One Day It Will Be Enough, by Stefan Kuiper, trans. Beth O'Brien

Vrij Nederland, 28th August 2010

One Day It Will Be Enough

Howard Hodgkin

“One day it will be enough.”

Interview, Vrij Nederland, 28 August 2010:

Howard Hodgkin, éminence grise of British painting, has a show in Tilburg. “There’s no more time for dawdling. I’ve got to hurry up.”

by Stefan Kuiper

In 1940, when Howard Hodgkin—son of an air force officer—was eight years old, he and his family were evacuated to America: a formative experience. “We arrived in New York by boat, and the first thing I heard was Home on the Range, an American folk tune sung by Roy Rogers. To me, that song has great nostalgic meaning. It evokes the sense of danger present on the eve of World War II, but also the sense of security in family life.”

We talk in the restaurant of Museum De Pont, where a selection of his recent work is on view. Hodgkin, a stocky man in a wheelchair, has short white hair and ice-blue eyes. Having had a good night’s sleep—Hodgkin tires quickly—he looks fresh, even lively, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the easiest conversation partner. His responses come slowly and sometimes consist of no more than a resolute nod. When he does talk, the flow of words often falters because the memory of a late friend or an event from his childhood affects him too much. Added to that is the exhibition: a continual source of distraction. Time and again, Hodgkin sits up in his wheelchair to watch the progress of art handlers in the next room. He expresses his contentment with the installation. The light at De Pont, cast in from above, reminds him of his studio in London. “In artificial light,” he says, “my paintings always die a bit. They lose their punch.”

Paint as the petite madeleine

The eye-catcher of this exhibition, mainly comprised of loans from private collections, is  Home, Home on the Range (2001-2007), named after the song from Hodgkin’s youth. A work in four parts—epic, spanning an entire wall, displaying a range of his painterly qualities— it has the strength of a Renaissance altarpiece. The first panel shows Hodgkin as we know him from the retrospective catalogues: paintings full of commotion, wide brushstrokes in which the texture of the bristles remains visible, intense colors (lime green, lemon yellow, dark purple) that compete for attention like parrots in a cage. It is the type of painting which automatically prompts associations with the 1950s and 60s: feverish, manic, an ordeal for the eye and an assault on good taste. No fraction of the surface remains unused. But as the series progresses the paintings become increasingly agile and playful. Things begin to lighten up. The last work (And the Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day) is composed of nothing but forcefully applied green brushstrokes. It has the freshness of a lawn just mown.

Home, Home on the Range constitutes a key work: Hodgkin’s development as a painter converges here. In the past, until about ten years ago, he worked on the basis of personal memories, and his paintings bore titles such as In Paris With You (1995-1996) and In Raimund Stecker’s Garden (1998-2001). His art was private, confessional; as though all sorts of intimate acknowledgements could be found among the enigmatic forms. Those paintings were highly personal theaters (the broad, paint-spattered frame resembling the entrance to a stage) in which the painter brought his memories to life. Paint had become Proust’s madeleine.

Hodgkin’s new work is different, less private. That can be discerned in the titles—Lawn, Big Lawn, Sky—but also in the form. The small and intimate panel Leaf (2007-2009), for instance,  involves no more than a single sharply curled sweep of thinned green against a background of plain wood. And Mud (2002) is a unprepared plank covered with wide strokes of green and grey. Though it consists of practically nothing, somehow this little picture effortlessly gives rise to associations with landscapes and shoals, or an approaching storm. These paintings are more suggestive than Hodgkin’s earlier work, less insistent, and consequently better. The difference resembles that between people who give energy—Hodgkin fondly refers to his paintings as a cast of characters—and those who take it. Between inhaling and exhaling.

The question is whether the painter himself sees it that way. Hodgkin nods eagerly when I present him with my interpretation. That new approach to the work, he says, has to do with added confidence (“I used to be afraid of boring the viewer”) but also with a new method. “Painting, to me, meant plodding away endlessly. I spent entire days turning things around and around in a painting. Plenty of pentimenti were carried out before I felt satisfied with the work. At a certain point I had had enough of that. It became too strenuous, especially with my difficult knees. Nowadays I work differently, with circumspection, more like a chess player. I’d say that about ninety percent of the time in my studio is spent on a contemplation and analysis of the work, and only ten percent on actually painting it. So when I sit there staring at the wall, I’m in fact hard at work.” His eyes twinkle mischievously: “Explaining that to my assistants took quite some time.”

What English art world?

Howard Hodgkin (1932) has had a long and bumpy career. He grew up in a family where a career as an artist was equated with a one-way ticket to the gutter. “My father once bought one of my paintings; but when he arrived home with it, my mother didn’t want it in the living room.” Then Hodgkin fell into the trap of teaching. “I loved it too much. That meant: total exhaustion.” And he had ambitions as a modern artist in 1940s England, a place which he says was distinctly hostile toward modern art. “An American once asked me about the English art world. I said: ‘What English art world?’ During the 1950s England had no modern art world. All we had was a group of young experimental painters who sold little and got bad reviews.” Not until the 1970s did the tide begin to turn: the American abstract expressionists (Pollock, Rothko, Still) had been successful and left room, in their slipstream, for like-minded British painters. “Contrary to London, New York had many patrons and collectors of modern art. They were buying my work.” Now too, Hodgkin suspects that the British still find it hard to acknowledge painters. Conceptual work like that of Damien Hirst is okay by them. But painting makes them uneasy.”

No time for dawdling

Today, at the age of seventy-eight, Hodgkin has celebrity status—he has won the Turner Prize (1985) and was granted the Order of the Companions of Honour (2003)—but this hasn’t given him reason to slow down. Every day, after a breakfast of poached eggs devotedly prepared by his long-time assistant Andy, he walks to his studio nearly opposite the British Museum and works on his paintings. “Some artists start taking it easy when they get older, but I can’t imagine doing that. I’m seventy-eight, and death could be waiting just around the corner. There’s no more time for dawdling. I’ve got to hurry up.”

Hodgkin allows his words to sink in for a moment and continues with an anecdote. A friend of his, the Pop Art painter Patrick Caulfield was given a major exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London just a few years prior to his death. Hodgkin went to the opening and found his colleague in a state of collapse amidst his own paintings. With tears in his eyes, he kept on repeating the same lament: “Not enough, not enough.”

Hodgkin shakes his head. His mouth quivers with emotion. Does he recognize such feelings of inadequacy in himself? He nods. “When I walk through the rooms here, I see a beautiful exhibition and Hendrik [Driessen, director of De Pont, SK] has been very generous, and yet it’s still not enough.”

Does he mean that literally? “Indeed, also. But there is something else; something more difficult to pinpoint. Do you know that passage from Faust in which Faust decides to say ‘stop!’ to the moment? But he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t say stop. He says: ‘Bleibe doch, du bist so schön…’ That’s how I feel when I look at my paintings—that I can’t say stop to the moment.”

Is that a frustrating thought? After all, if it’s not enough now, then perhaps it never will be. Then, for the first time during our conversation, a smile appears on Hodgkin’s face: “Listen, I may be old, but I’m not planning to die any time soon. One day it will be enough—that I know. Until then, I’ll keep on painting.”

Howard Hodgkin, ‘Time and Place’, De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg,

through 16 January 2011.

translation: Beth O’Brien

from: Vrij Nederland, 16 October 2010