Article: 'The Hodgkin Paradox' by Eric Gibson
Publication: Studio International (14/03/1985)
"The Tate Gallery’s new and important Turner Prize was not awarded to Howard Hodgkin in 1984, but to Malcolm Morley, which, as Eric Gibson suggests from New York, raised a few eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic, concerning the criteria which a distinguished jury employed, or didn’t employ in reaching this decision. Was it a case of one painter against another, or did the lure of instant history demand the (temporary) return of a prodigal son? Gibson explains.
The passing over of Howard Hodgkin for the prestigious Turner Prize last autumn, in fabour of Malcolm Morley, was one of the bigger surprises of the season. Hodgkin, after all, is deeply rooted in the art establishment in his country, and his reputation has been increasing steadily since the early ‘70s. Last year, with his installation at the Venice Biennale and the touring retrospective that ensued, it seemed to have reached its latest peak.
Yet in 1984 Morley, too, enjoyed considerable recognition, having himself had had a highly acclaimed touring retrospective. Only, in his case, unlike that of Hodgkin, the result was to ‘bring home’, to insitutionalise one of the art world’s few remaining enfants terribles, to bestow recognition on an artist more celebrated among his peers than among the powers that be. Nonetheless, the passing over of Hodgkin raised many a question, the answers to which tell us as much about Hodgkin’s art as they do about the working of official taste.
Hodgkin is a little like the early modern painter Douanier Rousseau: an artist removed from the mainstream whose work (albeit belatedly in his case) is celbrated by the members of the mainstream. For years he worked quietly away, studiously ignored by colleagues and most of the art establishment. Like a disappointing schoolboy he was considered ‘too slow’ – it took him too long to paint a painting and too long for the painting, once finished, to reveal itself to the viewer. The product of some of that ‘slowness’ – as well as its virtues – was visible when the touring exhibition arrived at the Phillip’s Collection in Washington this October. Entitled “Howard Hodgkin: 40 Paintings’, it surveyed the last 11 years of Hodgkin’s work, produced in the years since his last retrospective – which toured only Great Britain – in 1975.
The current show is the more interesting of the two. If the earlier years saw Hodgkin, in hisown words, trying to ‘make a space’ for himself within the context of the art and art world of the time, the years succeeding – those covered by the retrospective – have seen a consolidation and extension of his position in that ‘space’. They have involved a gradual moving away from the clear, more constructed manner to one more loosely defined and more evocative.
This tradition is well charted in the exhibition, and illustrated by ywo paintings, one early and one late: Grantchester Road, 1977, and Interior With Figures, 1977-84. Both are interior pictures, the former is a rigorously rectilinear painting, its spaces clearly articulated, and its repeated verticals relieved only by dappled panes in the background and in the foreground a series of frame-hugging, exuberant arcs. The latter differs from its predecessor in every way: the space is paradoxically more open yet considerably less defined and, in contrast to the other which by restraint and absence of emotion reflects a palpable tension, Interior With Figures, exudes the sort of heated eroticism more common to late 19th century French painting than the aesthetics of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Yet throughout, Hodgkin’s narrative and formal concerns have remained constant: the recreation incidents or situations saturated with emotional resonacnce. He is fond of quoting Muriel Spark’s comment that ‘for an artist, time can always be regained’, and indeed this is a process of repeatedly returning to a moment in his memory until that incident has been rendered in all its complexity and depth.
His primary tools in the articulation of this vision are a deep space – the deep. The claustrophpoibc space of the paintings is a metaphor for the space of memory – lavish colour, and a pictorial language which does not so muchg describe as suggest, one whose vocabulary occupies a point midway between the object to which it refers and autonomously decorative form.
There are moments in all of this when hodgkin’s results are a little off key, becoming either too lush or too flat-footed. The Cylinder, the Sphere and the Cone, 1978-84, for example, (a reinterpretation of Cezanne’s famous dictum) is awkwardly illustrational, as though Hodgkin had reversed himself for once and had pressed a pre-existing vocabulary on to a pre-existing subject. Yet such a picture can also make us realize how good he is at evoking pure sensation.
For when all elements coalesce, Hodgkin’s pictures attain an extraordinary richness and force. The bottomless space, deep blacks and blazing yellows of Reading the Letter, 1977-80, brings to mind a sensation of brooding intensity which perfectly evokes the awkward personal moment that forms its subject.
Given this, why was Hodgkin, an artist of increasing stature and growing masterty of his means, passed over in favour of Morley who, for all his gifts, is an artist of far less depth and of uncertain temper – as anyone familiar with his work of the last few years will recognise?
Perhaps it is because, in his deeply personal emphasis on the recreation of subjective personal experience and his use accordingly of a near-abstract, highly subjective vocabulary Hodgkin is revealed as being involved with an order of experience at some remove from contemporary concerns, specifically one closer to the aesthetic concerns of turn-of-the-century Paris. This he tacitly acknowledges in his stated admiration of Vuillard, his increasing interest in Degas and his affinity with the quoted statemnt of Muriel Spark. It is this, I think, which disqualified him in the eyes of the jury.
Moreover, the clear appeal of Malcolm Morley was historical, for Morley is not only considered to have initiated the ‘Photo-Realist’ movement with his immacualately rendered enlargments of picture postcards, but he is more recently credited, along with the late Philip Guston, with having laid the groundwork for neo-Expressionism. Thus, his selection represented for the jury the opportunity to link a native with the cutting edge of contemporarty art. Such a linking could not have been made in the case of Hodgkin, whose selection, in as much as he remains unconcernedly aloof from the mainstream, might have smacked too much of parochialism, like singling out a member of one’s family regardless of the qualifications of others. And in an atmosphere increasingly heated with talk of post-Modernism, to have selected one whose artistic allegiances are firmly tied to an earlier phase of Modernism would have been taken by some as the endorsement of a retrograde tendency – a decision that would not have reflected nearly so well upon the judges as did the one they actually made.
If these conjectures turn out to be correct, they would go a long way towards explaining one of the more mysterious episodes of the last year, and prove once again that when it comes to official judgements, it is more often extra-artistic concerns rather than the work itself which wind up carrying the day."
Article: ‘A Peeper into Paradises: The glowing, ebullient artifice of England’s Howard Hodgkin’ by Robert Hughes
Publication: Time (14/06/1982)
"The main events of the past two or three years, so far as the New York is concerned, has been the, rebirth, of European art – mainly young, German and Italian, expressionists in mood and flirtatiously eclectic in tone. The spectrum of achievement runs from mere operators like Salome to deeply serious artists of the calibre of Anselm Kiefer. The fact that an American audience is paying attention to European painting once more comes as a relief, but before attention gets wholly stylised as fashion, it is worth remembering that England is part of Europe and that some English painters have more to offer than other, more loudly promoted figures of the day. One of them is Howard Hodgkin, whose current New York exhibition opened at the Knoedler Gallery last week.
Hodgkin is fifty this year: a diffident man with a tough, discursive mind and a long background in art history, collecting and teaching. There is not a more educated painter alive, and it would be hard to think of one whose erudition was more exactly placed at the disposal of feeling. His paintings look abstract but are full of echoes of figures, rooms, sociable encounters; they are small, “unheroic” but exquisitely phrased.
The space they evoke is closed, artificial, without horizon or other legible references to landscape. One seems to be looking into a box of coloured flats and wings – and marionette stage, behind whose proscenium the blobs and cylinders of colour glow with shivering theatrical ebullience. “Curious,” as the English art historian Lawrence Gowing remarked in a recent essay on Hodgkin’s work, “that no one has recognised in Hodgkin as god given stage designer, a man with a mission to the theatre of enrichment and augmentation.”
Because Hodgkin’s type of abstract flatness admits the eye some way into the picture and identifies the surface as an imaginary opening, it has nothing to do with the idealised flatness of sixties American colour field painting. It hovers on the edge of scenic recognition, tricking the viewer into the thought that just one more clue might disclose a particular room or restaurant, a familiar scene. Sometimes it will. The most spectacular painting in the current show, In the Bay of Naples, 1980-1982, presents itself as a soft hive of coloured blobs, blooming and twinkling in rows, against the dark ground. Lit windows? Strings of restaurant lights? A view from a terrace? Then more specific things appear: a pinkish vertical, another stage flat, turns into a stucco wall; a cobalt patch at the centre, where the vanishing point would be if there were any perspective, resolves itself as a glimpse of sea; the S of creamy green paint that lights the whole painting with its contradictory glare, leaping against the more tentative and modulated speckling of the rest of the surface, is the wake of a speed boat, tracing its phospherent gesture on the night water.
There is a strongly private, autobiographical element in Hodgkin’s work; it refers to friendship one does not know about, to conservations in rooms long since quitted. But it resists transition as antidote. “The picture,” Hodgkin says firmly, “is instead of what happened. We don’t need to know the story; generally the story is trivial anyway. The more people want to know the story the less they’ll look at the picture.” Likewise, the paintings are full of reference to other art, usually of a rather arcane sort. But they seem casually, even inattentively deployed, coming out not as formal homage’s to this or that master but as a function of temperament. Like Bonnard, whose work he reveres, Hodgkin is a fidgety peeper into secular paradises and controllable realms of pleasure. But as befits a painter who makes no bones about his belief in the continuity of pas and present, part of the pleasure lies in the conversation between his work and its sources.
One of the main ones (a parallel text as it were) is Indian miniature painting of which he has long been a collector. The jewelled colours and flattened space of the court miniature, the way it filters all natural detail in order to preserve it within the twining convention of artifice, and above all the sense it provide of looking past the edge of the ordinary world into a privileged domain – all this is echoed and modified in his own small paintings.
But such influences are meddled into a wholly modernist idiom. Hodgkin does to the Indian miniature what Matisse did to Islamic decoration; the source is not simply quoted but transformed. The miniaturist precision of edge and line is replaced by a fuzzy, affable kind or formal system – nursery-toy versions, almost, of the sphere, cube and cylinder those intimidating platonic solids of programmatic modernism. His pigment, however, has an extraordinary range of effect. His work sports in the transparency, density, and sweet pastiness that oil paint can give. Surfeited by colour, twinkling with fields of dots (like enlarged details of a Seurat, betokening light), its casual surface can look clumsy; but that is only Hodgkin playing with the idea of clumsiness, extracting an educated pleasure from the babyish joys of daubing. In fact, his taste rarely fails, and his talent as a colourist remains unmatched amongst living painters. Both place his paintings squarely in the tradition whose praises they modestly sing."