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PRINT February 1985

TOO MUCH AND/OR NOT ENOUGH: A NOTE ON HOWARD HODGKIN

SEVERAL NORMALLY STEELY-EYED CRITICS, including Mark Stevens and Robert Hughes, have been beguiled by the work of British artist Howard Hodgkin for reasons that are not plain to see in reproductions of his work. I visited his show “Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings 1973–84,” at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., hoping to discern the reasons firsthand.1

The exhibition, which began its tour last summer as the British component of the Venice Biennale, is an overview of 11 years’ work which shows Hodgkin to be an artist of estimable confidence and consistency. The disappointing surprise it held for me was that most of Hodgkin’s paintings, despite their considered physical inflections (all are in oil on wood), look better in reproduction than face to face. In the handsome color catalogue illustrations, the camera has actually improved upon the esthetics of the paintings. It cleans up the slight shabbiness about them that strikes the eye as unnecessary and pointlessly at odds with their obvious decorative flair, and it rights some of their strangely errant internal relations of scale.

Among the things mentioned by nearly every commentator on Hodgkin’s art are the facts that his paintings are “small” by current standards and that he collects Indian miniatures. Though most of his pieces are what Clement Greenberg might once have called “easel paintings,” they seem to me larger than they should be. How much more taut, economical, and cared-for they look cut down to size in reproduction! I’m embarrassed to find myself saying this, for I generally believe that automatic mediation is inimical to art, especially to painting, if only because it supplants the painted surface with one untouched by the artist. However, photographs of Hodgkin’s work are peculiarly revealing in their contrast with the paintings themselves. What they reveal is that Hodgkin thinks pictorially like a miniaturist, but has not reconciled his craft decisions to the small scale in terms of which his visual imagination works best. His paintings are surfaces decorated with marks chosen from a purposely limited vocabulary. The size of the working surface apparently dictates the scale of the marks and the degree of image definition in each picture. When he sponges on polka dots of color or wipes areas with wide swaths of paint, he ends up producing gross imitations of the effects of small tools working at the limits of their precision. The resulting sense of big-littleness is apparently meant to charge the paintings physically and optically with the energy of paradox. This happens, I think, only in the smallest and most abstract pictures, especially After Corot, 1979–82. Elsewhere, the sense that the artist is overcoming the resistance of tools and media to get the degree of definition he wants is unconvincing, painfully so in the too-cute “portraits,” such as Paul Levy, 1976–80, D.H. in Hollywood, 1980–84, and the First . . . and Second Portrait of Terence McInerney (both 1981).

Hodgkin seems much more at ease as a colorist than as a composer of pictures. There is an unforced, if unexceptionable, lyricism to some of his compositionally simpler pictures, such as After Corot, Egypt, 1983, and Clean Sheets, 1982–84. But I often suspect that in his handling of color, as in his touch, he acts disingenuously, or out of vanity, as if difficulties he sets for himself arose from some profound intractability of his tools and media.

I would not lean so hard on my doubts about Hodgkin’s work if he did not seem so often to be forfeiting opportunities to articulate beauties of surface and detail. There are luxuriant moments in Hodgkin’s art, such as the silken surface finish that unifies Bombay Sunset, 1972–73, and accords so well with the flaming orange of its painted frame, and the flash of light through brushstrokes in After Corot and Clean Sheets. But many of his surfaces have an abused, unloved look, as if he didn’t really imagine anyone would look at them closely enough to notice or care. From the right focal distance—which happens to be that of the camera—Hodgkin’s art declares plainly his ambition to make beautiful paintings, but the works’ details betray an anxiety or ambivalence about physical lavishness as a criterion of beauty. The failure of beauty in his art is not a matter of cosmetics, however. It is his failure to “make good” the opportunities his own activity creates for turning the delectability of paint into a metaphor for the desirability of a human skill that only the best visual art calls into play: the knack of seeing matter as a vehicle of intelligence and imagination, rather than as the prison house of the soul. Beauty in painting today is the glimmer of freedom from the materialist vision of life reiterated to us by everything we encounter that wears the taint of ideology. Because I see it in the works of painters as different as Cy Twombly, Malcolm Morley, Kes Zapkus, and Ed Paschke, I miss it keenly in the art of anyone who openly aims for beauty, as Hodgkin does, without achieving it.2

I would like to believe that Hodgkin’s appeal for the critics is less a matter of esthetics than of his work’s relationship to the broad context of contemporary art. His art is sophisticated and conservative in equal measure. No arch apology or philosophical razzle-dazzle is necessary to be able to see, comprehend, and enjoy Hodgkin’s work as painting. That must come as something of a relief to anyone not deaf to the historical richness of the word “painting,” who must cringe, as I do, at hearing it applied categorically to the conceptual ditherings in paint of, say, David Salle or Thomas Lawson. Further, Hodgkin is a very history-conscious painter. His work is replete with echoes of Fernand Léger, Edouard Vuillard, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon, even Mark Rothko. The paintings wear their contemporariness uncomfortably, though. Their physical weight is often more than their painterly energy can support. And the self-consciousness with which Hodgkin tramples upon the boundary between image and frame is sometimes unintentionally (I think) comic. (The theatrical look of his picture spaces is what makes me unsure.) Still, in a decade crowded with emergent know-nothing painters, it is a pleasure to see such educated work. Its failures are nobler and more instructive than any hype-fed success you can name.

Kenneth Baker is a freelance critic who works in Providence, R.I., and New York.

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NOTES

1. The exhibition, which is currently on view at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, will travel to the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, Germany, and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.

2. To my mind the painter who succeeds most precisely where Hodgkin fails, in exploiting scale, detail, and physical refinement, is the British artist Norman Toynton, about whom I have written previously in Artforum (September 1981).