Howard Hodgkin: Bold, unconventional and uncompromising

Bold, unconventional and uncompromising, Howard Hodgkin was once regarded as a marginal figure in British art. More than half a century later, and still refining his style, he has become one of the true giants of contemporary painting. On the eve of his first major retrospective, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, explores the artist's unique vision - and its dazzling energy

In 1992, Howard Hodgkin completed his largest work to date. He was best known at this time for his small, intense, richly coloured and highly wrought "portraits" of social encounters, but this work is in monochrome. Crafted not in paint but in stark, black granite against a hard, white marble, it extends to 9 metres wide by 18 metres high. The black form is bold, stylised and simplified, but not in the least childlike. Slowly, abstract shapes covering the faces of a complex architectural form become legible as more than pattern.

The graphic image that asserts itself is organic; perhaps the writhing limbs of a tree, such as an ancient banyan, or a broad-leafed catalpa, the Indian bean tree. During his many visits to India, Hodgkin has often observed these trees, whose generous canopies provide shade across the sub-continent. The banyan is also the tree beneath which we find Sadhus, or teachers, conveying wisdom. It is thus a true tree of life and knowledge, and an entirely appropriate symbol for the façade of the building that houses one of the principal libraries of English books in India.

Hodgkin's mural occupies the façade of Charles Correa's restrained building for the British Council in Delhi, covering the walls of terraces set back behind a pinkish-beige sandstone screen. The façade is broken by a huge square aperture, balanced by two smaller square apertures on either side. The rampant branches of the tree threaten to smother the building, but the energy is contained, like a snake in a cage.

In relinquishing colour, Hodgkin's mural may seem untypical of his work, but some of his most striking etchings and aquatints have been limited to black, grey and white. In Delhi he exploits the way in which the surface absorbs and reflects the changing light at different times of the day. The nakedness of the mural and its simplicity of means exposes some of the strengths and singularities of Hodgkin's work in general: a feeling for scale, a sensitivity to light, an awareness of architectural space and an ability to create a suggestion of depth while maintaining the integrity of the picture plane.

What we also observe is a willingness to take risks. Hodgkin's paintings are usually formed by a gradual build-up of successive layers and glazes of paint, a process that allows for corrections and second thoughts. By contrast, an architectural design presents a particular challenge. Precise instructions must be given and the consequences of these directions not only foreseen but accepted. It takes deliberation and courage. In a long career, Hodgkin has demonstrated both characteristics: an ability to work slowly on a painting over many years, but also to capture a subject in a single, breathtaking flourish.

The exhibition at Tate Britain presents the full career of an artist now in his sixth decade as a painter. Surprisingly, for an artist of such current prominence, this is only the second such survey. The first, held in Oxford in 1976, was a mid-career exhibition that brought Hodgkin's work to public attention. Subsequent large shows have covered more limited periods in his career.

The Oxford retrospective, 45 paintings covering the period from 1959 to 1975, occurred at a moment when Hodgkin's work was changing gear. No one, including the artist, had ever seen more than 15 of his paintings together in one space. Hodgkin had found his own voice slowly, being better known in the art world for his activities as a collector of Indian paintings and as a trustee of the Tate Gallery.

By the mid-1970s, after an apparently hesitant start, he was making unconventional, small paintings, the boldness and intensity of which seemed decidedly un-British. Enigmatic, but increasingly sumptuous, they sought to capture a particular encounter in which the artist was both observer and active participant. Each painting became an account of an individual or a group of people seen through the refracting lens of Hodgkin's memory. However, the 1976 exhibition also revealed an artist of more steady purpose than had previously been recognised. He might not be part of the artistic mainstream, but he was no longer of marginal significance.

Will this second retrospective, almost 30 years later, have an equivalent if very different impact? The most compelling exhibitions are often those in which the outcome is most uncertain. In a retrospective, selections are made by a curator on the basis of memory and his or her assessment of particular works, with the aim of exposing the strengths, range and evolution of the artist's career as a whole. Until the paintings are living on the wall in rooms, where the juxtapositions are a matter of aesthetic judgement as well as cerebral planning, no one can predict how they will be read, or precisely how each will affect another.

We can nevertheless speculate. Hodgkin, now 73, has covered much territory over 50 years, his paintings having apparently been produced with increasing fluency (the catalogue raisonné records 160 paintings completed between 1957 and 1980, while between 1980 and 2005 the figure is 300).

However, many writers, particularly those hostile to the work, have failed to appreciate the extent of Hodgkin's exploration, choosing to describe only a generic work, small in size, intimiste in character, recording a social encounter in a domestic interior. Even sympathetic writers have overlooked the steady and periodic transformations of both manner and subject in his paintings. They have simplified the story into one of self-discovery in middle age leading to the emergence of a new freedom in the work.

The Tate exhibition should make visible a more complex evolution in Hodgkin's approach to his subject, as well as a painter with a steadily increasing command of his medium. The Hodgkin who began by painting friends, fellow teachers and collectors in domestic interiors had evolved by the early 1980s into an artist who was capable of evoking the anger, the humiliation and the pain of some social exchanges, as well as the sensuality and sybaritic pleasures of others. Even by the 1970s, he was exploring not just meetings with friends or acquaintances, but the place of that encounter, conversation or shared experience. In the past 15 years, such concerns have been accompanied by a growing awareness of mood and pre-eminently of the changing conditions of light.

Hodgkin's paintings have always had a strong physical character. He strives to give them substance and therefore presence on the wall. But the means by which he achieves this has changed dramatically over 50 years. The move from canvas to wood, often scarred from former use, was a significant step in giving him a surface that would withstand repeated essays of the brush. But presence is only partly a matter of physical weight. Traditionally, a fragile canvas is given the protection of a wooden frame that reinforces the illusion of a window and isolates the painting on the wall, helping to define its place in a room.

Hodgkin is fascinated by frames. He makes them intrinsic to his painting. For him, the frame is not something to be added as protection or separation once the painting has been completed. Rather it is a device that must either be incorporated physically into the painting as part of its making, or created as an illusion to give definition to his subject. His frames concentrate our attention. The eye may roam, but it cannot wander as it might in a truly abstract composition. In Hodgkin's work, the edge of the painting becomes important and the space within is contained and specific. There is always a point to be made, a precise recollection of something seen or sensed in the world. The frame helps to establish that recollection as something definite and significant.

Hodgkin's early technique, in which he refined his composition by eliminating description and by masking unwanted elements in the painting, resulted in paintings that were heavily impastoed and even clogged with paint. In the mid-1970s he discovered a new, quick-drying medium for his oil pigment and was able to paint with greater abandon. He would load his brush to generate great drags and swirls of paint across the surface of the board, or lay successive thin glazes of paint over one another. In mid-size paintings he continues to demonstrate such technical sophistication. But in many of the smaller paintings of the past decade, loading and layering has been replaced by an economy of means. He has been producing oil paintings that have the translucency of watercolours, evoking the lyricism of a dying sun, the eerie silence of a mist or the fury of a summer storm.

In some recent paintings, layering and obliteration have been replaced by absolute restraint. Hodgkin holds back from making a mark until he is certain that it will be of the right size, density, fullness and hue. Often, the mark will stand unadulterated from the moment that the brush leaves the surface until completion. Such technique demands complete awareness of the potential of each possible mark, a knowledge won only after decades of battling with the medium and the brush. Early works would emerge from the studio after years in which constant refinement and exclusion were recorded through heavy layers of paint.

The revisions that mark the passage of time became part of the narrative. Now, the board is left covered and untouched, while the artist paces the studio and contemplates how to move forward, not through a series of false starts, but by means of a controlled sequence of jabs, drags and strokes, or in one deft flourish.

The development of a more controlled application of paint, at times sparing and at other times wonderfully free and explosive, has been matched by a steady broadening of Hodgkin's range of subject matter. He was brought up in a tradition of portrait and still-life painting that placed value on likeness patiently recorded from life in a series of sittings. The physical appearance as well as the character of his subjects are evident in the sensuous allure of Brigid Segrave (1961-62), in the female nude in Afternoon (1959-61), or in the erect, willowy figure standing by the window in Small Durand Gardens (1974).

However, his early paintings were never simply portraits demonstrating likeness. Hodgkin quotes with approval Stéphane Mallarmé's invocation: "Don't paint the thing itself; paint the effect that it produces." In a further break with his art-school training, the most characteristic early Hodgkin work records an encounter with an individual or couple, not in a studio but in a social situation. The subject crystallises at a moment of dynamic exchange.

Typically, these gatherings of friends and associates occur in a confined space, a drawing or dining room, sometimes a bedroom. Very often the scene in such paintings is a fragment. It may be a garden, as in A Small Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden (1975-77), a building, such as in Grantchester Road (1975), or a stretch of coast, as in In the Bay of Naples (1980-82).

It is a fragment caught, as if by the click of a shutter, at an instant of social engagement and heightened awareness of self. Hodgkin is a great admirer of Degas, whose own compositions were often influenced by his interest in the way in which the camera arbitrarily frames a scene and unconsciously captures the relationships between people and objects. Hodgkin's subjects frequently have an air of being conversations or scenes caught in mid sentence, glimpsed through a half-open door or arrested in movement. There is an impression of time suspended, a moment at which something has just happened, or is about to occur. Are these intimacies intended for our gaze?

As early as the 1970s, and noticeably following Hodgkin's visits to India, the place of the encounter, and not simply the character of the sitters, began to assume a growing importance. Meetings with people remain the trigger, but memory of a particular moment is increasingly conditioned by the physical appearance of the location. In paintings like The Terrace, Delhi (1967-71) or Coming Up from the Beach (1970-72), the painter of portraits has become the painter of architecture and of nature. The building and the vegetation begin to frame and contain the people to the point at which they become the dominant element in the memory of the moment. Eventually, he discards the "props" of sitters altogether. Bombay Sunset (1972-73) is a painting that prefigures much of what was to follow a decade or more later. Here the frisson of social exchange has been replaced by the direct experience of a powerful physical phenomenon recorded at a moment of heightened emotional and sensory awareness for the painter.

This is not simply a painting of a highly charged sunset conveying the burning heat of India, but a record of a spectacular sunset on a certain day. The painter has perhaps also chosen to commemorate that smouldering sunset because of the circumstances in which he witnessed the phenomenon, just as we associate some places with a particular person or event in our lives. Like Hodgkin's earlier portraits, Bombay Sunset is a painting that records a given moment not by describing, but by creating a visual equivalent for a very particular landscape or scene.

Recalling an event or meeting, it is often a memory of the conditions of light that first helps to fix the scene in our mind. We remember the fall of light through a window, the illumination and shadows cast by a lamp in a darkened room, the brilliant and unexpected sunlight of a spring day, or the dark grey clouds of a summer storm. It is the ambient light that helps to frame and sharpen our memory. In Hodgkin's mature paintings, a sensitivity to light plays an increasingly significant role in shaping the work. And with light come the principal forces controlling levels of illumination, time of day and weather.

For those of us living in temperate northern climates, weather is an essential component of our lives. This is especially true for the British, living on an island exposed to weather fronts that roll across the Atlantic, picking up moisture as they travel. Rapid shifts of cloud cover, the variation between seasons, and the consequent and astonishing differences of light within a given day, or even hour, shape our lives and our moods.

Hodgkin is named after a distant ancestor, Luke Howard, whose studies of cloud formations and weather patterns were so influential on Constable and other plein air painters in the early 19th century. In recent years, Hodgkin's pictures have recorded extremes of weather. He paints in turn an ethereal mist, broad sweeps of driving rain, the blast of a strong wind, the violence of storm clouds and the fiery hue of a setting sun. In Hodgkin's work serenity is rare. Anger and jealousy are passions more evident than contentment and calm.

The changes in his art over the past 20 years may be attributed to his increasing willingness to display emotion in a way that is rare in its disregard for propriety and embarrassment, and his paintings have gained in depth and resonance from his apparently fearless willingness to risk disclosing self. He has never been detached in his observation of others, but his recent paintings are most revealing, not of the emotions of his ostensible subject, but of the sensations and moods of the painter himself.

Hodgkin has always been a master of scale. His early paintings may have seemed perversely modest in size at a time when ambitious artists were working on large canvases that transformed the traditional relationship between the viewer and the easel painting. However, such is the sophistication of his mark-making that reproductions are often very difficult to read, in terms of understanding the actual size of the work. Small works can appear large, given his avoidance of a precise description of the subject, or the use of a broad brush in relation to the size of the board. Who would guess from reproduction that Antony's Blue Palm (2002) is a small oval, less than 30cm across?

In the mid-1980s Hodgkin also began to explore the larger format. In works such as Rain (1984-89), Snapshot (1984-93) and most recently Undertones of War (2001-03) and Come into the Garden, Maud (2000-03), the increase in size has given him the breadth to explore an effect, a sensation, or an emotion, which it is difficult to imagine his achieving in a small format. In these larger works our physical relationship with the painting changes so that the space perceived is closer to the space experienced. In Come into the Garden, Maud, the eddies that cause a flurry of leaves and changing patterns of dappled light, shade and colour seem to engulf the viewer.

Hodgkin has always been acutely aware of social relationships between people, physical relationships between objects, and the way in which we both shape and are conditioned by our surroundings. In the domestic interiors that he inhabits, the relationship between the utilitarian and aesthetic purposes of objects may appear to converge. Has that utensil or chair been chosen because it performs well or because of its particular shape? Is its position hanging on the wall or its place in the room determined by convenience or composition? His abiding interest in the way in which his paintings are placed on the wall or installed in exhibitions is an empathetic demonstration of this regard for the power of the object as a presence in the world.

In his studio, Hodgkin reveals completed paintings, one at a time. There is an element of theatre in his method, but the motivation remains his belief in the capacity of a framed, painted object to capture both the tangible and intangible sensations that we retain from a fleeting experience. For Hodgkin, painting is a process of distillation that encapsulates the essence of being rather than the anecdote of description. In contrast to other painters who might produce a series of paintings on a single theme, every painting is the product of a different group of ingredients that come together in a singular statement, literally a "one-off". This, perhaps, explains why his paintings are often best seen, as in his studio, one at a time. But a large exhibition also has other rewards, allowing us to make comparisons and trace the evolution of his practice.

Taken together, the increasing subtlety and energy of Hodgkin's work over 50 years demonstrates that painting remains as vital and versatile a means of expression as ever.

Howard Hodgkin, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8869; www.tate.org.uk/britain), tomorrow until 10 September, exhibition catalogue available from Tate Publishing, priced £24.99

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