Emotions and memories are private, personal things. Nobody can tell us what or how to feel. Nor can anyone can make us remember what we have never experienced. Instead, we relive memories and the emotions associated with those memories by recalling fragments of scent, sound, color, touch and taste that ineffably, inevitably and ineluctably elude us.
Howard Hodgkin paints memories. He paints bold, powerful images that extract live emotions from the well of our individual memories. The current exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, the only U.S. venue to present an exhibition of Hodgkin’s works from the last fifteen years, is carefully arranged and balanced. Each painting delivers a distinct color and stroke presentation — some are heavy, others faded; some freshly wet, others dry; some show a sharp contrast of light and dark, others show smoothly blended, fleshy neutrality.
In his works Hodgkin evokes emotional situations, not simply emotions. This distinction, though subtle, is an important one. Susan Sontag, in her essay about Hodgkin, writes that the painter “is not licensing the attempt to read a specific emotion from a given picture, as if that were what the picture was ‘about.’” Hodgkin’s paintings are not per se representations of his particular emotions; instead, they provide the landscapes or frames for emotions from memory.
Hodgkin paints his images by recreating the colors associated with the emotional situation of his memories. Often, Hodgkin will simultaneously paint 15 works by working on one while the others dry; yet each time he turns to the next painting, not only will the memory of his emotions associated with that particular work have evolved, but also his palette. In each of his works, usually requiring years to complete, it is possible to see the color and stroke morph in each layer.
There is nothing to explain about the paintings, and there is no need for explanation. The titles themselves are more whispered asides than essential captions. Hodgkin’s titles for his works serve, more than anything else, as bookmarks in the collection of his memories. The paintings themselves, such as “Flowerpiece or Grief,” are standalone works that need no title — that is to say, colors need no title. It is not so much that Hodgkin’s paintings are abstractions that require figurative interpretation; rather, the paintings can elicit memories and emotions for the viewer simply through the force of their colors. His profound ease, understanding and control of paints makes Hodgkin a painter’s painter, or to others, a poet’s painter. Monikers and flattery aside, Hodgkin’s exhibition offers an instinctively visual journey for the layman, the gourmand and everyone else in between.
Hodgkin is a traveler’s painter. There is no rush or anxiety in his works, no need to seize particularly delicate moments in his memory. There are artists who try to capture memories as if there were photographs or scenes in a movie. Then there are those like Hodgkin who seem to focus their energy on experiencing the journey and letting the impressions rest naturally in the memory. Walking through the exhibition, the sequence of paintings took me through a gauntlet of my own memories and left me feeling emotionally sated and spent, with a formlessly familiar feeling of I’ve-seen-all-of-this-before. It seemed like too much to take in all at once.
There are no boring pieces. Each painting bursts with a unique blend of flavors in color — fluorescent oranges, luscious reds, voluptuous purples, nubile greens and soothing grays. The paint spills onto and around the frames. They vary in size: some are no larger than a mouse-pad and others hang like broad, imposing tapestries.
Hodgkin’s paintings in a word: Colorgasm. In two words: Multiple Colorgasms.