Viewer virtuosity and red herrings, by Tom Lubbock

Independent on Sunday, 16th December 1990

Viewer virtuosity and red herrings

At the Scottish National gallery of Modern Art there is a show of Howard Hodgkin’s Small Paintings 1975-89, 27 of them. He is famously a master of this format. It is hardly necessary now to say that his pictures are very beautiful, nor that, despite the roughness and garishness of the individual splodges and swipes which make them up, he is a paint – and colour – technician of great delicacy and virtuosity. But faced with paintings of an apparently abstract nature, a certain viewer-virtuosity is encouraged too, which consists in screwing up the sensibility and trying to say what, roughly, they are about. You feel so much better, just getting things a little clearer, and it is something that Hodgkin’s work particularly invites. And you are urged on, for one thing, by the artist’s frequent insistence that he is not an abstract painter.

On the other hand, the fact that his work is indeed full of representational inklings is a bit of a red herring. It’s plain enough, for example, that in Small Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden there is (in the background) a Moorish lump, hedged about with suggestions of topiary; and that, in After Corot, there is a vista of sky and water, or (elsewhere) an interior space of some kind, a rough indication of a reclining body, a leaf or a rainbow. But one doesn’t feel that this is meant to be important in itself; it seems to be only a matter of chance that these clues (which are not very informative about the visible world) made it into the picture; and often enough, in Alexander Street say, even a Hodgkin-accustomed eye won’t get very far with a literal reading. His sights are on some other kind of experience.

For the pictures do evidently have their sights on something, and concentratedly so. This is partly in the busy framing activity. The frame is generally broad and elaborate, and it is always painted. Sometimes the picture seems to spread on to the frame, sometimes the frame encroaches on to the picture, and the confusion of frame and picture is more than a conceptual teaser. It has its emotional implications. The experience (whatever it may be) is given an indistinct edge, it feels not quite capturable. And through denying a definite outside limit, the pictures insist upon their middles. This is emphasised by the way Hodgkin, though minimally representational, is highly illusionistic – a distinctive 3D effect, done through colour, where one stripe or set of blobs floats or jumps in front of another, and the layers of planes recede into a depth. Everything homes in upon something.

But what? You return for a hint to the titles, and realise they are not much of one. Venice Shadows; In the Honeymoon Suite; Waking up in Naples; After Dinner, Clean Sheets: they offer, typically, a location or an event or a phrase, but these one is to understand are not promises of a scene or subject, but occasions for or associations with the experience in question. It was that time in Venice when – or while we sat – or when I thought . . . and I felt . . . There is a general vacation atmosphere – the emotional Epicureanism of the holidaymaker, his connoisseurship of piquant moods and moments, his collecting of preservable visual, social or erotic experiences. One picture (not exhibited) is entitled A Small Thing, But My Own. And really that might be a portmanteau title for all these private glimpses. It’s rather like looking at somebody’s souvenir snaps, where you get the picture without the meaning it has for that person: except that, with Hodgkin, it goes the other way round. You get the intense meaningfulness, it is clearly a language of feeling, but without a clear idea of the experience behind it – nor thus of the feeling itself. It is not difficult to identify the mode of feeling involved (something intimate, transient, non-violent, elusive) – but as to what sort of feeling, one hesitates to say without a sense of introducing one’s own private associations. You had to be there; or, in fact, you had to be him.