The Secret of Color
Critics like to refer to Howard Hodgkin as England’s most sensuous painter. It’s true; his paintings do indeed possess incredible presence. The works, which are always painted on wood, are the result of an intensive working process that often carries on for decades. Many of Hodgkin’s graphic works are in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Ossian Ward introduces this extraordinary artist.
||A visit to Howard Hodgkin’s studio is not initially a colorful one. The backstreets around the British Museum where he lives and works are forever bathed in a Dickensian, cobblestone grey and cozy, woody browns. Both the entrance hall of the house and the main artist’s studio—attached by footbridge through an interconnecting courtyard—seem to be painted in a monochrome palette too, with the dark vestibule giving way to a beaming white space. This inner sanctum, although brightly lit, is incredibly pale and plain in comparison to his paintings. There are no art historical or other reference materials on show and very few splashes of pigment on the cracked concrete floor; none of the trademark framed boards he’s currently painting on, lined up and hung side-by-side on the walls, are on display. Instead, they’re hidden by swathes of cloth or giant screens because, as he told me on my last visit: "I can’t work on a picture when I see another one in the room. I have to hide it." Only when the panels are solemnly revealed, one by one, does a burst of Hodgkin’s familiar painterly fireworks become visible.
Some journalists and writers have complained that their encounters with Hodgkin, the man, have been similarly lackluster at first. The idea that he’s notoriously difficult to interview or that he’s reticent to talk about his own works is nonsense, however. Instead, much like his paintings, he takes a while to warm up to any given subject—although not as famously long as he takes to finish any one painting. He can ponder and prevaricate over individual pieces for years at a time (hence the dating of pictures as 2001-2008 or 2005-2010). For over 40 years he's been redoing his own style, overpainting, reworking, smudging and constantly fidgeting—never sitting still.
"I find it very difficult to describe how I paint. With age, I try to do as much as possible in my head." It’s not surprising that he struggles to articulate this stuttering, halting painterly process—"Sometimes I put something in: another day I spend my time taking something out"—especially when interviewers tend to ask the same questions, the most usual being: How do you know when a painting is finished? "When it says ‘stop.’ Once, in answer to this same question, I said that it’s when the subject comes back."
Color, though, is one of very few constants in Hodgkin’s work, beginning with one of his earliest pictures called Memoirs, painted in 1949, when he was just 17. It’s an odd figurative scene featuring a man staring at a woman on a sofa. One of her misshapen hands is "suffocation blue" (as former poet laureate Andrew Motion described it), in contrast with the deep red background of the interior—itself reminiscent of the style of Patrick Caulfield, who would become a lifelong colleague of Hodgkin’s: "My one great artist friend is dead," he told me. "I live a very isolated life in that all my friends are writers." Indeed, Motion’s 1994 essay on Memoirs goes on to describe the use of pigment in almost purely literary terms: "Brilliant reds buck and cavort unexpectedly; rainy greens sweep in and out of nowhere and refresh; sudden blacks insult and smother."
Perhaps Hodgkin’s notorious slipperiness in conversation is due, in part, to an acknowledgement that language cannot describe the act of painting, and especially the mysterious suspensions of color, with any real conviction. He’s previously professed admiration for long-forgotten or evocative terms for individual colors such as violet solide or Elephant’s Breath (Elsa Schiaparelli’s description of a particular shade of grey), but generally finds them inadequate: "All we’re really talking about is the relation of words to color, which is for the most part an unhappy one. Or an unsuccessful one. Or a sterile one."
Hodgkin hates being described as a colorist, a term he associates with bad art: "It never occurs to people that color is also drawing and shape." Printmaking has also allowed him to unleash pure color directly onto paper (using a liquid technique called collagraphy, or carborundum printing), as can be seen in examples created with this method in the 1970s and ’80s, such as the brilliant oranges of Bed and Breakfast and Listening Ear in Deutsche Bank’s collection.
He doesn’t believe in color favoritism, however: "Red is the color of sunset, of tumescence, of blood," he once told the novelist Colm Toíbín, "but it is also the color of a pair of trousers. Just as blue can be the color of your jacket." Despite having studied various color theories, they have no bearing with Hodgkin’s matter-of-fact relationship to hue, as he explained to the art historian Alan Woods in 1988: "All systems fail in exactly the same way. They all break on the rock of human feeling and human personality, whether it’s Seurat inventing a language of color, or Piero della Francesca inventing a system of expression. Systems of color, like systems of form, just collapse. Kandinsky’s best work is in spite of, not because of his systems. Systems can be a support, but they can’t be anything else. Color is color, and people relate to it. You can’t control it. It’s the amount of conviction."
Clearly, then, he’s more than capable of discussing his work intelligently and in depth. I’d hoped to interview him again this year myself, but our meeting was postponed after Hodgkin suffered a recent fall. Despite this and a prolonged period of ill health, he has had an incredibly busy exhibition schedule for a 78-year-old, opening a show of 25 newly completed paintings in Modern Art Oxford called Time and Place, which is now touring to the De Pont Foundation in Tilburg and subsequently to the San Diego Museum of Art.
His career-long mantra—of treating color as equal to drawing, shaping, composing, and creating space—continues in these latest panels. Red, Red, Red of 2007–08 is Hodgkin at his "late," minimalist best: a pure splurge of snaking orange line. Saturday (2005–08) is similarly constructed of just one color—a deep azure blue—the only other disturbance being a yellowish stain in the wood where oil has literally leached out from the paint. Other titles—such as Leaf, Snow Cloud, Big Lawn, and Rough Sea—are suggestive of the colors he employs, if not always the actual scenes. As Hodgkin admits, the names often invoke memory or thought, rather than sight. Of course, for Hodgkin to claim that all his work is purely figurative—"I’ve never painted an abstract picture in my life"—is one of his more willfully gnomic and disingenuous pronouncements. ("I hate painting" is another, although he qualified this somewhat in our 2008 discussion: "It’s work. Labors of love are strictly for amateurs.")
The ghosts of color influence are trickier beasts to track down. His painterly heroes are well documented—Matisse, Vuillard, Seurat—but he’s also well versed in everything from Renaissance Old Masters to the French classicism of Ingres and David. So to connect his sense of color to such a narrow period as Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting seems difficult, given that his lineage of artistic reference appears so long. However, Hodgkin has gone on record saying that "the New York School is the last great school of painting,” citing Arshile Gorky, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning as its greatest proponents—the last of whom he gained an intimate knowledge of while hanging the 1995 de Kooning show at Tate with the late British critic David Sylvester.
Yet Hodgkin’s true passion and appreciation is for Indian Mughal miniature paintings, of which he has amassed a world-renowned collection. It was immediately after seeing his latest painting show in Oxford, during a chance visit to the Ashmolean Museum (where some of his collection is currently on loan) that the clearest inspiration for Hodgkin’s use of color becomes apparent to me. There, in one tiny image, a pair of myna birds floats on a red ground every bit as vibrant as one of Hodgkin's own, while all the burnt siennas, umbers and raging oranges he could ever have wished for are also in attendance in a never-ending dance of color. This associative, almost symbolic naturalism in Indian painting that Hodgkin has called "the product of an infinitely refined imagination in the face of nature" characterizes the straightforwardly real qualities of color he employs: not just the brilliant blues for the sea and the emerald greens for grass, but every imaginable shade in between. As he once said to an interviewer more skilled than I: "Everything is always up for grabs. I’ve painted pictures which started out white and ended up black. I try and keep the maximum number of options open for as long as possible."
Time and Place - paintings 2000-2010
De Pont Foundation, Tilburg
2 October 2, 2010 - January, 16 2011
San Diego Museum of Art
January 29, - May 01, 2011