I interviewed Howard Hodgkin for Modern Painters in April 2006. He was, although charming, about the most difficult interviewee I’d ever faced. He was also a gift of a painter – one who made painting seem a delight, although he found it an agony.
The interview went very well, after we’d abandoned it.
Forced onto the subject of his own paintings, Howard Hodgkin is conversational quicksand. If you struggle to make headway, you sink; if you flail around energetically, you sink faster; if you stop flailing, you still sink but slower and with at least a little dignity; if you give up completely and wait for the end, an unexpected stranger may turn with a rope. His name, however, is Mr Quicksand.
I truly don’t remember and That’s something you’d know much better than me and most of all, humorously but definitely, No.
I flailed. I ended up despairingly asking whether a certain painting was done with ‘a very big brush’?
‘I really can’t remember. I’m sorry. I’m not being very much help, am I?’
Taking pity, Howard Hodgkin suggested we go and have some coffee round the corner. When we returned, I put the tape-recorder away and said I probably wouldn’t write this up as an interview.
‘I think that’s probably a good idea,’ said Mr Quicksand.
By mercilessly throwing himself upon my mercy, he had won.
There is a credo behind this reluctance to speak. If I were to construct a paraphrase, it would go something like this:
‘What I want most of all is for people to come to my paintings without preconceptions, certainly without preconceptions picked up from stray comments I may or may not (journalists being what they are) have made. I want people to be able to arrive in front of any given painting as freshly as possible, and then to take it in, freshly, as a whole and wholly eloquent entity – just to see it as it is. The titles are there, to be referred once that first impression has been taken. Thereafter, people’s eyes and minds are free to wander as they wish – in complete confidence that I trust in their ability, without my help, to understand pretty much exactly what I have tried to depict. If I were to offer reassurance or interpretative hints, it would make my paintings worse. In fact, it would damage them. They themselves are the full statements of all they are capable of saying. Any painting is itself, and has to stand up for itself, out in the world. I can only hinder, not help. In making them, I have tried to be as authentic as I can be. Other people, critics and such, are more than welcome to say what they wish. But, for myself, I scrupulously avoid making any direct statements about them.’
I have problems with this, and not just as an interviewer. I would like to try and work these problems through.
None of the words of this credo are Howard Hodgkin’s own – they are what I extrapolated from in between the Nos. However, in long-ago interview with David Sylvester he said, ‘To be an honest artist now, you have to make our own language, and for me that has taken a very long time.’
The language of these paintings is my second problem. The first, and apparently simpler one, is their integrity. By this, I don’t mean their sincerity, but the idea that they can be taken, at any stage of their apprehension or appreciation, as whole things. Commonsensically, they are single objects; they could be picked up and carried away (though, for some, five or six people might be required). But when the viewer sees each painting, even for the first time, they are not taking it in as would a camera or a scanner. The eye is nervous, human, because the eye has been deliberately unsettled.
In Howard Hodgkin’s large, bright studio the day we spoke there was a new painting called ‘The Living Room’. It contained one of his most characteristic gestures, the lopsided frame-within-a-frame. As we talked about this Hodgkin, putting me in the position of a prosecution lawyer, said wryly that he was ‘prepared to admit’ that the main function of this was to destabilize the image – to make the horizon within the work a different one to the horizon of either the gallery floor or the top and bottom edges of the panel; different because this inner horizon is a reasserted rather than straightforwardly asserted one (as it would be in, say, a Dutch landscape painting). For almost none of Hodgkin’s horizons are anything other than parallel to the gallery floor or horizontal edges of the panel.
This skewing of pictorial space works, I would say, to establish the surface of the painting as self-contained. (It is like twisting an apple to pick it from a tree.) Yet it also sets up one area of the image as separate from the rest. In other words, the paintings call into question their own wholeness. They do this by means of an artistic device, the frame-within-a-frame, and this device is part of what Hodgkin described as an artist’s ‘own language’, his language.
This language, like any language, exists by virtue of dividing up wholes. It is no accident that we refer to the parts of speech. A baby may be born into an integral world, but from the first word it hears this is being ripped apart. Without separation, there is no linguistic grip upon what is perceived. The world could be woozily there, seen, but in mental dumbshow. This is analogous to brain-damage. I am not suggesting that Hodgkin’s paintings are in any way an attempt to return to a pre-linguistic vision. They have, by contrast, a very sophisticated adult language – a language of partition.
At one point in our post-interview conversation, Hodgkin said, ‘I always wanted to be a classical artist.’ This might come across as slightly mischievous but is absolutely true. Hodgkin’s classicism, just like his horizon, is one that is reasserted after first being disrupted. The invisible lines which subdivide any painting, halving and quartering it vertically, horizontally and diagonally, are always taken account of. They are what is being back-flipped and bowled over, corkscrewed and black-holed.
There is a level, even so, upon which the paintings can still be taken as wholes. And this is as whole statements of a subject. That subject, being unstable itself, is authentically, classically rendered as such. To read the paintings this way is to place a second invisible frame around them. But this Hodgkin doesn’t do. It is left to the viewer.
Obviously, a painting can be seen for the first time only once. But I would argue that, because Hodgkin’s paintings are created from such a sophisticated language, the first painting of his that you see is the only one you can see for the first time. After this, you are involved in a conversation employing that language. That first-first painting may say Hello, but subsequently, the paintings say other things: Yes, No, However, Also and Hello Again.
The formal elements of Hodgkin’s pictorial language are by now very familiar. There is, as a major element, the frame-within-a-frame – although these occasionally appear more like giant dolmens through which the world of the painting is entered (for example, in ‘Snapshot’ 1984-93). This works as a kind of tense, recessing the image into past perfect or imperfect or continuous. Then there are the mega-stipples, which are sometimes ungenerously referred to as ‘dots’. These punctuation marks, giving rhythm as pattern, are often seen as Hodgkin’s signature, but I would assign that function to the half-rainbow. This gestured shape, explicit in ‘A Rainbow’ (2003-4) reaches a clear climax in ‘Lovers’ (1984-92) and again in ‘In Paris With You’ (1995-96). It is also varied into an S- or reverse S-shaped shimmy, such as the one dominating ‘In the Bay of Naples’ (1980-82). These are all energetic, like verbs. And then there is the horizon itself, as in ‘Italy’ (1998-2002) – a side-to-side wedge that has the fragile solidity of a noun. This thing is here, it says, at least for the moment.
How these parts of visual speech are brought together is what makes the paintings. And, without this vocabulary, the paintings could not exist. Although Hodgkin will say, ‘I don’t, unlike many other artists, have a sort of bird’s-eye view in my head of what I’ve done. I can see much more clearly what I’m actually doing than looking over my shoulder.’ That the artist himself is unwilling to isolate and describe individual elements doesn’t mean they do not function grammatically. To say that ‘to love’ is a verb doesn’t delimit its uses, as a verb. It doesn’t damage it. What may, I accept, damage it is to say, ‘I am about to use a verb to describe my feelings towards you.’ This is probably how parsing his own paintings appears to Hodgkin. When I asked him whether he could be more specific, if he wanted to, his answer was a definite ‘No’.
So far I have deliberately viewed Hodgkin’s paintings in imaginary black and white. Colour works structurally in them, but the forms – just as I have shown – can be perceived separately. They can’t, however, be interpreted separately. Colour together with form (and texture) put the verb ‘to love’ into the service of a meaningful grammatical construction, a sentence. But they don’t make it ridiculous by saying so (i.e., ‘I am about to use a sentence…’) in advance. Instead, they make an impassioned declaration (‘I am going to love you until I die’) or demand (‘I want you to love me’).
It is worth pointing out that there are important differences, not least of affect, between a language and a code. Hodgkin is easy to misinterpret if you go looking for a key. There is no key. As he said when the tape-recorder was off, ‘A shape in one painting can mean something completely different in another painting.’
The shapes may be polyvalent, but in the colours you can place your full trust. They are used in a very straightforward way. The associations the viewer naturally brings to them are helpful. The earth is earth-coloured, grass is green, skies and water are blue, flesh is fleshy pink. When I asked whether he ever used colours subversively, showing skin as green, for example, to suggest not an actual appearance but an inner sickness, Hodgkin said, ‘No.’ Colour is the means by which his paintings do the bulk of their communication. And the colours do bulk, having real physical presence.
Within each painting, though, a colour may be used with virtuoso distain for its traditional role. You could say the Hodgkin has a conventional palate and a perverse tonality. Recessive blacks are foregrounded, crimson is relegated to a ground. The forms allow one colour to be understood as on top of, in front of, another; they also place them chronologically as earlier and later. Time is another dimension in which the paintings do not exist as whole. They are not a seamless, simultaneous image, as, for example, a Patrick Caulfield would be.
When Howard Hodgkin said that, even if he wanted to, he could not be more specific, I believed him. His paintings are hyper-sophisticated, not faux naïf. In describing their colours I have divorced them from their art-historical context, which, in a painting such as ‘Old Sky’ (1996-97), is where the larger part of the meaning is to be found.
Hodgkin’s final words, before we shook hands and parted, were ‘Nothing is simple’. This is true, but I’m sure it’s something he’d know much better than me.