New York

Howard Hodgkin

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Howard Hodgkin’s paintings bear such evident marks of his borrowing from predecessors that they are pictures about the dynamics of influence as much as they are about their nominal subjects. The presence of Seurat in Hodgkin’s frames within frames is immediately apparent, as is that of Matisse in Hodgkin’s bright colors and his attraction to landscape seen through windows. This is not to say that Hodgkin’s works are directly imitative. In fact, what is extraordinary about them is the degree to which they can candidly admit the weighty influence of these past artists while still maintaining their autonomy.

It is not through any assertive, novel devices that these pictures confront Seurat and Matisse (and early Kandinsky, and some others). Rather, Hodgkin faces the past with a kind of encompassing joviality, as if gently parodying his precursors while at once parodying himself will sweep all into friendly fellowship—fellowship that will surmount and assuage the struggle over influence. Such amiability is of course a posture on Hodgkin’s part, and one that is directly traceable to visual mechanisms in his pictures. He makes fluffy polka dots of Seurat’s pointillist dashes, and inflates Matisse’s window frames to absurd dimensions. The landscapes one views through Hodgkin’s windows are rendered in a childlike primitive manner; they are impossibly verdant, cartoonlike places in which one would probably find tumbling a better means of locomotion than walking.

These pictures’ fat frames keep the viewer at an immense distance from the bright scenery at their centers, engendering the sad nostalgia that is paradoxically bound up with Hodgkin’s jocosity. This is a quality of sadness one associates entirely with Hodgkin’s belatedness, with his immense debt to his precursors and the nearly insuperable power of their pictures. It is a sadness one also finds in David Hockney’s work, and which articulates precisely the position of the British painter today. For the British artist carries twin burdens in his speaking for a society whose cultural aristocracy has virtually crumbled, and whose visual tradition has always been overshadowed, to say the least, by that of France. It is no accident that Hodgkin’s chosen precursors are French artists; he enters an arena that is largely theirs through openly admitting the awkwardness of his position. It is this general awkwardness that I think brings Hodgkin to the comical rotundness of his clouds, trees and stretches of lawn.

Hodgkin does make a proud riposte to the French, however, by referring directly to British art: he titles two of the current paintings Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden and Small Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden. While these alluded-to sculptures are not readable through Hodgkin’s impasto, he does declare that the whole French visual machinery has been put to the service of English tradition. There is no accident in his picking a sculptor whose form is as rotund as his own.

The openness that Hodgkin achieves by this route finally makes possible what is perhaps the freshest and most welcome quality of his work. For if one concedes the lateness of one’s position, as Hodgkin does, one is free to return painting to a role it played years ago, and indeed still plays, but which modernists have characteristically tried to disencumber it of. That is, one is free to make paintings that are unabashedly, seductively decorative. Unlike much recent art, Hodgkin’s work does not distinguish between its tasks as ornament and vessel for ideas. Without embarrassment, Hodgkin provides vignettes that mark and articulate their location in time and are at once small, bright, colorful windows opening on another place.

Leo Rubinfien