Sir Howard Hodgkin, When Did We Go To Morocco? (1988-93), oil on wood, 77-1/2″ x 106″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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There are few brushstrokes in contemporary painting that announce themselves as impudently as those of Howard Hodgkin. Ranging from swirling swathes to patterned splotches, Hodgkin’s brushstrokes are at once an homage to the act of painting and a tweaking of it. His splotch, a younger relative of the Pointillist dot, is gratifyingly childlike, and Hodgkin clearly delights in its obviousness. We know how these splotches are made—the artist presses his loaded brush onto the painting’s surface, then lifts it—and we smile to imagine making them ourselves.
There is ample opportunity to view Hodgkin’s brushwork in the fifty paintings included in the exhibition Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995. Hodgkin is a British painter who has received international recognition and critical accolades, but who isn’t exactly a known quantity to American audiences. A lot of people will be seeing his work for the first time at the Met and it will probably strike them as exotic. The crowds I attended the show with were positively buoyed by Hodgkin’s paintings. How could they not be? Hodgkin’s work is snazzy. His colors are brassy, and the theatricality of the work tends toward farce. While Hodgkin’s paintings are abstract they retain enough representational clues to give the uninitiated a hook into the painting; when they don’t, his chatty titles prod us into finding them. Hodgkin’s cheeky updating of Intimism seems to offer that rarest of entities: contemporary art that trades in pleasure.
Yet Hodgkin’s work is less an extension of Intimism than a cartoon of it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If only his best paintings have the pull of art, his whole oeuvre is genuinely engaging. The exhibition, however, confirms what a lot of us who have followed Hodgkin’s work have suspected for some time: that he is an artist whose paintings are best appreciated one at a time. In her catalogue essay, Susan Sontag quotes the artist as saying, “My pictures tend to destroy each other when they are hung too closely together.” He’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Each of his paintings may have as its basis its own unique emotional and narrative impulses, but when seen in the company of fifty fellow-Hodgkins, the painting’s uniqueness vanishes. Hodgkin is a great homogenizer. It’s unlikely that anyone who leaves the exhibit will do so without knowing what a “Hodgkin” looks like, but it’s even more unlikely that they will carry with them the memory of any one specific painting.
Hodgkin’s finest paintings come early in the exhibition, when the energy of an artist reaching maturity is apparent. Grantchester Road (1975) serves as a virtual blueprint for the work to come. In it, a figure obscured by a black brushstroke stands within an interior, which itself sits within a painted frame, complete with black and cream “curtains.” With its architectonic structure and bracketed areas of splotches, Grantchester Road updates Vuillard in an appealingly punchy manner. It’s as cute as Hodgkin wants it to be. (If we must have Pop Art, let it be as chummy as this.) Some may feel that its “recognizable” imagery—is that a painting by Jules Olitski?—lays out its intentions too blatantly. Yet in comparison to Hodgkin’s later work, which becomes more abstract as his brushwork gains independence, Grantchester Road seems successful because of its spatial and figurative concreteness. Hodgkin needs representational markers and geometric scaffolding to focus his painting. Without them he descends into a sloppy mannerism.
Hodgkin’s paintings are worked and re-worked over long stretches of time—Sad Flowers (1979–85) alone took six years to complete—and so the surfaces can sometimes be knotty. They also can sometimes be arid; there’s often an unattractive matte quality to his paint. (An artist friend attributes this to Hodgkin’s use of Liquin, a painting medium that enhances the fluidity of oils but deadens their body and sheen.) Certainly the colors and brushwork are there, but not like they are in reproduction. In photos, the work sings: the surfaces become streamlined and the colors thrive. But this leaves the museum visitor deflated. Hodgkin has the queer distinction of being a painter whose work improves in reproduction.
Nevertheless, Hodgkin’s brushwork does have the ability to delight, and it gathers strength the more it insists on the density of oil paint. In his more modestly scaled paintings, Hodgkin’s marks exist within a space appropriate to the size of his brush. He relies on an intimate—an Intimist—scale to keep his splotches reigned in and his paintings knitted together. When Hodgkin increases the size of his paintings he lapses into self-parody. Hodgkin’s brushstrokes have always come with quotation marks~dash\ he may be more of a postmodernist than we think—and their gentle irony plays well in small formats. When Hodgkin attempts to translate his painterly repertoire to larger paintings, his irony wears thin and fast. When Did We Go to Morocco? (1988–93), for instance, measures 77 ½ x 106 inches. Where once his painthandling inhabited the work, here it just fills up a lot of space, and Hodgkin flailing away with paint is not an easy thing to look at. He simply isn’t capable of pulling off (or pulling together) a painting of this scale, and the increase in brush size serves only to exaggerate the affectation inherent in his painthandling.
The better part of Hodgkin’s reputation rests on his gift as a colorist, and, to quote one museumgoer’s exclamation, what “nice and bright” colors there are to be found in his paintings! Intense reds, blues, greens, and oranges jostle one another in the work. This is why his paintings hold the ground-floor galleries of the Lila Acheson Wallace wing so well: Hodgkin’s colors shout for attention and get it. While Hodgkin employs a veritable rainbow, he doesn’t give his colors much personality. They feel arbitrary and, I would guess, are straight from the tube. Certainly, there are colors that Hodgkin prefers~dash\permanent green, for one—but we never think of them as “his” colors. We don’t call to mind, oh, a Hodgkin orange the same way we do a Matisse blue or a Philip Guston pink. Hodgkin uses colors he likes, that’s all. He isn’t a colorist so much as he is a painter who uses a lot of color.
The curators neatly, if inadvertently, underscore this distinction by closing the exhibition with After Morandi (1989–94), a row of colored vertical stripes surrounded by a gray border. It might be said that Morandi was an artist who painted with no-color. Yet, this is precisely what makes Morandi a master and Hodgkin an enthusiast. The limited nature of Morandi’s palette, and the subtle shifts in weight, light, and space he gleaned from it, let us know that he knew a thing or two about color. The mistake Hodgkin and his admirers make is believing that merely “pumping up the volume” necessarily constitutes using color well. There are times he gets away with it. D. H. in Hollywood (1980–84), a “portrait” of his friend David Hockney, has a glowing, bleached-out tonality that puts a stamp on Hodgkin’s coloristic brashness, and there are other paintings here whose colors add up to something more than the sum of their parts. But mostly Hodgkin’s colors bash into one another. The only thing that helps us in connecting After Morandi with its inspiration, after all, is the title.
The paintings do hold together compositionally, however, and Hodgkin gets them to do so through the device of the frame. The Hopes at Home (1973–77) is the first painting one sees upon entering the exhibition, and not just for reasons of chronology: it’s there because it’s one of Hodgkin’s best. Here he orchestrates his greens, reds, and oranges by framing them with a wide blackish-green brushstroke. By wrapping the work, so to speak, Hodgkin forces the painting to cohere.
It should be reiterated that the frame of The Hopes at Home is made of paint and paint alone. When Hodgkin uses actual frames, often painting directly over them so that the painting itself overlaps onto it, it is the sheerest gimmickry and an annoyance. We are told that the frame reinforces each painting’s status as an object, but that’s just Conceptualist fiddle-faddle: an artist should be able to refer to a painting’s physicality without resorting to trickery. The lateral layering of wide stretcher bars around the wooden panel at the center of On the Riviera (1987–88), for instance, is not only obtrusive, it’s a stunt worthy of the most audacious graduate painting student. Hodgkin’s frames don’t enhance the painting; they impede it. And when he dabs orange splotches on an ornamental octagonal frame, as in Keith and Kathy Sachs (1988–91), Hodgkin doesn’t flirt with kitsch, he is subsumed by it. The frame is a pictorial gimcrack a better artist wouldn’t think twice about.
A lot of us, however, have thought twice about Hodgkin, and this is what makes Paintings 1975–1995 such a frustrating affair. One senses that Hodgkin has (or had) the goods to be a more substantial painter than the one revealed here, and a dozen or so of these paintings do make the case convincingly. I loved Patrick Caulfield in Italy (1987–92) when I saw it at Knoedler & Company two years ago—and I still do, inverted frame and all. But the company it keeps here all but drains it of individuality, wit, and spunk. By the time one reaches the end of the exhibition, Hodgkin’s cheekiness has become as chafing as Lucian Freud’s misanthropy. There is no doubt that Hodgkin is a gifted artist with taste and a sense of tradition. But he is also one too comfortable within the confines of a formula. Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995 does him no favors.
© 1996 Mario Naves
Originally published in the January 1996 edition of The New York Observer.