The British abstract artist Howard Hodgkin paints pictures with broad gestures of bold, sometimes exuberant colors built up in many layers. The distinctive feature of most of his works is that the frame is also painted over, making it an integral part of the picture.
Part of the fascination of looking at a work by Howard Hodgkin is seeing something that looks so spontaneous with an energy so immediate, but with the knowledge that a typical painting might have been months or even years in the making.
Perhaps the long gestation period for his pictures is because Hodgkin is not just painting from memory -he is painting memory itself. The titles of his works evoke specific people, places and experiences (e.g. Dinner at Smith Square, The Last Time I saw Paris). His inspiration comes from the re-creation of an emotion felt – that harder-to-define essence of an experience that resonates for him still even though it’s long gone and rooted in his past. The artist puts these experiences through an emotional alchemical process which ends up expressed as paint-color gestures executed with a brilliant intensity.
Does this mean that his paintings are abstract or representational? When the results are as vibrant and spectacular as this, maybe it doesn't matter.
The finished pictures don't hint at the meticulous approach to their production that Hodgkin employs. I’ve read that he works in a bare studio – a space without windows which gets its light from a glass pyramid in the ceiling. Paintings he is working on are attached to wooden slats which are fixed to brick walls painted white and each of the paintings can be hidden behind a white screen and revealed one at a time so that each piece he is working on exists in a clear white space.
I respond to his work with energy and a feeling of exuberance, a sense of being alive but it might also be that the focus and concentration he puts into each painting is somehow being transmitted to me through the pure energy of color and gesture.
Color, of course, plays a huge role in the success of his pictures – Hodgkin’s use of it is spectacular. His blues, reds, greens, yellows are delicious – invoking a desire to touch, to taste even. He is skilled at layering his colours, each layer creating a more intense experience than the last. His paintings spread into the frame, spilling over so that that his works have no boundaries – the image and the frame are one.
This layering of colour gives Hodgkin’s paintings huge depth, just as the inspiration for them comes from experiences and memories deep within the artist himself.
It’s a very personal story and that’s the deal with Hodgkin. He gives you the painting and he gives you a title and then you’re on your own. With some abstract artists, their work only comes to life for me when I know something of who they were and what made them tick. With Howard Hodgkin I accept the enigma of his art, the privacy of the man. I don’t need to know the story behind a particular painting – what’s on offer is enough to take me to a feeling place within myself and just relish the experience. A Howard Hodgkin painting makes me feel happy.