkin

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.

Howard Hodkgin, The Rains Came, 2014, oil on wood, 28 1/8 � 37 1/2 inches, � Howard Hodgkin.

 Howard Hodkgin, Blackmail, 2006�15, oil on wood, 63 1/2 � 69 1/2 inches, � Howard Hodgkin.

Howard Hodkgin, From Memory, 2014�15, oil on wood, 27 7/8 � 33 1/8 inches, � Howard Hodgkin.

Now that I’m older and wiser, to some
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
some excerpts:
I don�t have any music or radio playing in the
studio. It�s hard enough to concentrate as it is without adding any
other distractions.
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
coming up.
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.

I don’t
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.

 Howard Hodgkin, installation view. Image � Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

 Howard Hodgkin, installation view. Image � Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.
Hodgkin, it seems, paints not to conjure �great arcs of time and thought� or describe
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.

Related posts:
Howard Hodgkin in San Diego
Howard Hodgkin: Getting older is a sort of shorthand. There are a lot of things you know already.

Some old gold: 2006 interview with Howard Hodgkin


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  1. This reminds me of the spirituality you're supposed to feel in front of a Rothko. I would have loved his paintings if I had never heard that that's how I was supposed to respond. Viewers need the freedom to approach work on their own terms.

  2. Howard Hodgkin is one of the greatest influences on my work. He allowed me to travel through painting's history with scrutiny and openness (still). Thank you for posting

  3. Katherine Bradford

    I like your tough love writing Sharon

  4. He's right older artists shouldn't care about the younger generation. And young artists should ignore the old.
    You're on your own.

  5. I have loved every show, every work of his. … Absolutely love.

  6. When I was a guard at the Met in the 90's, there was a Hodgkin retrospective in 1995, and I spent many days working in it. Like a lot of shows there that I spent a lot of time in, I went back and forth on his work, but ultimately, I count him as a favorite, and certainly a favorite of the British painters (right around that time the Met also had shows of Freud and Kitaj, and I continue to favor Hodgkin's work to theirs). Anyway, I love the quotations from the Guardian; they remind me of the humility and forthrightness of the painter's dilemma. I remember a couple times when Sir Howard got to the galleries as soon as they opened (once before I knew who he was, and i probably said some embarrassing things in his earshot), and walked slowly through a few times, seemingly fretting a bit all the while. Anyway, I loved reading this post, and, at the very least, because I doubt I will make it to the Gagosian show, I will revisit the catalog from the Met show because of you writing.

  7. I love his brushy paintings. I read several interviews from him over the years. He always comes off as honest and it has helped me go from really disliking to falling in love with his paintings.

  8. I find it interesting how Howard Hodgkin talks about how the older he gets, the more dissatisfied he feels. ‘It makes me miserably unhappy. The only hope is to go on working.’

    I think all artists have large amounts of self-doubt and we have to find a way to lie to ourself, that what we are doing is good enough. I find it hard to understand his view on the way painting makes him feel miserable. It doesn’t make me feel that way, I find it most of the time like a puzzle that I can never get right. The missing gap between what I was trying to achieve and what I have actually painted generally gives me positive feelings to make another because I am getting closer. I am always aware there is no conclusion where you can ever stop and be truely content, but this struggle doesn’t make me miserable. It makes me feel alive.

  9. I saw a utube video where Hodgkin made frequent trips to India just to soak in the color. He insisted that he was not a colorist rather his paintings were visual equivalents of personal memories. He came across to me as quite pompous. I find his work rather insipid.

  10. i can’t say why i love hodgkin’s work. god knows (but then He doesn’t know everything) i can think of so many reasons not to, they are “so slapdash, easy, naked emperor.” but i respond to them helplessly, viscerally, for the love of painterly voyages as in dekooning, hals, bacon, Velazquez. they possess basho poetry as objects. they give facile a good name. they are as deep as a confident brushstroke. they hum ear worms in riffs of color. untitled they would be just as powerful as any explanative travelogue howard would impose-albeit the titles are fun.

  11. Unlike Robin Roy, I get it! Perspective is everything! Society today is view blockingly cramped! In photography for example, one�s has got to move about to get the good shot. Howard Hodgkin in the vastness of certain Indian locations is inspirational!
    Having an artist perspective myself, being un-alive unless creating, I get that being in the vastness of somewhere is influentially inspirational!!

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