Red Sails

Howard Hodgkin
Gagosian Gallery
Through December 23, 2011

James Lord once wrote of Proust that "he realized, if ever anybody did, how the recapture of time gone by can create an infinite future." This pursuit of memory, both vivid and buried, has been depicted by painters quite often in the form of the sea. Jackson Pollock's "Full Fathom Five" (1947), with its skeins of watery paint covering the detritus of the studio (keys, coins, cigarettes, and so on) like buried ocean treasure, stands as one of the prime examples of such work. Howard Hodgkin's recent paintings extend this "search of memory" further. 

Hodgkin paints deceptively simple oceanscapes -- two or three swaths of color separating water from sky and surrounded by plank-like pieces of wood, rough-hewn, like pieces of sunken ships. In his seascapes he presents allusive fragments of scenes remembered, experienced long ago, and partially obscured by time. "Egypt" (2007–08), "Wine-Dark Sea" (2010), and "After Whistler" (2010) [shown above] present simplified, painterly strokes done with little hesitation, though with much aforethought, which suggest, rather than accurately describe, specific times and places where the artist has traveled. Rather than working "from life," Hodgkin spends a great deal of time in preparation for his encounters with his found supports (plywood, driftwood, vintage tabletops, and so on) and then attacks them with color, in great, sweeping strokes. He has remarked of his work, "I don't think you can lightly paint a picture. It's an activity I take very seriously." This, in essence, is the heart of the work. Though he may spend years in preparation, contemplating a painting, his concise gesture makes the final work look deceptively simple. His maximalist gestures, saturated palette, gestural stroke, and theatrical framing create scenes that both suggest his experience and trigger our own memories.

Remembrance is, in principle, inexhaustible; the key to such a process in a work of art is not inscribed on the surface of things but is found, instead, in the intersections where the materials and the artist's gestures affect our own histories. The Impressionists created such pictures in their own manner, as did Giacometti, Pollock, and Johns. Hodgkin continues this tradition, generating impressions of places that vary with subsequent events and viewings. His inclusion of the frame into the picture plane has the effect of drawing us further into his imaginary world. The tangible surfaces -- aged, weathered, and patinated with use -- supply further material that he uses as a form of collage.

In the largest work in this exhibition, "Where Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word" (2007–2008), a bright green "sky" suggests an inverted landscape. The mottled paint handling says "grass," as well as "sunset." Hodgkin playfully alludes to how things may be distorted in our memories over time, some things being obfuscated, whereas others are clarified. On a deeper level, though, the painting has a more universal theme. On an atomic scale, everything is connected. Each particle in a human body was once part of a star, itself a residue of the Big Bang. On a subatomic level, everything is guided by four essential forces (the strong force that binds particles together, the weak force that disintegrates them, gravity, and electromagnetism). In essence, we are composed of a universal pool of elements. When viewed from far away (in time, or space, or memory), things get very confusing. It is the dual role of the artist to invent new ways of seeing and to record the past -- exploring the lost horizons of memory. - Bradley Rubenstein

The Gagosian Gallery is at 980 Madison Avenue, New York, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.


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