British artist Howard Hodgkin, 79, at the installation of 23 of his paintings… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from San Diego —
At 78, Howard Hodgkin has slowed a bit, requiring a wheelchair lately to move about, but he remains quick as ever to speak his mind and, judging by the San Diego Museum of Art's exhibition of his recent work, compelled as ever to paint the wealth of memories and sensations that occupy it.
The London-based artist appeared proud as he surveyed the show, before its opening in late January. He scoffed mildly, though, at the "innocuous and rather silly title" — "Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place." Rather generic, he lamented, even if it does point to the specificity of his work, its grounding in the observations, experiences and emotions of particular moments.
Historians haven't always known what to do with Hodgkin, where to situate him beneath the chapter headings of 20th century art. At one point in the early '90s, his work appeared in two nearly simultaneous exhibitions, one tracing postwar British abstraction and the other surveying 20th century British figurative painting.
"People want to categorize me," he says with a laugh, light eyes twinkling under the eaves of his wiry, grizzled brows. "It's always irritated a lot of people who'd rather I was one thing or the other." Because all painting is essentially abstract, arguing about such definitions "is usually a waste of breath and a waste of ink," he says.
Hodgkin paints landscapes, portraits and still lifes that rarely describe space and form literally but instead evoke corresponding emotional conditions. His works constitute a sensual diary of his travels and relationships, the views he's savored, the blossoms and sunsets, shifting weather and changing seasons. Streaks, swipes, slabs and dabs of color, usually lush and saturate, distill his interior life onto a succession of wood panels. Notes to himself, the paintings also constitute a running conversation with other artists: Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Giorgio Morandi, David Hockney, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ellsworth Kelly, Samuel Palmer and more.
Critics, like historians, have been divided. Some have lauded Hodgkin as a "master of significance," praising the work as gorgeous, painterly, earnest and clever. Others have come down hard on Hodgkin's style, ruling his color vulgar and his approach facile and vain. Hodgkin has spoken often and publicly of feeling misunderstood and underappreciated (the New Yorker's Anthony Lane pegged him as a "natural-born Eeyore") especially in his native Britain, despite a career bearing all the conventional marks of success.
He has been exhibiting steadily, internationally, since the early 1960s. In 1984, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, and the next year he was awarded the Turner Prize. A retrospective in 1995-96, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Dusseldorf, Germany. Another in 2006-07 appeared in Dublin, London and Madrid. In 1992, Hodgkin was knighted.
"Time and Place," featuring two dozen paintings from 2000 to the present, is the artist's first exhibition in San Diego. (Meyer Fine Art, a gallery not far from the museum, is concurrently showing a selection of Hodgkin's prints through Feb. 26.) SDMA is the only U.S. stop for the show, curated jointly by the three participating venues — Modern Art Oxford, De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg (the Netherlands) and SDMA.
Julia Marciari-Alexander, the San Diego museum's deputy director for curatorial affairs, had met Hodgkin in 2005, when she was working at the Yale Center for British Art, and immediately felt like family. After co-organizing a show of his work there in 2007, she embarked on another the next year, upon landing the job in San Diego.
"You don't leave Howard," she says. "He's an incredibly generous and captivating person. It's really an intimate encounter, with the paintings, the person, the whole."
Hodgkin has another connection to San Diego that goes back even further. In 1990, the museum took possession of the Edwin Binney 3rd Collection of Indian paintings, more than 1,400 pieces spanning 800 years and every region of the subcontinent. Ellen Smart, SDMA's first curator of South Asian art, had known Hodgkin since the 1960s, not just as an artist but as a serious collector of Indian painting himself. She spoke, at the start of her six-year tenure at the museum in 1991, of her hopes to exhibit his work, his collection or both.
Hodgkin's collection of approximately 100 paintings — "It's been culled and culled, again and again," he says — has been featured at the British Museum and is on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Hodgkin knew Binney only slightly but while in San Diego spent time studying the Crayola-heir's collection.