Painting’s Emotional Site, by Alberto Fiz

Gagosian Gallery, 2013

Painting’s Emotional Site

For Howard Hodgkin, art is neither a form of escape nor an a priori hypothesis governed by exclusively rational principles. His work asserts its own existence without ever fleeing from a reality test. It sets itself deliberately in opposition to the dominant aesthetic process, which tends to distance itself from any kind of sensorial involvement, preferring instead to engage in a progressive sterilization. There are any number of gimmicks, from nihilism to kitsch, that seek to leave sensorial engagement behind, from the cancellation of the sign to the Mannerist reproduction of consumer products or historical objects in an aimless drift toward globalization. Hodgkin, on the other hand, develops a painterly investigation through his own research of the emotional site, while at the same time avoiding either self-referentiality or dogmatic implosion. His works take shape around a precise event, which stresses the physicality of his paintings and leads Hodgkin to define them as “things” or “objects.”

Rather than seek escape routes along the lines of idealist metaphysics or reassuring abstraction, Hodgkin’s painting inhabits and employs frames or wooden supports in various styles that he makes no effort to hide. Indeed, these found materials stand out all the more forcefully, especially in his most recent work, underlining the component of the sign in an aesthetic characterized by continuous layers where even used supports or those destined for the pulp mill are brought into play. Since 1960 Hodgkin has renounced the neutrality of the canvas in favor of a material with clear connotations that interacts with his color, either exalting it or providing contrast, in order to overcome once and for all the distinction between real and pictorial space. Abstraction [L’informe] challenges form with pauses, suspensions, and intervals, decreasing and increasing density, all rendered possible by a flickering and changeable color that appears to be in continual transformation. They are found objects, generally of small dimensions, destined to return a physical and emotional tension to space consistent with a kind of painting that questions the meaning of its own status and the truthfulness of a world that expects to be perceived. Hodgkin’s investigation is fundamentally autobiographical, a miniature diary that envisages the involvement of a self prepared to receive and incorporate images central to its own identity, images that are frequently part of his personal world. Hodgkin achieves all this without venturing too far into secret introspection but instead by putting experience in the service of the spectator, who feels liberated at last from any sort of inferiority complex with regard to a message that must be decoded. The artist’s self does not exclude but includes, and in this sense Hodgkin activates perception in terms described by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in order to indicate the reflexive act that allows the observer to become aware of his own sensations and overcome a state of inertia. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty reminds us, “Vision is not the metamorphosis of the things themselves in their vision, nor is it the double belonging of things to a large world and to a small private world, but it is a thought that rigorously deciphers the signs given in the body.”1

Hodgkin’s operation is finalized when he arrives at a linguistic synthesis where the artist is interested not so much in nature or in the appearance of things as in a residual experience, that which remains latent even if it constitutes the only real motive for a process where things, in their chaotic succession one after the other, tend to melt into nothingness. It is precisely on the liminal site of this disappearance that Hodgkin captures images of sunset, twilight, or snowfall, rendering them indelible in the form of their distinctive vestiges. Susan Sontag has defined such cases as “emotional situations,” referring to those events loaded with emotion capable of communicating content that goes beyond mere appearance.

In light of this analysis, it is worth rereading the reflections of Benedetto Croce defining aesthetic feeling: “Sensations and emotions are certainly aesthetic facts, when they are understood as intuitions; but, on the other hand, they have nothing to do with Aesthetics when they are intended as naturalistic categories. A feeling or an emotion, when it is presented in terms of naturalism or empirical psychology, is a complex, a jumble, a chaos of intuitive, intellectual, and practical moments: all of this together is intuition, reflection, impulse toward an end: I would say that it is the spirit altogether messy and impoverished.”2

While a vein of Romanticism is apparent in his thinking, Croce clearly distinguishes between an aesthetic and a naturalistic level, identifying the specificity of art as a form of catharsis, as a means of establishing distance from the world. Intuition presupposes the overcoming of empirical data; in this regard specifically, Hodgkin declared in an interview with David Sylvester his desire to allow himself to be run over by the image: “my pictures are finished when the subject comes back.”3

This apparently means that painting expects to be painted outside any mechanistic predictability or modular seriality. On closer inspection, it is clear that Hodgkin constructs a narration in progress through the sum of small landscape fragments fixed, like reliefs, on wooden supports in such a way as to create profoundly unstable spaces that do not seem to preclude the search for truth.

These intuitions, then, are filtered through memory, but, in the process, the remembered fact maintains an uncontaminated physical presence. In this way, Hodgkin’s work is able to establish a second-degree relationship with the image in which the subject of the painting is neither the landscape, nor any single natural phenomenon, but the sensory process defining them.

On the basis of an investigation into the signifier, what really counts is the reminiscence of the everyday, the memory of it that one experiences and then the way it settles into the deep structure of the painting. Even if it concerns an episode that seems unimportant or banal, Hodgkin, like Giorgio Morandi, exalts the capacity of the painting to unite or interact with the viewer.

All this is of fundamental importance in attempting to understand the specificity of Hodgkin’s research: if every form of impressionistic naturalism is predicated on the urgency of representation in such a way as to fix on the canvas a lyrical sensation provoked by an experience of landscape, Hodgkin acts in exactly the opposite manner, painting concrete situations, sedimented in time, and organized according to a mnemonic principle. Time and Place4 is the title of an emblematic recent exhibition based precisely on this logic, whereby time and place determine the uniqueness and the autonomy of the work, factors that do not however limit in any way the scope of its address.

What really matters, then, is painting and fixing the instant permanently, the moment at which the memory remains fresh, before time has managed to erase its unique flavor. In this sense, it is understandable that Hodgkin’s work often requires lengthy periods of gestation, even up to five or six years, for a process that has the artist painting and painting over again. A composition such as In the Train, for example, is dated 2002–09, whereas Saturday developed over a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, before it emerged completed from the studio. The reserve of memory obtained by displacing the present allows the artist permanently to fix various states of being in color. Hodgkin, in short, renders indelible that which appears precarious and evanescent.

“Will that memory—the ancient moment that, due to the attraction of an identical moment, has come from a far off place to move me and incite recollections in my deepest self—will it ever plumb the very depths of my full consciousness?” writes Marcel Proust in À la recherche du temps perdu.5 On a methodological level, there are several points of intersection between Hodgkin and the celebrated French author; both rely on and tap into involuntary memory, which is uniquely qualified to excavate those episodes believed to be lost. In this case, it is a question of a progressive liberation from the here and now (hic et nunc). Confronted with the recent works painted by Hodgkin, one has the impression that the basic problem remains the one described in the interview with Sylvester connected to the anticipation of an event as it becomes a painting, leaving its trace on the surface, almost unaware of its own artifice:

I start out with the subject and naturally I have to remember first of all what it looked like, but it would also perhaps contact a great deal of feeling and sentiment. All of that has got to be somehow transmuted, transformed, or made into a physical object, and when that happens, when that’s finally been done, when the last physical marks have been put on and the subject comes back—which, after all, is usually the moment when the painting is at long last a coherent physical object—well, then the picture’s finished and there is no question of doing anything more to it.6

Hodgkin’s investigation absorbs time and, in doing so, rediscovers a diachronic lineage of painting that includes Piero della Francesca and J. M. W. Turner; John Constable and Paul Cézanne; Édouard Vuillard and Willem de Kooning. The work of art radiates slowly outward and participates in a vast collective rite in which citations invoke recollections of the various paths of representation, as memory has done for the perception of nature. We are in the presence of signifying objects, anxious forms that emerge out of the processes central to consciousness.

Hodgkin, moreover, interrogates his own visual impressions, which make him an interpreter of a feeling full of meaning derived from matter or landscape. Therefore, nothing could be further from abstraction than this concrete action with respect to the real. “One begins first of all with an object. Then the feeling comes. One does not begin with emptiness,” wrote Henri Matisse.7 His statement is completely consistent with Hodgkin’s process, which, through his stylistic approach, sets art free from an exasperated intellectual formalism obeying a postconceptual matrix and thus revitalizes a direct relationship with the visible. “What interests us are not only the reasons that we have for considering ‘uncertain’ the existence of the world,” states Merleau-Ponty. “What matters is precisely knowing the sense of being of the world; with respect to which we must not assume anything, neither the naïve idea of existing in itself, nor the correlative idea of being a representation, of being conscious, of being a man: these are all notions that should be reconsidered in light of our experience in the world, while at the same time being of the world.”8

Night,Meadow, Red Flowers, Moss, Deep Water,Rainy Evening: these are only a few of the titles of Hodgkin’s recent work that appear, unrhetorically, in their essence, like passages of a musical score composed of spaces and fleeting luminous effects, as if traced where warm flowing color, metamorphic and iridescent, takes the place of things, assuming their presence and restoring the substance of being. These events, only seemingly casual or incidental, suggest affinities with the terrestrial tremors provoked by Cy Twombly’s painting. It is an operation that seems ahistorical in contrast to a system that tends to abolish differences, creating immediately recognizable serial modules perfectly tailored to the expectations of a mediatized culture. But Hodgkin runs counter to this trend and, ever since the end of the 1940s, has firmly set himself against any sort of official recognition, silently reinjecting vital breath into things and objects that are often beyond the range of our annihilated gaze.

On uneven, happenstance, jagged, and imperfect surfaces, Hodgkin conveys his own pictorial signs, infinitely rich in suggestions and vibrations, where there appears, as in a mirage, the image suggested by his incisive and concrete titles. His works avoid prestabilized codes or intellectual conditioning within the scope of a painting in which a specific episode always maintains its own particularity while also representing a general overarching principle. No two autumn leaves are ever exactly the same, nor are there ever two identical, overlapping sunsets, but, at the same time, each person will see those two natural “events” differently according to his or her own experience, memory, and cultural background.

“You need to take in an awful lot for it to have meaning. What takes a long time is to give it meaning, to enclose within it emotions, feelings, and obviously a quantity of impressions rather than the single one that one might have been able to include in an alla primabeginning,” Hodgkin has stated.9 In Red Flowers(2011–12), for example, the white flees from the red, and the green stands out as the horizon line that stretches toward infinity; inDeep Water (2011–12), a vast range of blues gives us the hypnotic feeling of the inscrutable, whereas in Meadow (2012) only a few centimeters in the center of the wooden surface suffice to convey the metamorphosis of nature. Even Dark Cloud (2012), with its overlapping, layered, circular brushstrokes in green, brown, and yellow, leads us toward a precarious dimension, made yet more evident by the use of a fairly worn wooden board with stains and nail holes on its edges. In Weather (2009–12) and Spring(2009–12), apparently indescribable atmospheric phenomena are anchored to the painted surface as if the artist were, in that very instant, capable of capturing meteorological events and seasonal change. In the clarity of his brushstroke, forms fall deep into the abyss of pure painting. All the while, Hodgkin, like a pearl diver, waits patiently for the image to reappear.


1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Il visibile e l’invisibile (Milano: Bompiani, 2003), p. 32. Translated from the Italian by Peter Benson Miller.

2 Benedetto Croce, Problemi di estetica e contribute alla storia dell’stetica italiana (Naples: Bibliopolis, 2003), p. 457. Translated from the Italian by Peter Benson Miller.

3 Howard Hodgkin, interview by David Sylvester, in Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings 1973–84(London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1984), p. 97.

4 Howard Hodgkin. Time and Place,Modern Art Oxford (June 23–September 12, 2010); De Pont Museum and Contemporary Art, Tilburg, Netherlands (October 2, 2010–January 16, 2011); The San Diego Museum of Art (January 29–May 1, 2011).

5 Marcel Proust, La strada di Swann(Turin: Einaudi, 1998), p. 51. Translated from the Italian by Peter Benson Miller.

6 Hodgkin, interview, p. 97.

7 Henri Matisse, in Georges Roque, Che cos’è l’arte astratta? (Roma: Donzelli, 2004), p. 80. Translated from the Italian by Peter Benson Miller

8 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, p. 34.

9 Hodgkin, interview, p. 98.

© 2013 Alberto Fiz. Originally printed in Howard Hodgkin (New York: Gagosian, 2013).