Courtesy Howard Hodgkin/
Art / Abstraction

The Color of Feeling: The Life and Work of Howard Hodgkin


Courtesy Howard Hodgkin/

Regarded as “one of the greatest artists and colorists of his generation,” Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin was born on August 6, 1932, in Hammersmith, London. He knew early on that he would be a painter. It was a fitting aspiration for a child surrounded by countless sources of creativity and innovation: his family—illustrious Quakers who belonged to the intellectual aristocracy in Great Britain—included friars and bishops, poets and politicians, groundbreaking scientists, Nobel Prize winners, and Hodgkin’s namesake, Luke Howard, classifier of cloud formations. Restless, inquisitive, and adventurous, Hodgkin took after his relatives. At age eleven, he ran away from his boarding school, St. Andrew’s, Pangbourne, in order to pursue a career as an artist. Although a policeman promptly returned him to the academy, it was only the first of many attempted getaways from the various elite institutions he attended during his adolescence.

As a teenager, Hodgkin studied at the Eton College Drawing Schools, where he befriended his peers and professors and experimented with a range of techniques, media, and subjects. He left for the United States in 1948, where he lived with friends and painted Memoirs, one of his most remarkable early works that is representative of his emergent style. Described as “personal and intense,” Memoirs (which is painted on wood—Hodgkin never worked with canvas) depicts Hodgkin’s American hostess reclining on a sofa, her head presumably beyond the frame and her enormous hands an unexpected focal point, while a man sits stiffly beside her, unnervingly thoughtful and vigilant. Scenes such as this one Hodgkin termed “emotional situations,” staged at especially pivotal or erotic moments; even the most abstract of Hodgkin’s paintings can be read as variations on this central theme of drama.

Additionally, it is evident that Hodgkin used a ruler to create the lines in this piece, as both the figures and the space they occupy are rendered with straight, angular exactitude. His mathematical precision defines all aspects of the painting. The detailed setting of the room, the peculiar composition, and the carefully-contrasted palette of flamboyant colors are elements of convention that would recur in Hodgkin’s later works. Embedded in Memoirs are the origins of his distinctive “artistic language.”

Hodgkin returned to England after only a year and enjoyed a period of several milestones. He was accepted to Camberwell School of Art and subsequently the selective Bath Academy in Corsham, had his first showing of paintings at a gallery in Bath in 1952, married fellow Corsham art student Julia Lane in 1955, and became a father to two sons, Louis and Sam.



Courtesy Howard Hodgkin/

Although Hodgkin found it difficult to receive recognition in London—and described the city as “enemy territory” for artists—he remained hopeful and diligent, dedicating himself to his craft. Art critic Richard Morphet wrote that in these years, Hodgkin “deliberately set about relearning painting and enriching his vocabulary so as to enable each painting, through more flexible, less literal forms…to contain substantially more.”

It was not only his own work that he scrutinized. Hodgkin had begun collecting, forging friendships with international connoisseurs, and developing an eye for Persian and Indian art. In 1964, he made his first trip to India; he would return annually thereafter. Hodgkin was immediately enamored, and the influence of these visits soon manifested in his art: his subsequent paintings were increasingly fusions of Indian light and European abstraction.

Like many of Hodgkin’s pictures from this time, Gardening is a portrait, painted of his wife Julia. The influence of India, with its bold heat, color, and illusionistic pattern, is unmistakable. While the image possesses qualities of Pop Art and the Situation Movement, it ultimately defies classification (much like Hodgkin himself, who never belonged to any movement or school). In this piece, Hodgkin, who once declared that he had never painted an abstract picture in his life, has added dots, curves, and irregularity to his ever-evolving “artistic language,” a mode of communication that can be initially incomprehensible in its complexity. “He never painted a picture which did not have a subject,” says Tate curator Paul Moorhouse. “He couldn’t paint a picture if it wasn’t about something. It was the language he used, of visual experience, emotion and memory which, yes, was unfamiliar…People have to get on his wavelength and when you do you realise how rich it is.”



Courtesy Howard Hodgkin/

In 1966, Hodgkin began teaching at the Chelsea School of Art, and in 1970, he became a trustee of the National Gallery. The decade that followed was one of radical personal transformation, which is reflected in pictures such as Nick.

Nick is one of Hodgkin’s first prints, a view through a window at a man, the cloud-shaped figure on the right side of the frame, blurred in the midst of taking off his shirt. Other than the “Hodgkin hallmark” bands of color (in this case, dark blues and greens), Nick is a departure from the artist’s standard set of conventions and signifies an unprecedented loosening of form. The marks and shapes have been softened and relaxed, the colors run and blend. Likewise, the subtle traces of eroticism in Hodgkin’s previous work are no longer restrained. This piece is imbued with a new, overt feeling of sexual tension and desire—the viewer must watch the subject longingly, resigned to peer in from outside—that has since been interpreted as homoerotic. Nick was produced when Hodgkin was 55 and coming out as gay to his closest friends and family. His children now grown, he made the decision to leave his wife as well as his teaching jobs, which he had relied on to support his family, and embarked in pursuit of true fulfillment.

Hodgkin immersed himself in his duties as a Tate trustee, organizing installations and curating exhibitions, and he became a prominent fixture of the performing arts scene in London, designing sets and costumes for dozens of major productions. As he became better known, his work grew more expensive, especially after art dealer Larry Rubin took charge of its marketing and circulation.

As Hodgkin embraced a more satisfying, dynamic existence, his paintings, too, seemed more open and exuberant. An essay written by Hodgkin’s friend Bruce Chatwin aptly describes the painter’s freer style: “In his most recent pictures, the [subjects]—though they still exist under layers of paint—are overwhelmed by dots, splotches, flashes and slabs of colour, recording situations or impressions that Howard, in his new persona, has witnessed.” Hodgkin had realized his ability to evoke human presence through art. His propensity for acutely capturing moments and memories “resulted in paintings that radiate the emotions of life: love, anger, vanity, beauty and companionship.”


As Time Goes By

Courtesy Howard Hodgkin/

At this point in his career, Hodgkin had, according to The Independent, “hit his artistic stride.” He curated an exhibition of Indian contemporary art at the Tate, won the 1985 Turner Prize, worked on a variety of unusual commissions (among them a mosaic mural for the Broadgate swimming pool in London and the 64p millennium stamp for the Royal Mail), and was honored with retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. He had become a prolific global artist.

In 2009, Hodgkin’s As Time Goes By was unveiled at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London. It is an ambitious masterpiece, considered to be the largest print ever made, consisting of two five-panel pieces layered with acrylic paint, aquatint, and carborundum embossing. In Hodgkin’s words, the result is both “sad and cheerful at the same time.” Unlike many of his other works, which are based on a single memory or conversation, As Time Goes By seems to draw on hundreds of experiences, amassed over the course of Hodgkin’s lifetime, the threads of his past, present, and future conflated by color.

When asked about his inspiration for the monumental piece in an interview for the Phillips Collection, Hodgkin replied, “I think it’s the feeling that I’m going to die at any minute.” Here he pauses to glance up at his paintings on the walls surrounding him, and for a moment, he is far away, suspended between the dimensions of time in his work. But then he continues, “I want to get this off my chest first.”

*    *    *

Howard Hodgkin passed away on March 9, 2017, at the age of 84, just weeks before the opening of the first exhibition devoted entirely to his portraiture. The show, “Absent Friends,” will run from March 23 to June 19 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.