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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`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.

``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.''

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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.

For some reason people have often said his work is like Matisse's. He can't see the resemblance, and neither can I. What he has learned from Matisse is the need, in our time, for every painter to arrive at his own visual language - and also to be his own patron, critic, public-relations man, everything. Society, Hodgkin feels, leaves the artist little other choice, particularly in England.

His being lumped among the younger expressionist painters of the '80s is, in fact, somewhat questionable. He has himself (in an interview with David Sylvester) criticized alla prima, or ``direct,'' painting, because it ``doesn't contain enough. It only contains as much as you have time to put down.'' And with some of the younger artists today, there is an evident need for that kind of hurry and impatience. Not with Hodgkin.

He also makes the point that the comparatively small size of his pictures makes his work different from a great many other modern artists. His pictures are deliberately made to be seen from ``a fixed viewpoint.'' But ``very big paintings ... can be seen from anywhere; they can become a surface that you walk in front of. ... I greatly admire Jackson Pollock, but [his] is a kind of baroque use of the picture-space.''

IN recent years Hodgkin has been painting larger pictures, which have not yet been exhibited. The ``kind of intensity I need ... is, for me, very difficult to achieve on a huge scale.'' The trouble with large painting is that it is often rhetorical, declamatory, and public. These are scarcely Hodgkin traits. But he wants to paint larger pictures, he says, because ``I want to include more in my paintings.''

He is fascinated ``by the kind of space that is horizontal. There's a wonderful and remarkably primitive early painting by Vuillard - not one of his great works at all - which ... I've never forgotten. It was very long - an almost impossible format - and very shallow. It's got figures, talking, leaning against a mantelpiece, sitting on a sofa. ... Well, I one day want to produce a picture that has that kind of elongated space.'' But only if Hodgkin can keep ``the kind of emotional intensity'' he has in his present pictures and make the longer picture ``narrative,'' without ``falling out at either end.''

The ``frame,'' in other words, remains vital. For Hodgkin the mere picture-edge is never enough in itself for his kind of illusionism. He is very interested in trompe l'oeil - in the kind of illusionistic painting that tricks the eye.

The formal qualities of his work (which cannot be called either ``abstract'' or ``figurative'') are, of course, in an entirely different mode from paintings of dead game-birds or musical instruments hung in front of a wood panel. But he has the same interest in making the spectator accept an overlapping of forms, of spaces revealed or half hidden, of an illusion that turns the flat surface of a picture into something credibly tangible and three-dimensional.

It's a lonely business, he says, being a painter. The kind of concentration involved in finishing one of his works leaves him ``in rather a bad way.'' Exhaustive and exacting, Howard Hodgkin - though very much an Englishman - could hardly be further from the rather English notion of an artist as some kind of inspired amateur. Hodgkin strongly feels that his fellow countrymen have little feeling for painting. His own career is ``largely in the States.''

An American student said to him one time: ``You make us laugh and you make us cry, with extraordinary simplicity. How do you do it?'' Hodgkin chuckles: ``Nobody in England would suggest that you made them laugh and cry! I mean they wouldn't think that a painting could.''

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