Published  05/07/2006

The enigma of Howard Hodgkin

Recently, the vociferous television commentator, Alan Yentob, in an interview with Hodgkin, tried to crack the code of silence within which Hodgkin justifiably enwraps himself and his work. Even Yentob had to give up. A leading female critic tried a different tack, setting up a kind of 'swoon-o-meter', which sought to measure how often viewers at the new exhibition at Tate Britain could be seen to swoon and gasp at the beauty of the works, which have also enthralled Susan Sontag, Bruce Chatwin, William Boyd and James Fenton. So it is partly a literary thing, and words, or titles, do play a part in triggering the swoon. There is also an ulterior motive in the planning of the show that is concerned with how Hodgkin lost out a bit in the 1960s, positioning him belatedly in the wider world of Donald Judd, Jasper Johns and maybe Frank Stella, so saving him from a cloying English sweetness. Critics in June have been bemused and less than wholehearted in welcoming this agenda. With some 64 paintings on show, three of which are new works, this is the best opportunity so far to examine the mysteries of Hodgkin. As one critic wrote, 'When he's good ... but when he's bad, he is obscured, overwrought and over-praised'. Hodgkin, however, now has a guaranteed place at the high table. Chatwin once tried to explain Hodgkin's personal life and how it affected his art - but he chose an insuperable quest. Studio International will review the current exhibition during July.

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