New York

Howard Hodgkin

Knoedler Gallery

Howard Hodgkin’s vocabulary consists of fat wet daubs, stripes, loops, and wavy bands. He reinforces the clumsy bluntness of these marks by painting in oil on wood and board. Since the paintings are easel-sized and intimate, the marks feel big and luscious; at the same time, the wood emphasizes the smudges, scumbled patches, and splotches, the seismological registrations of Hodgkin’s wrist. Using a dry brush to move decisively across or to poke at the grainy, fast surface results in sinuous trails of marks or in smudges overlapping themselves, as if Hodgkin were tightening a screw.

The paintings are palimpsests. A layer is allowed to dry before Hodgkin works on it again. The colors range from the dandyish to the florid, the sexual to the tropical: a sunset pink might border a Veronese green and sidle along a fin de siècle red or midnight blue. As in a conversation among strong-willed, articulate friends, each color, mark, and layer holds its place in the discussion. Attention shuttles back and forth over the layers, the whole tightly woven composition, the particular configuration of a brushstroke, the precise placement of a mark.

The precedent for the paintings is early School of Paris—Cubism, Fauvism, and Post-Impressionism. But Hodgkin has found a way to transform this history and his feelings for it into a personal mode. His paintings do not bow before these early triumphs of Modernism, they extend them, letting the tradition breathe. The bluntness of the marks, their stings of sensual color, are as integral to Hodgkin’s nervous system as elegant scribbles are to Twombly’s. Both men have found a way to use history; they do so by confronting their own necessities.

There were twelve paintings in the exhibition. Titles such as At Oakwood Court, 1978–83, Waking Up in Naples, 1980–84, Clean Sheets, 1982–84, and Mr. and Mrs. J. Kirkman, 1980–81, convey the perceptual instances that initiated Hodgkin’s responses. The time it takes him to finish a painting is a measure of the meditative, questing calm with which he proceeds. Nothing seems hurried, frenetic, or forced. Like pearls, the paintings are precise, luminous accretions around a single moment.

Hodgkin is 52, and his reputation is still growing. It is easy to see why. He is arguably the most intellectually rigorous sensualist around.

John Yau