Home on the Range with Hodgkin
The scale of the show is just right, about sixty paintings, I'd guess. They range in size from the tiny, 25.1 x 28.9cm, Leaf (2007-2009), what appears to be a single swooping stroke of a large brush loaded with a particularly appealing green paint - a painting you fall in love with at first sight - to the four enormous Home, Home on the Range series. The Oxford show may be the only opportunity we get to see all four of these hanging side by side in a big room filled with natural light, so I urge you to see the show. But it seems to me that these extraordinary masterpieces ought really to be treated in one respect like the Rothko murals. Surely Tate Modern (or a similar institution) ought to own (and exhibit) them together?
The first two, Home, Home on the Range and Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, are dated 2001-2007, and are lusciously colourful, the first with highly saturated oranges and reds, the second still bright, but dominated by the outer bands of dark blue and brown found near the centre of the first picture. Are they meditations on the American landscape? Why not. But what strikes you first is the depth of both images: the eye is strongly drawn into the centre of the picture plane, which in both cases seems to recede. Hodgkin has a real genius for suggesting depth and perception with what appear to be (but of course, aren't) simple swipes of paint. He's always been able to capture the feeling of looking out of (or into) a window, onto a landscape, a garden or into another room, or looking at a stage. This pair of pictures invites you to stare at them, and when you've peered closely at them for long enough, to discern some natural features of landscape - seen, perhaps, from the window of a moving train or car.
Or maybe not. Maybe they're the correlatives of states of feeling - maybe the hot reds and oranges of the first recall the excitements of sexual attraction. Or not. But whatever these pictures are, they are not abstract. You don't have to analyse them to know this - you can tell from your own response to them, the quickening of the pulse, the sensation of having your gaze pulled into the centre - in brief, the tugging at the heartstrings, that something is going on that ain't geometry.
It isn't surprising that the latter two paintings of the series Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word and And the Skies are not Cloudy All Day are dates 2007-2008; or that both leave areas of the wood support unpainted. Both achieve the transparency, the clarity that Hodgkin has said he is striving for, as he gets older. In Where Seldom... I at first thought I could detect the direction of the brushwork moving from right to left, and maybe that is so for the thick lines of blue and grey near the centre, above the curved orange and yellow forms at the bottom of the panel. But looking at the surface really closely I can see that that is not possible, and that, indeed some of the strokes must be going from left to right. I still sense horizontal movement; but now I am inclined to see the human form in the huge orange and yellow gestures - though I could easily be persuaded to read the whole image as landscape. But it's a happy picture, of that I'm sure. Though it might have had some menace in it, if the navy blues got any blacker. Again, there is no need to cogitate to "get" this picture - your visceral reaction is all the authorization you need for liking (or disliking) it.
Then we come to And the Skies are not... where it appears that less than half the surface of the wood is painted with odd, anarchic-seeming marks of the same shade of green. This is a huge picture, 2 metres by 2.67 metres, and the skies aren't cloudy because they're summer's lush green - no clouds, but maybe the green of the quality of mercy that droppeth like the rain. What is actually surprising about this image that is achieved by such minimal means is that you couldn't mistake its author.
Hodgkin is the artist of memory. Whereas his earlier work was intimist, recalling particular moments in time and place, but usually in interiors, or with particular people in interiors or landscapes, often their own gardens, the recent work has broadened its scope and simplified its means. Hodgkin has spoken of his wish to get rid of clutter, his aspirations to clarity and transparency. The catalogue of this show is very worth buying. Though Sam Smiles' essay has some of the lexical opacity of academic work, he is actually being precise rather than obfuscatory. You'll want the catalogue for its illustrations, and for the illustrated "reader" at the back of it, put together by Antony Peattie and by Paul Luckcraft who helped put the show together for MAO. It is "a survey of critical responses, 1962-2009" with representative images. From it and the illustrations of the newer work, you will see that it is almost impossible to fail to recognize a Hodgkin, and utterly impossible to mistake anyone else's work for his. This is indisputably the hallmark of the Master, the gift given to those few artists who make their mark on history. If anybody remembers me in a hundred years' time, it will be because Howard has twice painted me; these images will certainly outlive any other evidence of my existence. What happy immortality.
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