The colourful life of Howard Hodgkin

The Times

March 22, 2008

Sir Howard Hodgkin bobs towards me like a cork floating on a choppy sea. He is limping, hobbling. While waiting for him to emerge from his afternoon rest, Andy Barker, his assistant, showed me a collection of Hodgkin’s latest paintings, the subject of his first show of new work in London since 1999. The artist’s studio, a huge, white converted dairy with amazing light, is set behind his Victorian townhouse on a road near the British Museum. There is a central bank of scrap and materials, a table of brushes, a basement with shelves of books and two dusty armchairs. Barker conducts a massive game of show and not-much-tell, sliding canvas covers that conceal the paintings this way and that, and deflects the most innocuous inquiry – “How long does he work for in a typical day?” – with a “He’ll talk about that”. I wouldn’t be so sure. The 75-year-old Hodgkin, one of Britain’s most pre-eminent artists, doesn’t describe his pictures; they are “representations of emotional moments”, daubs and swooshes of bright, dramatic colour with titles such as Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom and Degas’s Russian Dancers. Their shapes and details rarely directly allude to their titles.

Many interviews with Hodgkin mention that he is reticent and intimidating, and he is widely reputed to be irascible and a bit of a pressure cooker. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Galleries, says: “He is highly emotional. It is not difficult to make Howard cry, but it is not an affectation. His emotions are very close to the surface and are there in the depth of colour he uses in his paintings.” Certain subjects seem off limits – no one writes about Hodgkin’s private life, beyond recycling that he was a married father of two when he came out as gay in the late Seventies. Last year, the critics gave him a kicking for a career-spanning retrospective at the Tate, so it’s surprising that he’s entering the fray again with this show. But he’s “exacting”, as he puts it, and determined to gain recognition, which amazingly he doesn’t feel he has, despite his public, if not critical, popularity and the large sums paid for his works.

Some of the pictures take years to complete, like Ozone, which he started in 2004 and finished only last year. Serota tells me Hodgkin can sit for “hours, days, weeks” planning each painting. Four new works (Hodgkin has still to complete the fourth) are taken from the chorus to Home on the Range, a cowboy song he heard when he was eight. I ask Barker (tuftyhaired, utterly discreet) if he enjoys working with Hodgkin. “Very much. I can’t unravel the mysteries of him. Twelve years is a long time, so I must enjoy it.”

Hodgkin is dressed in black with close-cropped white hair and has a rich, honeyed, lugubrious voice. He won’t say if he’s happy with the new works (“That would make me a hostage to fortune”), but admits that he has been working hard. Why? “Old age,” he shoots back. “I think the time comes when you think, ‘Well there’s not much time left.’ When I was your age I thought time was endless and suddenly it becomes clear that it’s not.” We’re getting deep very quickly. Does he consider his own mortality? “Yes. I don’t have some terrible medical reason or anything like that. It’s just that there are so many things I want to have done and I haven’t done them all.” Julian Barnes, his good friend, has sent him a copy of his new book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, which is about death. It sums up Hodgkin’s attitude, too.

He wants to do “better work”, and “more expressive” work specifically. This is said so laceratingly that I ask if he is hard on himself. “I think all artists are. That’s not unusual. It sounds very egotistical, but I think I mind what I think more than perhaps what anyone else does.” As he ages, he dislikes “losing control, which of course happens. I haven’t so far lost any physical control of what I use when I’m working, but I can’t walk as far as I once could.” And the hobble? “I’ve been ill,” he says. “Do I look frail? Two years ago I lost my balance, which was a very unnerving thing. I was in a house in France and the floor was concrete. I was leaning on a marble table. I slipped and hit my head on the floor. My balance has mostly come back but not completely.”

Even when he’s having his daily afternoon rest he still paints and repaints, “in my head”. But he is happiest in his studio. “A picture is finished when it is finished,” he says when I ask about the duration of some of his works. “In the end the paintings subsume the subject.” Will he take me through any of the events that have inspired these works? “That’s something I always avoid doing, because it doesn’t tell you anything.” The picture does the job? “Exactly.”

Hodgkin always wanted to be an artist. When he was eight and staying with relations on Long Island during the Second World War, he visited New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I was very happy. America was another world and I was a young boy.” He saw paintings by Picasso, Barnett Newman, Pollock and Matisse. The experience changed him. When he came back to England in 1943, “nothing was the same”: Britain’s wartime drabness was in stark contrast to the atmosphere of New York.  He was closer to his father, an art lover and plant collector, than his mother. “She wanted me to be a diplomat and I’m the most undiplomatic person you could want. I would have started wars and been totally useless.” There was no art in his family’s West London home; his inspiration came from teachers. On Long Island, his art teacher would hold up images from books and reproductions. At Eton he was taught by the “extraordinary” Wilfred Blunt, brother of Anthony, the Soviet spy. “He could have taught a programme of concentrated wickedness and we would have gone along with it.”

Hodgkin wasn’t an outgoing boy. He clenches his fists to his eyes. “I was withdrawn, but happy, muted, rather than outgoing.” His family history, which he was unaware of growing up, is blue-chip: his great, greatgrandfather’s brother discovered Hodgkin’s disease; two of his cousins were Margery and Roger Fry, the celebrated prison reformer and art critic.

Another cousin, Dorothy Hodgkin, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. Hodgkin was particularly close to Margery and her house was a riot of arty decoration and calligraphy on doors. “I wanted to become an artist, but it seemed impossible. My parents said, ‘You’ll never be able to earn your living. It will be ghastly. It’s much better to be an amateur.’ For me, unless you earned your living as an artist, you weren’t a real one.”

Hodgkin ran away from nearly every school he was sent to. “I remember being taken back by the police. One officer was very fatherly and said, ‘Why did you do this? Are they maltreating you?’ I said, ‘No, I ran away to be an artist.’ ‘Good for you’, he said. I hung on to that for some time.” His voice croaks as if he is about to cry. “I thought something would happen and it eventually did – I went to art school, which in my world was unheard of.”

The teachers, particularly Clifford Ellis from the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, shone out. Hodgkin himself taught for years – “a great trap for an artist as it becomes a substitute life”. He told his students “all sorts of things quite vociferously. I wanted them to take art as seriously as possible. Amazingly enough, they listened.” He was in his mid-forties when he had his first major New York show. “I remember the occasion when I decided to stop teaching. I was standing on the District Line platform at Paddington, looking down thinking, not that I was going to fling myself off, but that I was teaching too much. That I had a wife and two children to support and all the things that could make one carry on teaching for ever, but no. When I told Clifford I was giving up, he said, ‘I know what you’re going to say and I’m amazed it’s taken you so long.’”

In the late Seventies, the writer Bruce Chatwin said a change in Hodgkin’s painting style was down to a “new-found engagement with the erotic”, an intimation of the artist’s homosexuality. “That was Bruce up to his old tricks,” says Hodgkin. “Life isn’t that simple. There isn’t a before or after.” Did he know, growing up, that he was gay? “Yes I did, but I didn’t act on it very successfully,” although he did “a bit”. “It can take for ever for some people, even now, and for me, after being married and having two children, a different kind of guilt came pouring down afterwards.” Because he felt he was letting his family down? “Exactly. I only recently realised how many people had done the same. Fortunately, I don’t think a lot of gay people get into that situation now.” Did he remain close to his children, Louis and Sam? “Absolutely.” They were never estranged? “Never.”

I ask if he had fun, or lots of sex, after coming out. “Not as much as I would have had had I been younger and prettier. I was middle aged by that time and a respectable, ugly man,” he says. The commercial gay scene was a no-no. “I was too old and my preoccupations were different. I didn’t really experiment.” He met his partner, the music writer Antony Peattie, more than 20 years ago at a party, “like people always do”. Love at first sight? “I think it was after…” Four gin and tonics, I joke. “I think it was whisky and soda,” he says with perfect timing.

Hodgkin looks to Barker after I ask whether he and Peattie are a good match. “Yes,” says Barker, who is then bidden to get a postcard of a painting David Hockney did of the couple. They both look similar, I say. “But we aren’t,” says Hodgkin. His greatest gay achievement, he reveals, was persuading his friend Carmen Callil to publish Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in Britain. For someone who came out so late that’s a pretty heroic act of gay advocacy.

Hodgkin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1984, won the Turner Prize in 1985 and was knighted in 1992. But, he says, “recognition hasn’t come yet”. Really? What about the Tate retrospective? “Yes, OK, but I’ve never had the feeling that I’ve arrived. I was always sceptical. I never believe that it’s actually happened. I remember at my first New York show thinking, ‘I ought to feel this is it,’ but it never was. There’s always the next picture to paint. People think I’m ungrateful,” he says, his voice clotting slightly. “I’m not, but I always feel my best work is to come. When a great friend of mine had his first retrospective, he went around it, weeping very discreetly and said, ‘Not enough, not enough.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about at that moment, but I know now.”

Hodgkin emits a stifled sob and then says that “one day” he is sure a piece of work will be “good enough”. Does he get depressed or unhappy? “Oh, most of the time, when it’s another shit review.” Look above the house and you can see a black cloud, he says. He turns to Barker, who points out that Hodgkin will say, “I’m not going to paint any more” on a particularly bad day.

Much of his frustration is down to that critical pasting. “He’s just not that good,” was one response to the retrospective at Tate Britain. “There have always been too many things getting in the way: embarrassing, selfregarding and frequently silly titles, the obviousness of many of the paintings, their repetitiveness, the painful colour, the shipwrecked compositions… Quick, fetch a mop.”

“I thought they were rather malevolent,” says Hodgkin. “I was hurt. One never gets inured to it.” He has never considered changing anything in light of the criticism he gets, though. “They’ll just kick me in the teeth all over again. I’ll keep on trucking. Perhaps they feel I have been over decorated. I don’t. Artists are traditionally so kicked around.” Sir Nicholas Serota says: “He’s regarded as part of the establishment now, but for 20 years Howard ploughed a lonely course. He had to watch his close friends get all the acclaim, but he kept working and his work accumulated strength. He’s resilient when it comes to critics… The press like to cut down their tall poppies, but the new paintings are daring. He’s a great British artist.”

Would Hodgkin ever retire? “Oh, that would be wonderful. I would have beautiful staff looking after me… No, I can’t. Someone I know said that ‘YBA’ stood for ‘Why be an artist?’ I don’t know, but passion comes closest.” His remaining aim, besides renovating his house, is to be “taken seriously as a painter. People are too lazy to bother to look at what I do.” What should his detractors look for? “They should discard their preconceptions. I’ve done my best. I want them to do their best back.” He apologises for “talking a lot of rubbish”. I ask about the hobbling again and he lifts up a trouser leg to reveal a purple mass of discoloration on one knee, the result of a recent fall. “I had a blood clot in my leg, too. They’ve sorted it out.” A friend said he should have a stick: “They’re considered quite sexy in New York, but I’m not having one.” You must have to paint quite carefully I say, observing the canvases with their huge swooshes. Hodgkin offers a deadpan smile. “Well, you can see how carefully I paint.”