The Hodgkin Paradox, by Eric Gibson

Studio International, 14th March 1985

The Hodgkin Paradox

The Tate Gallery’s new and important Turner Prize was not awarded to Howard Hodgkin in 1984, but to Malcolm Morley, which, as Eric Gibson suggests from New York, raised a few eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic, concerning the criteria which a distinguished jury employed, or didn’t employ in reaching this decision. Was it a case of one painter against another, or did the lure of instant history demand the (temporary) return of a prodigal son? Gibson explains.

The passing over of Howard Hodgkin for the prestigious Turner Prize last autumn, in fabour of Malcolm Morley, was one of the bigger surprises of the season. Hodgkin, after all, is deeply rooted in the art establishment in his country, and his reputation has been increasing steadily since the early ‘70s. Last year, with his installation at the Venice Biennale and the touring retrospective that ensued, it seemed to have reached its latest peak.

Yet in 1984 Morley, too, enjoyed considerable recognition, having himself had had a highly acclaimed touring retrospective. Only, in his case, unlike that of Hodgkin, the result was to ‘bring home’, to insitutionalise one of the art world’s few remaining enfants terribles, to bestow recognition on an artist more celebrated among his peers than among the powers that be. Nonetheless, the passing over of Hodgkin raised many a question, the answers to which tell us as much about Hodgkin’s art as they do about the working of official taste.

Hodgkin is a little like the early modern painter Douanier Rousseau: an artist removed from the mainstream whose work (albeit belatedly in his case) is celbrated by the members of the mainstream. For years he worked quietly away, studiously ignored by colleagues and most of the art establishment. Like a disappointing schoolboy he was considered ‘too slow’ – it took him too long to paint a painting and too long for the painting, once finished, to reveal itself to the viewer. The product of some of that ‘slowness’ – as well as its virtues – was visible when the touring exhibition arrived at the Phillip’s Collection in Washington this October. Entitled “Howard Hodgkin: 40 Paintings’, it surveyed the last 11 years of Hodgkin’s work, produced in the years since his last retrospective – which toured only Great Britain – in 1975.

The current show is the more interesting of the two. If the earlier years saw Hodgkin, in hisown words, trying to ‘make a space’ for himself within the context of the art and art world of the time, the years succeeding – those covered by the retrospective – have seen a consolidation and extension of his position in that ‘space’. They have involved a gradual moving away from the clear, more constructed manner to one more loosely defined and more evocative.

This tradition is well charted in the exhibition, and illustrated by ywo paintings, one early and one late: Grantchester Road, 1977, and Interior With Figures, 1977-84. Both are interior pictures, the former is a rigorously rectilinear painting, its spaces clearly articulated, and its repeated verticals relieved only by dappled panes in the background and in the foreground a series of frame-hugging, exuberant arcs. The latter differs from its predecessor in every way: the space is paradoxically more open yet considerably less defined and, in contrast to the other which by restraint and absence of emotion reflects a palpable tension, Interior With Figures, exudes the sort of heated eroticism more common to late 19th century French painting than the aesthetics of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Yet throughout, Hodgkin’s narrative and formal concerns have remained constant: the recreation incidents or situations saturated with emotional resonacnce. He is fond of quoting Muriel Spark’s comment that ‘for an artist, time can always be regained’, and indeed this is a process of repeatedly returning to a moment in his memory until that incident has been rendered in all its complexity and depth.

His primary tools in the articulation of this vision are a deep space – the deep. The claustrophpoibc space of the paintings is a metaphor for the space of memory – lavish colour, and a pictorial language which does not so muchg describe as suggest, one whose vocabulary occupies a point midway between the object to which it refers and autonomously decorative form.

There are moments in all of this when hodgkin’s results are a little off key, becoming either too lush or too flat-footed. The Cylinder, the Sphere and the Cone, 1978-84, for example, (a reinterpretation of Cezanne’s famous dictum) is awkwardly illustrational, as though Hodgkin had reversed himself for once and had pressed a pre-existing vocabulary on to a pre-existing subject. Yet such a picture can also make us realize how good he is at evoking pure sensation.

For when all elements coalesce, Hodgkin’s pictures attain an extraordinary richness and force. The bottomless space, deep blacks and blazing yellows of Reading the Letter, 1977-80, brings to mind a sensation of brooding intensity which perfectly evokes the awkward personal moment that forms its subject.

Given this, why was Hodgkin, an artist of increasing stature and growing masterty of his means, passed over in favour of Morley who, for all his gifts, is an artist of far less depth and of uncertain temper – as anyone familiar with his work of the last few years will recognise?

Perhaps it is because, in his deeply personal emphasis on the recreation of subjective personal experience and his use accordingly of a near-abstract, highly subjective vocabulary Hodgkin is revealed as being involved with an order of experience at some remove from contemporary concerns, specifically one closer to the aesthetic concerns of turn-of-the-century Paris. This he tacitly acknowledges in his stated admiration of Vuillard, his increasing interest in Degas and his affinity with the quoted statemnt of Muriel Spark. It is this, I think, which disqualified him in the eyes of the jury.

Moreover, the clear appeal of Malcolm Morley was historical, for Morley is not only considered to have initiated the ‘Photo-Realist’ movement with his immacualately rendered enlargments of picture postcards, but he is more recently credited, along with the late Philip Guston, with having laid the groundwork for neo-Expressionism. Thus, his selection represented for the jury the opportunity to link a native with the cutting edge of contemporarty art. Such a linking could not have been made in the case of Hodgkin, whose selection, in as much as he remains unconcernedly aloof from the mainstream, might have smacked too much of parochialism, like singling out a member of one’s family regardless of the qualifications of others. And in an atmosphere increasingly heated with talk of post-Modernism, to have selected one whose artistic allegiances are firmly tied to an earlier phase of Modernism would have been taken by some as the endorsement of a retrograde tendency – a decision that would not have reflected nearly so well upon the judges as did the one they actually made.

If these conjectures turn out to be correct, they would go a long way towards explaining one of the more mysterious episodes of the last year, and prove once again that when it comes to official judgements, it is more often extra-artistic concerns rather than the work itself which wind up carrying the day.

Related Exhibitions