New York

Howard Hodgkin

Gagosian Gallery

Do Howard Hodgkin’s new paintings reprise what physiologist Max Verworn in 1908 called “ideoplastic style”—pure painterly expression or representation of interiority—or do they extend and develop the aesthetic perception at the core of this style? Do they deepen our sense of what Alexander Baumgarten called “sensateobjectivity” and show that the expressive possibilities of “aesthetic painting” were not exhausted by its last great surge in postpainterly abstraction? There is no question that Hodgkin is a vitalist and that aesthetic painting is alive and well in his work, but one has to consider the possibility that his work decadently recapitulates its own history (of which Hodgkin is quite conscious). The issue boils down to the quality of “empathy,” in Theodor Lipps’s sense: For the aesthetician, the source of “aesthetic enjoyment” is a “critical participation in the fullness of the World-Me continuum.” Do these paintings offer sensations more radically immediate and intimate than those of the Intimist Vuillard, or, for that matter, any hitherto experienced aesthetic painting?

The answer to these questions is not always clear. Works such as Blue Remembered Hills, 2002–2003, and Grief, 1999–2002, are ideoplastic masterpieces, at once landscapes and “inscapes,” to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term. Not only do they owe a great deal to the French tradition of direct painting (Monet, Vuillard, Matisse), but their painted frames and interior frames are indebted to such sources as Seurat and Diebenkorn. Wood grain as a counterpoint to the painterly gesture (as in Mud, 2002) harks back to Munch; and the tension between declarative flatness and quasi-illusionistic space is a staple of abstraction. So what does Hodgkin add?

It has to be his uniquely lush, voluptuous matrix of gestures, which have a libidinous freshness and rhapsodic sensuousness not seen since Sam Francis. Hodgkin’s paintings also have a rather feverish, oddly brusque materiality and a light that’s more immanent than external, or possibly a bizarre fusion of both, as in the ironic You Are My Sunshine, 2002. Indeed there is an aura of delight here—a sense of sheer pleasure in the ontological experience of painting as well as of nature. Unlike Abstract Expressionism (which tends to the violent and manic, more compulsive than spontaneous), and rather than simply express an isolated, disintegrating Me blind to the larger fullness of being, Hodgkin participates in the fullness of Lipps’s “World-Me continuum.” Joy always trumps emotional catastrophe, as in Spring Rain, 2000–2002, and Shadow and Christmas (both 2002–2003). With its cornucopia of sensations, Hodgkin’s work is also a welcome relief from a prevailing Conceptual nihilism. If, as Robert Motherwell said, abstraction is mysticism, then mysticism is alive and well.

Donald Kuspit