I’m sitting on a bench in the San Diego Museum of Art, which has just opened an exhibition by the British painter Howard Hodgkin. Pretty quiet here, only four other warm bodies, one of them belonging to a guard. Quiet but for the colors thundering off the walls. I’m scrawling notes on what I’m seeing. It’s my process: to work up a body of notes on location then later sort and synthesize. A woman seems to be reconnoitering my bench and, finally, shyly, approaches to say she has a question, if I don’t mind. “Why does he always paint on wood?” A good and right question, I think. I’ll have to get around to that in my column, and I will.
The 1930s were auspicious years for British painting. Frank Auerbach, born in 1931, made meaty, rhapsodic portraits and landscapes that were a thrilling alternative to the soiled fleshiness of the slightly senior Lucian Freud. Euan Uglow, whose pinched, dry, geometrically restrained figures in interiors restored the rigors of drawing to colorist wildness, was born in 1932, as was Howard Hodgkin, whose work of the past decade is raucously on view in Balboa Park.
Raised in a cultured professional family — the lymphoma is named after the scientist brother of Howard’s great-great-grandfather — Hodgkin was a prodigy and decided to become an artist when he was just a child. He never finished high school but at age 17 made a wickedly astute painting of a square-jawed, vaguely lecherous psychiatrist and a recumbent female patient so comically long that her legs (they look like talons) hang over the arm of the analyst’s couch as if she’s already outgrowing her treatment. The flat and blocky magenta, ochre, and yellow color scheme suggests the creepy interpersonal dynamics of psychoanalytic intimacy.
In his 20s and 30s, Hodgkin established subjects he’d address throughout his career: personal anecdotes, specific locales, and natural phenomena. In the early representational pictures, his use of color, from stalwart solids to disintegrated rainfalls and meltings, derived from painters such as Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde. By the 1960s he was an artist to be reckoned with. By the 1970s he’d developed a shape-shifting abstract style that could, if needed, seductively hint at representation, and his expressionist assertiveness was refined by a lyricism that in an instant could go bold or tender. Through the 1980s there are often recognizable “things” in the pictures — human figures, flowers, landscapes, boats, architectures. By the 1990s he was working mostly in rhapsodic monochromatic swipes and nebular paintball-ish explosions and admitted that he restricted himself to only a few kinds of marks. As his work entered the 21st Century, he was still testifying that even his most apparently abstract works were “representational pictures of emotional situations.” The pictures gathered in SDMA’s Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place, 2001–2010 are proof of that remark.
But I have to answer the woman who approached me in the museum. From the beginning, Hodgkin has painted almost exclusively on wood, usually unprimed, which provides grain and whorls that he uses as compositional elements: they give the surface a rhythm that the paint can dance with or against. Wood doesn’t absorb color as linen and canvas do. Depending on how he’s handling the pigment, Hodgkin can jack up or retard the action. Whatever his subject, wood can encourage suppleness or resistance, buttery pliancy or cautious stiffness.
Back in the 1970s Hodgkin discovered a way to enhance his pictures’ already boisterous energy. He mounted wood panels in a frame — often worm-eaten and funereal, sometimes just four wood slabs — and used the entirety as his surface. A Hodgkin picture became a “painting site,” a locale where uncontainability is teased out, where exhilaration and restraint play off each other. The frame became a spillway for the energy of forms painted on the panel: the entire entity was an enactment of unconditional curiosity. (Sometimes it’s a dead zone, when deliberately arrived-at messiness obliterates the frame’s form and smothers its sculptural identity.) This makes Hodgkin sound like a formalist for whom marks on a flat surface are the whole story. And the marks indeed always tell a story. His deepest ambition is to restore, with startling freshness, the past to the present. It takes him years to finish most of his pictures, but they seem a moment’s thought, one that so transforms a remembered event, person, or place that what we most pungently feel is the present intensified. It’s why Hodgkin’s pictures jump right onto the nerves. He says he makes “representational pictures of emotional situations,” and when asked how he knew a picture was finished, he said it’s when “the subject comes back, somehow transmuted, transformed, or made into a physical object. My pictures really finish themselves.”
The exhibition features Hodgkin’s dialogue with the body and the natural order. (Sample titles: Sky, Snake, Ozone.) His work has a knocked-about physicality. The resistant wood support makes the forms look pushed into existence and gives the paint an animal restlessness. His attack makes the images seem always in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s not impatience but energy, a fury almost, to find after years of deliberation and repainting just the right surge of marks to express a fullness of feeling. Blood, for instance, is a picture about circulation, and its colors course from a pinkish froth of bubbles to the seared, black redness of dried blood.
For Hodgkin, abstraction is always about the thrilling pressures and presence of physical reality. His pictures of weathers, locales, and people restore to us the immediacy of the physical world, its interleavings and veilings, its risings and fallings. He uses broad brushes to achieve very different effects. Twisty swathes of pigment, cresting and folding back on themselves or running across the surface like shredded ribbons, can yelp or whisper. Leaf looks like one swift looping brushstroke of hot vernal green, a pure lyric of spring’s intense brevity. Saturday assays blue-ness, its frivolity and melancholy, its secretiveness and celestial expanse. Damp Autumn’s muddy, animal-scat browns make it the dreariest lovely painting I’ve seen in a long time: dingy sky and ragged clouds, a windblown downpour, a curtain of drizzle falling on decayed leaves — an oppressive image, for sure, but in the startling clarity of its recognition of the grimmer end of seasonality, it wakens our attention. “If I could ever really succeed,” Hodgkin said in the 1970s, “I would paint pictures that were so direct, and in which the subject was so displayed, that each would be like a piece of fruit being handed to you on a plate.” Yellow Sky (2010) is like that. It depicts sunlight as a force rolling like a sea swell under an encroaching, obliterating darkness. The tail-ends of every rushing brush stroke dip or curl or fray like the uncertain continuities of weather patterns. You don’t have to represent the natural world figuratively in order to express its mutability.