Art Chronicles: A Trip to the Mayfair Triangle …

Cross Regent Street into Mayfair – having first fortified yourself with a short latté and cinnamon bun in the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square – and immediately you’re in a world of high rents, high fashion and ostentatious money. [If you’ve ever played Monopoly you’ll know what I mean.] And now, more than ever there’s art. That’s art with a hefty price sign and a capital A. There were always small and slightly exclusive galleries along Cork Street and its neighbours; and, of course, there’s the Royal Academy, recently much-expanded, to the south on Piccadilly. But in recent years the big movers and shakers in the art market have moved in with a vengeance. Hauser and Wirth – who have galleries in New York and L.A., Hong Kong, Zurich and Gstaad – and on a farm in Somerset – now have a double gallery on Saville Row, across from West End Central Police Station [and just a little way up from where my good friend, the late Tony Burns, laboured in the tailoring trade.] Gagosian, with galleries in Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Geneva, New York, San Francisco and Beverley Hills, have opened no great distance away, on Grosvenor Hill; and Victoria Miro, having previously been in Cork Street, returned to Mayfair in 2013 with a gallery on St. George Street, immediately behind Sotheby’s on Bond Street; this is in addition to a vast double gallery converted from a former piano factory between Hoxton and Islington in North-East London and an intimate canal-side location in Venice,

Our first stop on this particular morning is at Hauser and Wirth, where one gallery is currently showing work by Swiss artists from the 1930s to the present day, curated by Gianni Jetzer; the other has an exhibition of photographs by August Sander, Men Without Masks. My guide and companion, who has previously visited both, suggests we leave the Swiss for another day.

August Sander’s central ambition was to create a picture of Germany in the first half of the last century, doing so in the main through a vast number of portraits which ranged widely across class, occupation and gender. His basic method was to photograph his subject full-on, often against a neutral background, and in the majority of cases with the subject looking back directly into the lens. It suggests a kind of neutrality, removes any too obvious trace of the photographer himself, allows the subject, as it were, to own the picture, command the frame. This is me: this is who I am. Well, that’s the illusion, that’s the idea – Men Without Masks, indeed.

Almost all the examples of Sander’s work I’ve seen previously have been quite small in scale and what is exceptional about this show, which is on till July 28th, and makes it especially well worth visiting, is that these, in the main, are in a larger, full-scale format.

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Man of the Soil

 

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Member of Parliament

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Sisters

You don’t have to spend long with the work to be conscious of the influence Sander had on photographers who came after him; on Diane Arbus, on Walker Evans. Nor, looking a the portrait of the ‘peasant woman’ below is it hard to see the inffluence on Sander of artists like Cezanne.

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Peasant Woman

Moving on, the current show at the Gagosian [till July 28th] is Howard Hodgkin’s Last Paintings, comprising the final six paintings he finished in India before his death in 2017, and twenty others not previously shown in Europe.

I remember – and how’s this for a brazen display of one-upmanship and name dropping? – a conversation I had about Hodgkin with Geoff Dyer some twenty years ago, when we were travelling by coach across Romania as part of a British Council delegation of writers. I’d been luxuriating in having an open ticket to the exhibition of Hodgkin’s work at the Hayward Gallery, making the point quite strongly that the more opportunities I had to see the paintings, stand in front of them and look at them properly, the more I liked them. Ah, said Geoff, well I think I feel precisely the opposite.

Which shouldn’t have been enough to make me revise my opinion, though I suspect that it did – or, at the very least, got me to consider the possibility of revising my opinion, which, in fact. I think I did in time, and might even have done so without Geoff’s prompting. I was certainly feeling pretty agnostic by the time of the Time & Place paintings shown at Modern Art Oxford in 2010, though my positivity was partly reclaimed by some of the later pieces  in Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017.

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“Patrick in Italy” 1991-93

While remaining to some degree resistant to Hodgkin’s frequent assertion that his work is representational rather than abstract, there’s perhaps enough in a painting such as Patrick in Italy (above) to agree that it works on a level partly of metaphor, partly a gesture (well, several) towards a kind of representation. [Oh, Lordy! Is that what metaphor IS anyway? Discuss. Or, better, don’t.] And actually, I don’t too much care. I’m responding on a level outside the purely intellectual. Like most of Hodgkin’s best work, the painting’s appeal is overwhelmingly sensual. It’s about the paint and the way it’s applied. About colour. The richness of colour. [No wonder he was obsessed with India.] It’s the richness that wins one over; the sensuousness of the texture, the brilliance of the paint, the warmth, the – yes – the sexuality of it.

The other painting that stopped me in my tracks at the NPG was this …

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“Blue Portrait” 2011-12

One of my favourite pieces in the show and, as a portrait, for that’s clearly from the title what it claims to be, 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. Loved it then – sorry, Geoff – love it now. And the paintings that I most enjoyed at the Gagosian were of the same ilk, shared many of the same components: they were small, smaller than the rest, unfussy, simple – the richness that made pieces like Patrick in Italy so close to overwhelming, so irresistible, has been reduced to this. Urgent. Quick. Two compatible colours overlapping. Late work. Among the very last.

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“Darkness at Noon” 2015-16

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“Don’t Tell a Soul” 2016

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“Over To You” 2015-17

Which leaves the final destination on our tour of Mayfair: Victoria Miro. And first, another small back story. In 2016 my partner gave me as a birthday present [78th, since you ask] the catalogue for Women of Abstract Expressionism, a show organised by Denver Art Museum and due to travel from there to Charlotte, North Carolina, hence to Palm Springs and finally to the Whitechapel gallery in London in the summer of  2017. Oh, my God! Those painters – Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Krasner, de Kooning – whose work I have long loved and admired, all too often at a distance, along with more than a dozen others from the 1940s to the 60s. I could not believe it. And I was right not to. For whatever reasons – and when I asked, they  played their cards politely close to their chest – the show would not come to the Whitechapel. Which made it all the more exciting when Victoria Miro advertised Surface Work – “a celebration of women artists who have shaped and transformed, and continue to influence and expanse, the language and definition of abstract painting.” Perhaps this would fill the gap left by the missing show from Denver?

Sadly, no. For one thing, there was relatively little from the period when abstract expressionism was at its height [The curators should get some kind of award for sourcing the only Joan Mitchell that could be described as dull] and much of the work on display in the twinned galleries on Wharf Road was more recent, some of it contemporary, and to my  eyes not very good at all. An argument, rather, in favour of the point of view that it is nigh on impossible to create something original and worthwhile in abstract expressionism now. That moment has gone. The only artist who claimed my attention favourably was Elizabeth Neel, with a piece of work created especially for the exhibition. I can’t show it here, but these images give an idea of her style …

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“American Standard” 2009

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“Fixtures Morning to Evening”

So it was that I arrived at St. George Street with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Could they have been saving the best for last? Uh-huh.

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Helen Frankenthaler: “Winter Figure with Black Overhead” 1959

There it is, smack in front of you as you enter. Not the rich, stained, echoes of landscape Frankenthaler, but energetic, darting – skating – quick and alive; unlike anyone else and so immediately recognisable. And she’s in smart company.  To her right, a painting by Alma Thomas, who was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – though even then she had to wait until the age of 80 – and whose work was shown in London recently as part of the excellent Soul of a Nation show at Tate Modern. Thomas moved into abstraction relatively late in her career, and here are two examples, not from this show.

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Alma Thomas: “Fall Begins” 1973

 

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Alma Thomas: “Orion” 1973

On the wall to Frankenthaler’s left is “End of Winter”, a strong, dark, swirling painting by Betty Parsons, better known for running the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which she did from 1946 to 1982, but clearly no mean artist herself.

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Betty Parsons : “End of Winter” 1958-59

And beside her and instantly, I think, recognisable for the brownish-orange colour palate and the heavy use of line, an oil and paper collage on canvas by Lee Krasner …

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Lee Krasner: “The Farthest Point” 1981

There’s more, and we look at it but fleetingly; this, I think, is a good place to stop. My companion assures me he knows where there’s a Pret large enough that we can be assured a seat even at what is now the busiest time of the day. And as we head out I’m already tossing up between the normally dependable, and relatively cheap, egg and cress or maybe the also dependable but more expensive chicken and avocado …

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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

 

 

 

 

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

Birthday Poem for Howard Hodgkin

 

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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

This poem appeared in Bluer Than This (smith/doorstop, 1998) and, perhaps oddly [I imagine it didn’t tickle the editors’ fancy] failed to find a place in Out of Silence,  last year’s New & Selected (smith/doorstop, 2014). Shame, really.

But Happy Birthday, Sir Howard, 6th August 2015! Great work, sir! 83 years young.

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