First he took Manhattan

New York's glitterati turned out in force to see Howard Hodgkin's latest show, snapping up most of his work even before the private view had ended.
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DESPITE the noise made by the young Britpack of Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman brothers, the number of living artists from Cool Britannia who have really made their mark on the American art world's consciousness is few. David Hockney, of course, and also Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton and Richard Long. The cultural traffic in the visual arts is mostly in the other direction. But with the opening of his new show of 13 paintings at New York's hottest commercial gallery, Gagosian, Howard Hodgkin has grabbed arty Manhattan's attention.

This is an important show for the 67-year-old painter, his first here since the large but not complete retrospective exhibition that began in 1995 in Fort Worth, then toured - impressing the hell out of his fans - to the Metropolitan Museum here, and then to Dusseldorf, before coming triumphantly home in 1997 to London's Hayward Gallery. Almost universally acclaimed, this touring show consolidated the critical reputation Hodgkin had achieved since he represented Britain in the 1984 Venice Biennale.

New York always has one art dealer with charisma. Currently that is Larry Gagosian, with two galleries: one Downtown, which allows him to keep up with the art-trend-spotters, and an Uptown 980 Madison Avenue space that used to be the old and old money Parke-Bernet gallery.

It is in the latter that Hodgkin's work is being shown until 13 June, and where there was a glittering private view last Thursday. Several collectors and would-be collectors were disappointed to find that almost all the pictures had been sold, as the museum and art world establishment sipped a little white wine and a lot of San Pellegrino with a good number of the artist's close friends and plenty of A-list celebrities. Sigourney Weaver, Irene Worth and David Hockney were the most familiar faces and they joined us on the coaches that took 100 guests to Gagosian's dinner afterwards.

This was only the first of the lavish but informal parties to mark the Hodgkin conquest. There was another on Saturday night, given by his London dealer, Anthony d'Offay, at the town house built for himself by architect Philip Johnson on East 52nd Street.

There, paying tribute to Hodgkin - by eating Glorious Food's potato crepes with goat cheese, served with a fine 1994 Meursault and baked red snapper, accompanied, as Hodgkin prefers, with red wine (in this case a superb, still, red champagne, Bouzy Rouge) - were art-world luminaries Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Bill Viola, Kiki Smith and the doyen of New York art critics John Russell and his wife Rosamond Bernier, the celebrated lecturer on art.

A single, small, earlier painting by Hodgkin, After Morandi, hung in the foyer, and I understand that a collector, frustrated in his attempt to buy a picture at the Gagosian show, managed to put a reserve on this one before the woman seated to my left could indicate her own interest in buying it. There was not enough Hodgkin to go around.

For, by this time, there was a sort of aesthetic frenzy shaping up. The local reviews probably won't appear before this coming weekend - the New York Times' art reviews are carried in the Friday edition - but word-of- mouth has already done its stuff, and the gallery is crowded. ("I don't think that the daily reviewers matter to the people who buy Howard's paintings," an important museum curator said to me.)

You take the lift to the sixth floor and are stunned by your first sight of the single painting you see when you walk down the long white entrance corridor. Bamboo (1995-97) is not big, but this 24in by 27in rectangular oil painting on wood makes a disproportionate impact. You glimpse a deep, window-like perspective through the cobalt-blue painted frame, and your eye is drawn so rapidly into the lower right hand corner that, at first, you almost overlook the orange, red and brown brushstrokes, so wide and bold that they cover most of the picture plane and part of the frame.

Then you turn the corner into a room with six small paintings. The colours are so vivid and strong that it is a little like being in a walk-in jewellery box. Nan Rosenthal, a curator in the department of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum, told me: "Quite apart from the Met show, this is Howard's most beautiful gallery show. He's at the top of his form - the consistent level of quality is amazing; every picture is so lively, so confident in its touch. I like seeing the larger-scale pictures, but, of course, he's always been wonderful at small-scale paintings, which few others are."

And in the small gallery at Gagosian there are some breathtaking pictures. When in Rome (1996-97) is oval (its centre panel was originally a small board belonging to a friend, which Hodgkin has enlarged to 24in by 19in). A homage to Roman baroque, the swirling brushstrokes create a trompe l'oeil effect that suggests you're looking sideways on at what is really a ceiling painting, and your glance recedes into a Tiepolo blue central passage.

Old Sky (1996-97) is one of the loveliest pieces in the show. Its umber and gold image bleeds onto a small gilded frame, making the viewer think at once of Turner or old Dutch skyscapes. The ornate Chinese red painted frame of Chinoiserie (1994-97) reminds you both that Hodgkin can take a long time to decide that a painting is finished, and that he often begins with a found object like this frame, the oval board, or the mouldings that came from a church, which have been used to make a frame for the large picture, Andrew Allfree (1994-98).

One of the larger paintings of the six in the main gallery is revolutionary for Hodgkin in this regard. The most recently finished one, Rain at Il Palazzo (1993-98), has no frame. Moreover, this picture, whose title refers to a house in Italy (not a palace), is painted on a white ground, which means that the paint looks thinner and more diaphanous than usual. The brushstrokes are very broad, and you feel that you can almost reconstruct from the marks the order in which they were made, and so "read" the history of the painting, something Hodgkin's past work has perhaps deliberately kept secret.

There are no labels, captions or even numbers on the walls in this show, though a sheet with titles, dates and dimensions is available, as is a fine catalogue. Titles remain important when looking at a Hodgkin - some references are so concrete they contain people's names or indicate locations. It is the titles that remind you that Hodgkin does not regard himself as an abstract artist. In the past, scholars, critics and collectors have enjoyed hunting for some sort of drawing they were convinced (usually because of the titles) underlay the image, maybe giving the picture a narrative coherence. Hodgkin's new work reduces the temptation to indulge in this.

I think this is because of a new confidence in Hodgkin's current works. In most of them you can tell which is the final stroke of the brush. And in most cases this is wide, broad and looks as though it has been applied rapidly. "The brushstroke seems looser," says Rosenthal, "on the whole very unlaboured. He seems able to resolve things more quickly for himself. There is energy in these pictures, rather than conspicuous studiedness." I was very struck by some correspondences with some calligraphic works in the great China exhibition currently here at the Guggenheim Museum. Artistic self-confidence is all: one slip of the brush and the work (in Hodgkin's case, usually of years) would be ruined.

Hodgkin's collectors are special types, almost a club themselves. I asked Norman Finkelstein, a brash, outspoken, Yale-educated (in music) New Jersey surgeon, who, with his brother Fred, owns no fewer than six Hodgkin paintings what he thought of the show and why he collected Hodgkin. Dr Finkelstein shared the universal high opinion of the show, and answered my other question thoughtfully: "The colour, of course, and the energy. But in all Howard's pictures - to quote my old art history professor's view of Greek vases - through the image there emerges an enveloping and warm humanity."

"Lyrical and heroic," said a Russian writer friend, and I see what she meant. The colours sing, the forms and shapes move so much they practically dance, the brushstrokes are so bold they are thrilling. And there is heroism, too. In the face of today's minimalism and installation art, Hodgkin's work emphatically affirms the central place of painting.

Howard Hodgkin's next show will be in Berlin in November. His next London exhibition will be at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in autumn 1999.

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