Howard Hodgkin at Gagosian Gallery

by Jason Stopa

Dark Evening, 2011 by Howard Hodgkin; oil on wood, 35 x 45 inches (88.9 x 114.3 cm)

How soon is now?   This might be the starting point for Howard Hodgkin’s recent exhibit at Gagosian Gallery uptown.  Of the 21 works in this exhibit, each one feels like a one off, an ever changing image, grasped momentarily and just beyond reach.  In his signature style, Hodgkin paints over the wooden frame of his support, allowing gestures to sweep from one side to the next with a quickness, flurries of dots caress the surface like a myriad of snowflakes, paired with drips that cut to the bottom edge of the canvas.

After Whistler, 2010

For this show he’s upped his size range to include the intimate easel painting to the modestly sized TV set.  And with titles like After Whistler and After Vuillard Hodgkin pays homage to the idea that painting can conjure up an animated, rich atmosphere.  In certain works like Dark Evening , an unabashed, sumptuous bravura meets a delicate intimacy – they shake hands and form a visual compendium.  At 20 x 26 inches it consists of swirling deep Prussian blue and white dots which spiral us into the center wherein lies a greenish-blue horizontal, washy expanse. 

Breakfast, 2010-11

Sweetly melancholic we find ourselves knee-deep in the paintings midpoint only to be thrust back out again to it’s flatness and materiality – the thingness of the thing.  Others works are quietly understated like Breakfast.  Three horizontal bars of varying thickness and shades atop an unprimed wood surface exude a sort of everydayness that is deceptively compelling and easily overlooked. 

One work which anchors the show is entitled Flowers, employing  an oppositional color scheme.  Lipstick red outlines the frame and indicates petals with childlike brevity.  And a creamy sky blue surrounds the field and also washes it out, with a quick sweep.  He knows what flowers are, but wants to un-know them.  To un-know, is to get at the underlying essence.  There, felt sensations have been accruing over time, adding up to a rolodex of emotional memory – creating a past and underscoring the present.

Flowers, 2011

At 79, Hodgkin is painting with a sense of uninhibited freedom that is palpable.  His work fills an interesting and often over-looked place in the trajectory of painting  – creating works which engage in the vocabulary of abstraction yet imply elements of figuration.   One also thinks of artists like Andrea Belag or Joe Fyfe, whose works both respectively employ a French sensibility, and in the case of the latter an engagement with support, structure and transparency.  By painting over the literal frame,  Hodgkin wants to destroy the margin, the periphery upon which our eye zooms in and focuses.  That margin demarcates what Edward Casey in his essays on imagination terms “the imaginal margin.”  The edge is but one world frame and doesn’t constitute a fixed field.  Similarly, Hodgkin’s practice seems to indicate that positing one view of how the world appears is also to posit that there are many.  As a result, Hodgkin’s paintings wonderfully conjure a sense of time and space that is not about the past or future, but the here, right now and never again.

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