Art Chronicles: Howard Hodgkin – Absent Friends

I’ve always taken with a slight pinch of salt, Hodgkin’s assertion that his are not abstract paintings, but representations; representations, if I’ve understood him correctly, of place, people and emotions. Sometimes this works, it seems to me, sometimes it doesn’t.

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Howard Hodgkin: Going For a Walk With Andrew 1995-98

In the case of Going For a Walk With Andrew its easy enough to see the green infused orangey yellow as the land being walked and the varied shades of blue as the sky above. What of the figures (?) in red and pink bending forward slightly at one side? The artist and Andrew?  Objects in the landscape? Ephemera? Trees?  Emanations from the spirit world? If this is representational painting, it is so at its more basic; if it is abstraction, it is abstraction as fused with landscape painting as in the work of Helen Frankenthaler or Joan Mitchell.

In its current exhibition, Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends (till June 18th) the National Portrait Gallery seems only too aware of the need to hedge its bets. Portraits? Mmm, maybe. On the day I was there, there were quite a lot of confused people walking round the gallery, looking, some of them I suspect, for something that isn’t there. The exhibition, the NPG says in the very attractively produced handout, explores Hodgkin’s development of a personal visual language of portraiture, which challenges traditional forms of representation. Quite. And one would have to say that, as paintings, as works of art, the stronger that challenge, the more successful, more rewarding they are.

The early pieces on display here, painted between 1960 and 67, and under the influence, in part, of pop art, strike me as clumsy, almost self-consciously ugly. Unsurprisingly, the more mature the work, the finer the result, and there are, I think, some of Hodgkin’s very best paintings here, ones in which he has found a way of marrying representation and abstraction with a richness and complexity and a brilliant use of colour that repays repeated and prolonged viewing.

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Howard Hodgkin: Patrick in Italy 1991-93

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Howard Hodgkin: Portrait of the Artist 1984-87

The ambiguity that exists in the work, as the wall text in the gallery suggests, is one of its strengths, combining, as it does, (and I’m paraphrasing here) literal description with metaphor, within a situation that is not immediately recognisable. This is sensuous art and should be enjoyed as such: don’t strain for meaning, let the meaning, the emotion, come to you.

Near the end of the show there’s one of my favourite pieces, one almost entirely given over to metaphor. Two broad brushstrokes, swipes, if you like, down and across a piece of wood, Hodgkin’s memory of Selina Fellows, standing at the bar in a brilliant blue dress at the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in 2006. The painting was made in 2011-12. I love it.

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Howard Hodgkin: Blue Portrait 2011-12

 

 

 

 

At Monk’s House …

Virginia, that is, not Thelonious. I’ve showed these photos on the blog before, but seeing Patti Smith’s black and white photographs of Monk’s House at Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday, along with others – Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, for instance – which she took in the course of a literary tour, or tours, of the country, I was prompted to post them again.

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling
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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

 

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

On Reading … & Walking …

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve had a book on the go – one after another – an unbroken chain from Winnie-the-Poo to Salman Rushdie. There are so many left behind here in my grandmother’s bungalow; publication dates to span her entire life. Every evening after I’ve eaten, I make myself open one and read, for a while, and then lay the book down spine up on the sofa cushions at the page where I stopped.
The trick to keeping going is break going into bursts: to stop, and otherwise occupy my brain for a spell, and then start going again. Nowadays I apply this to my whole day long. Each is a succession of shallow occupations, enforced intervals. Even my sleep is only ankle deep, interrupted.
Sarah Baume : A Line Made by Walking, William Heinemann 2017

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Richard Long : A Line Made By Walking, 1967

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Art Chronicles: America After the Fall

The excellent little exhibition of American painting now showing upstairs at the Royal Academy in The Sackler Wing begins, chronologically, in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and ends in 1941, the year that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States entered the war. From the beginning of the Great Depression to what would lead, at the war’s end, to a period of relatively wide-spread prosperity. Nothing like a good war, as the US was discovering, to perk up the economy.

Not surprisingly, it was a period of great upheaval, marked on one hand by the devastation of the Dust Bowl and the consequent western migration and on the other by the opening of the Empire State Building and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The art on display – much of it emanating from the Art Institute of Chicago – echoes this disparity, riven between nostalgia for the past and visions of the future that are themselves divided between optimism and dread, between realism and modernism.

If only for the presence here – liberated from Chicago for the first time – of his famously enigmatic American Gothic (the stoicism of the rural past admired or ironised?), Grant Wood is a key figure here, the rolling golden hills of plenty of his early work giving way to the impending disaster of Death on the Ridge Road, where the telegraph poles evoke not only Christian cross but, to my mind at least, the use to which such crosses were put by the Ku Klux Klan, and the devastating portrait of conservative white supremacism evoked so chillingly in his Daughters of Revolution.

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“Death on the Ridge Road” Grant Wood

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“Daughters of Revolution” Grant Wood

Hopper is represented here, of course, and – though only in one example – Georgia O’Keefe, and there are markers laid down for the explosion of Abstract Expressionism that was to follow the war’s end: both Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston with paintings that were clearly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which had been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the museum itself having opened ten years earlier.

Of all the works on display there were four that excited me most and which have engraved themselves most strongly into my memory. William H. Johnson’s vibrant Street Life, Harlem, with, for me, pre-echoes of Spike Lee and friend strutting his stuff in the latter’s Malcolm X.

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Charles Demuth’s … And the Home of the Brave, which seems to take one of Charles Sheeler’s architecturally correct representational images and flatten it against the picture plane – my eye being drawn back constantly to the top left hand corner.

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And finally, thrillingly, two works by an artist I was sadly ignorant of before, Arthur Dove, one of which can be seen below: Abstract Expression here we come.

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“Swing Music (Louis Armstrong)” Arthur Dove

 

 

A Day in the Life …

Now my days alone have a certain shape to them  – I wake about nine, turn on the symphony and have juice, fruit and a pot of black coffee. Read a bit (still Gide’s Journal), talk on the phone – to Richard [Miller], or Frank [O’Hara] – sometimes Mike [Goldberg], or others. The three or four, sometimes five hours on this canvas – it hasn’t begun to come yet, but I keep thinking of things to do.
Then a few d0mestic chores for myself, a cold shower, a cold hard boiled egg and one or two rums with Rose’s lime, more reading, more records. Tonight I meet Frank at the Cedar for dinner, then to the late showing of “East of Eden”.

The Journals of Grace Hartigan, July 1st 1955

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Grace Hartigan at the Five Spot, sitting opposite Frank O’Hara, with Larry Rivers to her right.

Howard Hodgkin 1932 – 2017

I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.

It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a  question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?

Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.

Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …

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Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.

And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot

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After Corot

‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

untrammelled
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

Walhalla

It’s difficult, visiting the current exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the White Cube, Bermondsey, not to be overwhelmed. It’s not just that the individual pieces – sculptures, paintings, assemblages, vitrines – are, in themselves, large and powerful (the power to some extent deriving from their size) it’s the way in which  Walhalla takes over the  gallery more or less in its entirety. Step past the woman handing out the obligatory Health & Safety guide lines – If you accidentally touch the works, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly … Small children must have their hands held as a number of works have hard, rough edges at a potentially dangerous height – and immersion begins.

The central piece, from which the exhibition takes its name, runs the length of the central corridor,  bare bulbs overhanging rows of folding beds, empty save for heavy sheets of crumpled lead. The aftermath of a disaster, a terrorist attack? Are we in Aleppo? Mosul? World War Two or is it Three? An institutional dormitory, the gallery notes suggest, military sleeping quarters or battlefield hospital. As we weave cautiously in and out, damp and already somewhat depressed by the foul weather outside, I catch myself thinking, not too flippantly, of some not-too-distant outpost of the NHS.

At the far end of the corridor a much enlarged black and white photograph shows a single figure walking away into a barren winter landscape. The artist, making a break for freedom, free to give us his interpretation of the world? The hero of some dystopian novel, the last man left standing? Perhaps both …

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Walhalla : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]

Keen as ever to gouge out the horrors of his country’s history, Keifer’s paintings yoke together Nazi architecture and Norse mythology, portray vast landscapes in which towering buildings are being eclipsed by flowering clusters of blueish grey, corrosive and beautiful.

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Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

One room is given over to a single piece, a spiral staircase rising up into the roof, discarded clothing and strips of film hanging from its railings; its primary inspiration, according to the gallery notes, the ascent of Valkyries as they lead those killed in battle to Valhalla; to me, the Holocaust, genocide of European Jews in World War Two.

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Sursum Corda : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]

Step into one room given over to a single installation and it is like stepping into Kiefer’s storeroom –as the title says, his arsenal: trays and boxes of paper, paintings, a myriad of things; old broken prams, machinery; strips of film that hang everywhere, film rendered, like so much else, into lead; a safe containing papers that have been burned and all but destroyed, another that remains locked and impossible to open; a version of Thor’s anvil that is displayed in another room. All of this, Kiefer seems to be saying in  this exhibition, all of history, memory, mythology, is my life, my work … your world.

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Arsenal : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)]

The exhibition continues at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 12th February.