Howard Hodgkin: What's in a name?

It may be a dancer, or a UFO: without the title you'd never guess the subject of a Howard Hodgkin painting. And Tom Lubbock likes it better that way

Monday 07 April 2008 00:00

Is Howard Hodgkin a conceptual artist? Well, as every Hodgkin-lover learns, his paintings encapsulate intense episodes from his personal life. But then, as every Hodgkin-lover finds, the translation of paint back into life isn't straightforward. There's a gap between the painting you're looking at and the experience it's supposed to hold.

There's a gap, quite simply, between the paintings and their titles. It's like the kind of mind-stretching or mind-blanking gap that you find in conceptual art. Francis Picabia named a spatter of ink The Holy Virgin Mary. Michael Craig-Martin named a glass of water An Oak Tree. Hodgkin once named a slather of bright paint Learning About Russian Music. Only connect?

The new Hodgkin paintings at the Gagosian Gallery near King's Cross in London don't have their titles stuck on the wall beside them, and when I went to see the show, ahead of its opening, the check-list you pick up at the entrance hadn't yet been printed out. Of course, it was possible for me to find out what the titles were but I decided to put it off, and just look for a while.

It made me realise that normally when I look at Hodgkins, after absorbing their initial impact, I always do make a lurch for the title – and then the rest of the time is spent trying to get the title and the painting into synch. Marcel Duchamp said a painting's title was "another colour on the artist's palette", and that's how I tend to treat a Hodgkin title – not as a label, but as an essential ingredient of the work. But what happens if you leave them out?

Plenty. I'm looking at quite a large picture, whose dark brown ground is covered with a dense swarm of those typical Hodgkin dab-blodges, in red and orange and red-brown. Or, rather, the right hand side of it is very densely crowded with strong bright dabs, which overlap and press forwards and hold the picture surface. But on the left side the swarming gives way, with sparser and dimmer dabs; there's a big falling back into the depths. Then, on the left edge, the swarm gets strong and upfront again, making the falling away into a contained incident.

You have a feeling of a sinking opening, like quicksand, or intense concentration and sudden dispersal, as with flocking starlings or rain getting heavier and lighter. There's a pulsation of bright-dim, strong-weak, advance-retreat, and the main action of the picture, its visual-visceral hook, is in the acceleration, the well-judged suddenness, of this fade. If I had to make an emotional association, I'd say something like "swoon" – though left to myself, I possibly wouldn't make an emotional association, I'd stick with the visual-visceral force of it. As for anything being depicted, however subliminally, that didn't occur to me, though I'm as prone as anyone to seeing pictures in the fire if there are any to see.

But now I'm looking at another painting, with the same dimensions, hung next to it, which is one of those Hodgkins where a very broad surrounding frame is made part of the work. The frame is a warm brown. The rectangle inside it is a deep dark something. And covering both is another swarm of dabs, all yellow-green. This swarm is even, with no changes of density, and quite spread out, each dab fat and isolated and sharp.

The main incident is within the dark internal rectangle: some of the dabs have been wiped across while wet, making a swirling eddy of unfocus. It's a twinge of softness, of lost clarity. You can take it as something visual, a movement blur, or something physical, a smear or flow, but it has a shape to it, a calligraphic twirl, a fluid doodle.

Again, if I go for an emotional association, I come up easily enough with some kind of squirm or wince or tremor, something breaking the surface, a moment of surrender, being carried away. But again, as for depiction, nothing specific – though sometimes Hodgkin does use greens for the green organic world.

There are 19 paintings in the gallery, and I cannot do them all like this. Some are more representational than those two, with clear intimations of receding bands of landscape, sea, sky, cloud. Some (a style of his old age?) are painted very rough, loose and agitated, as if Georg Baselitz had lent a helping hand.

I prefer the ones that aren't too rough or too representational. There's one with an area of crimson-pinkish dabs, within a light grey frame, and a grey curve intruding into the middle of the dabs – phallic? – with the pink around it all blurred and smudged. There's one where an area of dark dabs, with a reddening rectangular border, is occluded by a broad blurt of green, like an obstruction blocking the view.

And there's the one with a great, slanting, erupting-interrupting stroke of orange and black, cutting off a whole corner, which I couldn't help treating as a spinning UFO, though knowing full well that it could not possibly be a UFO – though, heck, if Sir Howard did actually see a UFO on one of his holidays, then maybe he'd make that experience into a picture too.

Anyway, these kinds of pictures, with a basically abstract action, but still quite tightly defined, seem to me the best sort of Hodgkins to get into a relationship with. It's a bit of a challenge to say what's going on, but the challenge can be met. You can grasp their visual event or drama. You can translate it articulately enough into the language of the heart. And all that without any titles.

But I do not agree with the painter Julian Bell when he says that "the titles are preposterous. How can a jumble of colours communicate, as Hodgkin claims it should, the private memory he labels Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi?"

True, one has no idea, and the picture will never inform you, what that occasion was like. There is a gap – but it isn't unbridgeable. The title gives you a prompt, a focusing pointer. With a little imagination you conjure up the sensations and emotions of the dinner party; and then, with a little association, you connect them to the dazzling confusion of that painting.

Still, you may prefer to do without this extra colour on the palette. Going round the Gagosian show, I was at first tempted to look the titles. But after a while I found I wasn't. I was putting the knowledge off for as long as possible. The information was there, in an unbound catalogue. I didn't want it. Making my own associations, adding my own titles (so to speak), was good enough.

How do you know that Hodgkin himself doesn't add his own titles after the paintings are done? The subject, the experience, is supposed to be there from the start, but how do you know it doesn't change mid-picture? How do you know that there ever was an actual experience? Because such intensity could only be founded on fact? Come, now. It's one thing to say that the paintings have a strong emotional content. They do. But the true-life experience stuff is a kind of conceptual game we enter into.

And now's the moment to open the envelope. The red-and-orange quicksand one is called House. Eh? So that sinking feeling is maybe a doorway? And the green-yellow blur one is called Garden. Greenery, yes. Oh, House and Garden, I see, same size, and a twosome. Some kind of weekend at somebody's house in the country? The pink one is Blushing. OK. The one with the big green obstructing swipe is Self-Absorption –not bad. And the UFO one is called Degas' Russian Dancers, which hadn't remotely occurred to me, though there are other Hodgkins "after Degas".

And then there are four very big, very rough landscapey ones. They're called Home, Home on the Range, and Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, and Where Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word and the Skies are Not Cloudy All Day, which I wouldn't have imagined in the wildest dreams of parody. They're titles that even Duchamp and Picabia might raise their hats to.

Howard Hodgkin, Gagosian Gallery, London WC1 (020-7841 9960), to 17 May

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