Beyond the Surface

Although they appear as abstract celebrations of colour, the paintings of British artist Howard Hodgkin have stories to tell – but don’t expect any easy explanations. On the eve of his exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the artist is on fine form

‘When I had a big show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York years ago,’ Sir Howard Hodgkin reminisces, sitting in his big light-filled studio in Bloomsbury, ‘I tried to talk to the people who came to it as much as I could. One was a wonderful black lady who said, “Did you do these all paintings by yourself?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “My daughter thinks you must have had a lotta help.” I took that as a great compliment.’

Whatever she meant by that unexpected remark, it can’t have been that Hodgkin’s pictures look like hard work. This summer he has another exhibition, ‘Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place’, at Modern Art Oxford (23 June–5 September). The works on show, all from the past decade, will have an even less laborious appearance than the ones on show in New York in 1995. Though often his pictures take years to produce, these recent paintings look as though they were executed in a few fluent and rapid sweeps of the brush. It is true that those marks are all made by his own hand, not because he has an objection to studio assistance in principle, as he explains, but for more unfathomable reasons. ‘I’m not a great believer in autograph marks, but I’m stuck with them. It doesn’t work when I get people to do it for me. Years ago I asked somebody just to cover a surface with blobs for me. I had to wash them all off again. Something was just not quite right about them.’

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