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Howard Hodgkin belongs to the same generation as Ronald Kitaj, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. His first exhibition, in 1962, was held jointly with Allen Jones. Later, too, he remained in contact with the English Pop artists. In Peter Blake's 'The Meeting', or 'Have a Nice Day, Mr. Hockney' (1981-83) -a contemporary version of Courbet's famous painting 'La rencontre' ou 'Bonjour Monsieur Courbet'- Hodgkin is standing next to Blake during their 1979 visit to David Hockney in Los Angeles. Yet Hodgkin regards himself as an outsider, having never sought any real affiliation with these painters who largely determined the British painting scene during the 1960s and 70s.
From the mid 70s onward, his art took a decisive turn in a new direction. Recognizable motifs gave way to bands of color and abstract forms. Hodgkin is a superb colorist. His intense and sensual hues are often referred to as being distinctly un-English and seem to have been inspired by his love of India and Indian art, which he collects extensively. It is moreover his approach to abstraction and figuration that gives him a place in contemporary painting which is entirely his own.
As abstract as the paintings may initially appear to be, Hodgkin describes himself as a "representational artist of emotional situations." Immediately recognizable motifs can scarcely be found in his work. The fact that his paintings have the character of pictures is mainly due to the illusion of space. Hodgkin describes his paintings as "the equivalents of memories"; as color and form, they are 'translations' of experiences that were not necessarily of a visual nature. The memories may relate to anything, from a heated discussion during a dinner to a certain erotic encounter. Paintings from recent years are often based on sensations in nature: the tingling freshness of a spring shower, the heaviness of a cloudy sky or the movement of a single leaf. In his titles, Hodgkin alludes to the nature of these memories. Some titles refer to events from the past or to phenomena in nature; others have been taken from existing sources.
The French philosopher Merleau Ponty once wrote, in his essay on Cézanne, that this painter attempted to capture in paint not the result, but the activity of observation. It could be said that Hodgkin wants to paint not the remembrance, but the reexperience of the image. Hodgkin has often spoken about the effort required of him in getting the painted surface to tell about something as ephemeral as a memory. As spontaneous as they may appear, in reality they have been hard won, layer by layer, in a lengthy process of development. His recent work shows a greater degree of openness and more austerity in his use of means and colors—the result of "more thinking and less painting", as Hodgkin himself puts it. In a number of paintings, the panel remains clearly visible, and the structure and hue of the bare wood plays an active role, just as the frame has been doing for some time.
In his works Hodgkin frequently makes use of found objects, of which the frames that he has been using since the mid 70s have become the most recognizable. These are used frames of all types and sizes, sometimes even the worn backs of frames. Such interventions emphasize the material nature of an artwork and underscore Hodgkin's need to create palpable objects that can communicate in a direct manner and evoke feelings of empathy and recognition in the viewer.
Watch an interview with the artist on TateShots