Howard Hodgkin, "Paintings," Nov. 8-Dec. 20, 2003, at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Howard Hodgkin's spry, harmonious paintings frequently take months, even years, to complete. They are thick with showy layers, evidence of deliberation and hints of contrivance, yet they come off like Mae West at a cocktail party -- meticulously packaged yet irreverently untamed.
His flirtatious form of rebellion is evidenced in the way paint ruptures onto the frame, as if willfully transgressing the picture's own boundaries, while still remaining self-contained. The works at Gagosian, some 28 paintings in four large galleries custom-designed by the artist, are all about voluptuous color, tumultuous markings and feeling. He is recounting, not recreating or re-enacting his emotions.
His painting's titles, too, must be considered along with the works themselves. The mood here seems fairly dark. In Dirty Weather, a slash of orange wrestles its way out from underneath the blacks and greens threatening to suppress it. The expansive The Body in the Library, a turbulent arrangement of architectural red, green, black and gray strokes, is simultaneously erotic, ominous or prosaic.
A perfect example of Hodgkin's sharp personality is the small You Are My Sunshine, which, like a sycophant's true feelings, contains a snide black core within effusive, almost hyper orange and yellow.
Now 71, Howard Hodgkin is regarded as one of Britain's most important living artists. He was born in London in 1932. His great-great-grandfather, Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) researched the lymphatic cancer later known as Hodgkin's Disease, and his cousin, Roger Fry, was a highly influential art critic who championed the Bloomsbury School artists. Hodgkin quit Eton in his teens to study painting, and had his first solo show in 1962.
By 1970 he had become a trustee of the Tate, and by 1976 had his first big retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and the Serpentine Gallery. His success as an artist was accompanied by a certain amount of notoriety when he came out as a gay man. (Though he and his wife Julia, with whom he has two sons, have never legally divorced, Hodgkin has been in a relationship with musicologist Antony Peattie since 1983).
In 1984 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, in 1985 he won the Turner Prize and in 1992 he was knighted for his contribution to art. He exhibited with Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London and Knoedler and Co. in New York. The current exhibition at Gagosian Gallery is his second there since 1998.
During a recent meeting at the gallery, the artist seemed disinclined to discuss either his own biography or method, though he was keen to talk about history and the great artists of the past. He treats painters like Rembrandt and Delacroix as living artists, chiding them for their occasional creative laziness, skittishness or lapses in judgment.
It was a vicious thrill to hear Hodgkin perform a critical autopsy on Manet's weak Absinthe Drinker (1859) which, with its flat, choppy brushwork, he finds cartoonish. And when discussing the nature of forgery, Hodgkin humorously suggested that a fake is actually what we want, instead of an original, because a fake is tailor-made to meet our often-stereotyped expectations.
Susan Sontag writes in an essay on Hopkins that, "there is a heroism in the vehemence and lack of irony in Hodgkin's paintings...[Their] distinct shapes read like a vocabulary of signals for the circulation, collision and rerouting of desire."
This passion is what makes Hodgkin a compelling visual storyteller. He clearly edits and embellishes his observations but he has not allowed his style to ossify into routine. His paintings are anecdotal, and in the way that telling anecdotes is the living version of memoirs, his work is characteristically lucid and conversational.