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Each Hodgkin Painting Holds Layers of Pondering. English artist talks about how he captures fleeting feelings

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1989



LONDON

`MOST of my paintings are about very fleeting moments, or are very emotional - they're about feelings. And I think you need to make something very ... fortified to contain them.'' Howard Hodgkin, English painter, is talking about his art. I was asking about the way in which there is often a central image or space in his paintings that is surrounded by wide bands or movements of paint-color, acting like a heavy frame. Or else the paintings, which are always oil on wood rather than canvas, have an actual frame over which his colors range.

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``I've talked ad infinitum,'' he says, ``about how I want my pictures to be totally self-contained physical objects. Sometimes the subject is so ineffable - almost uncatchable - you need to make sure that, for the viewer and for itself, it is contained in something inviolable.

``I'm trying to think of a parallel. I can think of a really stupid one! Like the little urns in ancient Greece that were made to contain tears. If you think of the life of a picture in the world and what people will do to it, and where it'll be hung, and so on, it needs to be like a sort of clenched fist, like a safe jewel case.''

There is a jewel-like opulence in Hodgkin's paintings, a richness of light and color. The substantiality of his paint reinforces the sense of the picture as an object. His brushwork, vigorous and straightforward, is surprisingly luxuriant. But these things make for strength, not for preciousness. The image is always concentrated and bold, though not large by modern standards.

Hodgkin is talking with me in the flat he owns in Bloomsbury, practically in the shadow of the British Museum. He takes me down to see his adjacent studio, which tells its own story about his painting. Large white canvases lean against the walls. But these are not for painting: They are covers for the paintings that hang on the walls behind them. He lifts one away to show me a single completed picture.

It seems to expand beyond its own dimensions, bursting with color. Everything else in the studio remains hidden - as it does when he is working. He allows no distractions. One painting is worked on at a time. No background music.

He is a slow painter, a classicist by inclination. Each painting holds in it layers of pondering, of alteration, adjustment, reconsideration. But the freshness - the sense of images spontaneously occurring - is always there in the final image, even though it has been arrived at over a number of years, after long anxiousness.

Now in his late 50s, Hodgkin is not averse to the considerable recognition that's come his way. In recent years he has been lionized as a painter whose work addresses some of the ``expressionist'' explorations of the ``new generation'' of painters. Yet his painting hasn't undergone a radical change to bring this about; it has simply been found relevant to current notions.

There is a kind of fortuity in this. Hodgkin has always been a distinct individualist. He thinks it's pointless and unrevealing to search for influences of past art or relationships with other contemporary artists. He says, ``It's so hard, literally, to do one's own work. You can't look over your shoulder to see what X or Y is doing. It's a waste of time and effort.'' And at another point in our interview: ``I can't give myself a historical reason for existing!''

On the other hand, he has long collected Indian miniatures, and he periodically goes to India, mainly because it is so completely different from the West. Though he disavows any conscious influence of Indian art on his work, it's something he may sometimes notice after a painting is made - possibly a kind of osmosis that's easier for outsiders to see.