Home on the Range with Hodgkin

At the redesigned Modern Art Oxford until 5th September is a large, bountiful exhibition of paintings by my friend, Howard Hodgkin, from 2001-2010, called “Time and Place” (it will be seen after that at Tilburg and San Diego; also in Oxford, at the Ashmolean until 26th Sept. is Royal Elephants from Mughal India, Paintings & drawings from the collection of Sir Howard Hodgkin, twenty elephant subjects, dating from about 1570 to 1750).   I imagine everyone who has seen the MAO show feels elated as they walk about the three spacious, generously-hung rooms.

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

Home, Home on the Range (2001-2007)
copyright Howard Hodgkin, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery


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

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  1. says

    My tip is to concentrate on getting the first sentence right. Think about it, overnight if it helps, and then put it in writing. You can always change it — I often find I eventually delete my first sentence; but I have begun writing – and that’s what matters.

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