I was very saddened earlier this week to wake up to the news that Howard Hodgkin had died.
I met him several times when I was younger. He represented a kind of painting-uncle figure to me in many respects because of what and how he painted. From early on, his paintings gave me permission.
When I first realized that I wanted to be a painter—that moment when you move from acknowledging an innate artistic ability to fully committing to it as a path through life—it was essential to have mentors. Art schools after all were supposedly for dummies or the kids that couldn’t read and write so good; the place for the undiagnosed dyslexics and misfits. Only later on did it become fashionable for everyone and their dog to be at art school, followed by the lifestyle magazine articles, the tidal wave of art fairs, hopefully leading to the house in the country… a very big house in the country.
To this day, especially in America, there’s still a suspicion of the artist who writes too well, or talks too much, or maybe knows too much. Visual art, so the American myth has it, is more about the primal grunt, the idiot savant, the seer, the person who couldn’t find the words so painted them instead. In the U.S. currently there’s almost the merging of the idea of the artist and the entrepreneur. It’s about success.
Back in England, learning about art beyond the sixth-form art-room standbys—beyond the various art books they had on Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh and so on—came my way by my tuned-in and turned-on artist/art teacher Richard Buxton, who set about introducing me to things such as Joseph Beuys’ fat sculptures, Richard Hamilton, and lending me the Brian Eno records and pointing out the art work on Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure album cover by Nick de Ville, who by coincidence was later to be one of the tutors I’d encounter at Goldsmiths.
At one point, while still at school, Richard sent me a postcard from the Tate. It was an early Howard Hodgkin painting, and in those days where even reproduced printed imagery was so much rarer (imagery was only printed, or painted, or in your head back then), I treasured it. I pinned it up in my bedroom and it became a guiding light in how a young British person wanting to paint might possibly continue through life.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t already admiring the likes of Picasso and Cezanne, because I was, and hugely. But I was reading about the French and the Spanish from late 19th century and early 20th century, and their absinthe drinking and their lime-lit stages of dancers, and by 1980 I began to realize that Englishness and painting were far from fused together in my mind. Maybe it seems wistful looking back from our more global era, but having a sense of place, registering a sense of belonging—of painting via Englishness, or vice versa—was important to me. Not paramount, but nonetheless tricky to negotiate. I wasn’t French. I wasn’t going to be Matisse. There was Reynolds, there was Blake, but they were very long dead. No one doubted the English could write, but to be a painter? How was this to be done?
And so at age 17 or so, I quickly latched on to Hockney, Caulfield and Hodgkin who became as important as anyone to me as quickly as I encountered them. Hockney by then was a household name in Britain, one of the few British artists who were, other than the aforementioned, along with Bacon, Moore, Turner, and Constable.
I remember distinctly a show of Caulfield at the Tate in 1978 on one of my jaunts into town on the Metropolitan Line on the London Underground. Seeing Caulfield back then was perhaps the first and most dramatic modern art show I’d yet seen. It still lives with me. On concurrent visits I’d encounter early Hockney and of course the then-most-famous “most viewed,” “most requested” (all done by mail, back then) item at the Tate: Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, 1967. And of course the epitome of North Londonisms, the Hockney double portrait of Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, 1968. This was what London bohemia looked like to me at the time.
Later that year, I think I finally saw the Hodgkin painting that was on my postcard in the flesh. As time went by, Hodgkin’s paintings began to feel distinctly different to me from Caulfield and Hockney, and revealed as much a sensibility for antiquities as it did for newness. Both were present in his paintings. His paintings seem to relish the direct experience of things—things that might co-exist as old and new.
At school at Goldsmiths, among others such as Michael Craig-Martin and Jon Thompson, I was being taught by painters such as Bert Irvin and Basil Beattie, the latter of which showed alongside this group—Hodgkin, Hockney, Caulfield, Hoyland. It was clear to me that none of them were Pollock, none were Rothko, none were Lichtenstein—not because they weren’t as good, but because they didn’t have the stars and stripes under their names. Slightly later, at Waddington gallery I discovered Patrick Heron. Some might say they weren’t as dramatic or breathtakingly daring as their U.S. counterparts. Maybe so, maybe not so. They were different, and underrated then partly because the British art market was not nearly as developed as the American market was. They didn’t paint so big, so brassy. It was less about manufacturing, maybe, and in the end, more poetic. It didn’t let in the big American landscape, because we didn’t have the Big American Landscape and British art hadn’t benefitted in the same way that U.S. post-war art had in the enormous influx of European emigres.
The British art scene at the time was as much informed by continental Europe—Bacon and others travelled extensively there. Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, David Sylvester: as a student, I was only just learning who these grandads were, and there was a sort of dourness to the Tate (pre-Serota) that was matched by its drab Graham Sutherlands and bleakly worthy and sometimes leaden Moore drawings that carried the same heaviness and trauma that could be seen in the schrapnel-scarred masonry on the wall of Millbank Tate’s west elevation, left by the Luftwaffe’s bombs.
The newer generation that had emerged from the Royal College—the pop artists— seemed more optimistic, brighter and colourful. A release from all of that darkness. Their work was and wasn’t to do with America.
It might be a mistake though to assume that in this release there was a sort of Mary Quant vinyl jump into loveliness away from the war. For Hockney, it meant eventually escaping Britain altogether for L.A: a TR7 and poolside painting. Hodgkin remained in his Bloomsbury studio opposite the British Museum and adjacent to the Coptic Street Pizza Express that many of us frequented as students. The location of his studio was about as glorious as you can get in London. I never went there, but every time I ordered a Fiorentina pizza and a green salad, I’d think: Howard’s just next door. He’s in there, doing the paintings. It was vital to know these things. It was and is an inspiration.
What we did have in British painting was at times a sharpened sense of interior worlds, richly layered and nuanced, steeped in Pinter and kitchen-sink dramatists such as Joe Orton and John Osbourne; fantastic filmmakers such as Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, John Boorman, Lindsay Anderson, Powell & Pressburger. If modernism per se had eluded Britain in art and architecture, the avant garde was being carried forward in Britain across its literary, film, and theater traditions. And arguably into this mix, painting found its place as a construct of not just pure painting (in the French sense) but as a hybrid or composite of other mediums. Perhaps because of this it took a while for it to become palatable abroad.
But Hodgkin was not shocking or difficult in the way that perhaps Bacon more obviously was. Equally, he was neither a clear abstractionist nor a clear realist. He was different again. He painted dots and stripes, and luminous washes of colour on wooden panels and sort of divided up his canvas like it was a garden or an outside area. It was real—it seemed to be about real spaces, real light—not in a literal way, but there always seemed to be a sense of place. Sometimes in the same painting it was topographical and gravitationally spatial all at once; as if seeing from the side and above together. It appeared to contain the aura of fashion and restaurants and parks and other things, even though you couldn’t name them. When I saw the painting from my postcard, it wasn’t the size that I’d been expecting. It was more visceral than I’d thought it would be. You could feel Hodgkin’s presence right there.
After that, I’d see his prints often at Alan Cristea in Cork Street—initially when Cristea was part of Waddington Graphics in the early 1980s. When I first turned up at Goldsmiths, every painter at the school had a Hodgkin postcard, or poster, or knew who he was. Every Camden suburban stripped-pine household knew about Hodgkin. It was almost impossible to escape by this time. The dots, dabs, sweeps and splodges. For many, the acknowledgment of Hodgkin’s colour alone was a sort of symbolic embrace of the continent, of France, Spain and Italy—of a different light, a different and less ‘island-like’ way of thinking. Britain had joined the Common Market in 1973. I’m not saying that being in the EU and liking Hodgkin was the same thing, but maybe there was something appealingly outward-looking that was important. Hodgkin might be quintessentially English, he might be like a version of Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice. You weren’t looking just at the light of Venice in Hodgkin’s paintings, you were looking at Hodgkin Venice light. It was as much about the liberation and decanting of Englishness as it was about Italy.
It might seem almost frivolous—but it’s not—but there seemed to be a genuine attempt on his part to reconnect with something more joyous, something last seen in Britain during the Belle Époque or the innate dandyism of the Edwardian English. The bid for the pure and unapologetic was to steep language and memory in colour and touch, and in so doing winning free expression its own raison d’etre. A task far easier said than done.
I met Howard three times or more. Once or twice at grand d’Offay dinners, usually at The River Café, and usually among hundreds of people, many celebrated artists. For a while, it all felt perfectly natural. I’d had his postcard pinned to my wall—why wouldn’t I now be at the same dinners? A bit later, he came to dinner at a gallery director’s house. There were just a few of us. He was charming, engaged, he knew what was going on, he was reserved, warm but retained a deep and critical eye. I remember simply thinking, Blimey, I’m sitting opposite Howard Hodgkin. This is great! He’d seen a couple of my paintings by then. I’d seen dozens, if not hundreds, of his.
Later, we both stood side by side at the unveiling of an important and monumental public sculpture in central London. I became deeply analytical for a moment about the proceedings. “Be careful,” he said to me, “If you pull on it, it’s like pulling on a snagged piece of wool on a sweater. Before you know it, the whole thing’s unraveled and the sweater’s no more.” How’s that for a piece of career advice? I never forgot him saying it. (Even so, at the same time, I think he rather knew what I was talking about.)
I can’t attest to the oft quoted stuff about his relationship to being unfashionable. People now like to speculate that he might have preferred it that way. I’m not so sure. I’d hazard a guess that it probably upset him. But I don’t know. But what I can say is that when I read the more recent newspaper articles, like the one in The Independent from 2016, where he describes the intense (but perhaps necessary) loneliness of being in the studio, of how he “hates painting” (the act of painting)—I can totally relate to this. Often in life, people bullshit you; they tell you things get better, things will be alright and so on. But as in seeing his images early in my painting life and taking great solace in their uniqueness and subsequent truth, I take great solace now in mid-life having heard him talk about how it feels at the end. That it’s still lonely and difficult. Will Self also talks about these things. I think in these days of super-short attention spans and ‘likes’ and social-media twaddle, the idea of being alone with one’s work in this way, for hours and hours, days and days—one’s whole life, and tending what needs to be tended—is more profound now than ever before, because being this sort of artist is gradually sliding under the sands. Will Self also talks about long-form narrative fiction possibly disappearing forever because readers lose the ability to picture and imagine as they read. Instead, they refer constantly to information.
Howard’s paintings were not the information. They were and are the direct experience. I’m so glad that I met him—all but briefly, and all but a few times. I’m glad because it helps me know what is true.