Art Criticism

Howard Hodgkin
Time and Place
Modern Art Oxford

Howard Hodgkin Home, Home on the Range 2001-2007
Home, Home on the Range 2001-2007

In his final collection of essays, On Late Style, the Palestinian critic, Edward Said, examined the idea that late artistic works are not always serene and transcendent but, on the contrary, often unresolved and contradictory. Not so much a pipe and slippers summing up, but a ‘raging against the dying of the light’. Said talked of the complexity of Beethoven’s late compositions and one only has to look at the raw innovation in Picasso’s late work to see what he means. Age, as Shakespeare said of Cleopatra, does not necessarily wither, nor custom stale infinite variety. Now 78, Howard Hodgkin is showing 25 paintings completed between 2001 and 2010 (the last only two weeks before the opening), and 11 which have never before been shown. The exhibition highlights Hodgkin’s desire for continuing and his Proustian relationship with time and place. He is essentially a poetic painter. Not because his works are lush and beautiful but because, like the poet, he understands that “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay on Hamlet, “is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, In this exhibition the claustrophobic, highly sensual evocations of domestic interiors have given way to an expression of place, weather and landscape. Two of the most potent in the first gallery are small and painted on board (both are owned by Julian Barnes.) Dirty Weather and Mud were among the first to signal this new departure explored by Hodgkin in his sixties. The bare wood emphasises the ‘objectness’ of the painting, while the fluid brush strokes evoke those of Turner. But instead of glorious sunsets, these marks allude to stormy weather and, in the latter painting, to mud – the chthonic as opposed to the Apollonian, the stolid instead of the sublime. There are two other wonderful small paintings in this gallery, The Deep (After Ryder) in which Hodgkin celebrates the thick impasto and dense turbulent colour of the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) which is contrasted to the three rough strokes painted on the reverse of a small breadboard in After Ellsworth Kelly, 2001, in which Hodgkin pays homage to Kelly’s large scale, geometrically shaped canvases, while emphasising the difference with his pristine surfaces free of brush strokes.

Howard Hodgkin Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word 2007-08
Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word, 2007-08

Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom, 2004-06, in contrast returns us to a domestic interior. Here a dark brown-black rectangular veil of paint has been thinly laid over the hot splodges of yellow, orange and red beneath as if pulling a curtain over a private sensual act. Over the past decades Hodgkin has moved away from multi -layered over-painting to a more restricted palette and fewer brush strokes. In his tiny painting Leaf, 2007-09, a fluid oily stroke of fern coloured paint on a wooden board surrounded by a dark frame, acts like a Japanese haiku, capturing, with the minimum of fuss, a sense of life’s vitality, urgency and ultimate fragility. The monotone orange waves In Red, Red, Red, 2007-08, might be read as a form of script and evoke the mark making of the French artist Henri Michaux, whilst the economy of the blue strokes in Rough Sea, 2009 suggests the influence of Japanese wood cuts. In contrast Saturday sets up a dialogue between the baroque grandeur of the frame and the simple repetitive brushstrokes. This is Monet revisited for the 21st century.

Although known for his jewel-like colour the lovely painting Damp Autumn, 2001-08, shows Hodgkin favouring a subdued, almost monochromatic palette to evoke the season’s decay and moist mists. Since the mid-1970s he has incorporated frames into his paintings to become part of their aesthetic language. The type of readymade frames and boards collected over the years has broadened from the crude rough board used for Mud to the ornate gilded oval frame of Sky, 2005-09.

To have held fast to the principals of painting of the last decades takes guts in a largely conceptual world. Hodgkin has worked independently of vogues and movements, continuing to present us with profound and sensual works that reveal a multiplicity of meaning to those prepared really to look.

Howard Hodgkin Time and Place at Modern Art Oxford until until 12th September 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Howard Hodgkin 2001-2008. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

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