‘I can’t say another word about the pictorial uses of colour except to paraphrase a letter I wrote to a friend long ago talking about a visit to Naples: “two or three smudges of blue and green paint rubbed into this wooden panel, and I begin to feel I am there”’
‘Obviously, my language of forms has far more than a physical purpose. Alone in my studio, working on my pictures, more than anything, I long to share my feelings’
In 1984, Howard Hodgkin represented Great Britain at the XLI Venice Biennale. Forty of his paintings were shown there, including such masterpieces as D.H. in Hollywood (1980-84) and Still Life in a Restaurant (1976-79), hung on walls painted Hodgkin’s favourite eau de nil green to diffuse the shimmering light of the lagoon outside. The exhibition later travelled to The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. Included in the show was Goodbye to the Bay of Naples (1980-82). A magnificent example of Hodgkin’s unmistakable mature idiom, this is a painting of a remembered feeling, existing in a hazy territory between abstraction and representation. It is an inquiry into how emotion can be represented in paint, and a jewel-like image of the vivid yet evanescent nature of memory. A heavy wooden frame is smeared with fiery yellow and orange tones, scalloped lengths of cypress green and rhythmic, deep black blotches. Within this frame – which has in fact become part of the picture – to the left are a linked pair of peach-ripe, sunset-hued circles that crackle with blood red. Centre stage is taken by a fantastic bar of bright cobalt blue. A glimpse of aquamarine behind this luminous stroke hints at Mediterranean sky, giving way to a flare of solar yellow, a turquoise zone feathered with yellow streaks, and a glowing right-hand corner of that sundown orange. Below, a new shade of blue carries glints of seafoam white, and is foregrounded by a phallic form of sage green fading into brown. In concert with the suggestive title, these vibrant, jostling forms bear clear figurative echoes: of landscape, sea and sky, of human bodies and erotic intimacy. The work was painted at a key time of transition for Hodgkin, who had left his wife in 1978 and would settle into a lifelong relationship with Antony Peattie in 1983; the related work Waking Up in Naples (1980-84) seems to affirm the Italian town as a place of sensual awakening for the artist. Yet such physical impressions are only part of an indivisible, holistic fabric of emotional reality, a highly specific state of feeling that the painting both records and transmits. As John McEwen wrote in his introduction to the Biennale exhibition catalogue, ‘All Hodgkin’s pictures can be thought of as the grit of some experience pearled by reflection’ (J. McEwen, ‘Introduction’, in Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings 1973-84, exh. cat. British Pavilion, XLI Venice Biennale / Whitechapel Gallery, London 1984, p. 10). Through the prismatic intensity of Hodgkin’s memory, we bear witness to an extraordinary coalescence of sight and sensation, of perception and passion.
Hodgkin’s incorporation of painted frames into his pictures is one of many striking originalities in his work, which falls into no straightforward artistic category. With support and paint forged into a unified whole, these brilliant, basically autobiographical paintings – and indeed the original feelings that sparked them – are transformed into autonomous, self-sufficient pictorial objects. There is a sense of Hodgkin fortifying his precious subject matter by reifying it, bringing it into the world, as solidly as possible: his labour is gradual and arduous, and the two-year gestation of Goodbye to the Bay of Naples is not unusual. Discussing his frames in 1984, Hodgkin observed that ‘The more evanescent the emotion I want to convey, the thicker the panel, the heavier the framing, the more elaborate the border, so that this delicate thing will remain protected and intact’ (H. Hodgkin, quoted in P. Kinmonth, ‘Howard Hodgkin’, Vogue, June 1984).
Appropriately, Goodbye to the Bay of Naples’ centre of radiant clarity is surrounded by a substantial tiered frame, its enclosure emphasised by the darkly luxuriant border of blacks and greens upon flickering orange. If this frame works to keep the memory ‘protected and intact’, however, it also figures a sense of loss and distancing, placing the bay of Naples forever just beyond reach. Perhaps we see not only the memory but also the act of recollection at work, as the cloak of obscurity disperses and the remembered emotional state is revealed – or, otherwise, we see this darkness closing in. As Susan Sontag has written, ‘All those titles with “sunset,” “autumn,” “rain,” “after …,” “goodbye to …,” “the last time …” suggest the rueful shadow cast on all pleasures when they are framed, theatricalised even, as acts of memory. Hodgkin may often be en voyage, but not as a beholder (the Impressionist project). In place of a beholder, there is a rememberer. Both pursuits, that of the traveller and the collector, are steeped in elegiac feeling’ (S. Sontag, ‘About Hodgkin’, in Howard Hodgkin Paintings, London 1995, p. 109).
Despite the necessary tint of melancholy to Hodgkin’s art of recollection, the very fact of his artistic creation is its own solace, its own spectacular reward. In Goodbye to the Bay of Naples’ blazing colour, light and form, he not only forges a private elegy to a place and emotion, but is also able to communicate his deeply personal interior reminiscence to other people. ‘Obviously, my language of forms has far more than a physical purpose,’ he once said. ‘Alone in my studio, working on my pictures, more than anything, I long to share my feelings’ (H. Hodgkin, London, 13 March 1995, in J. Elderfield and H. Hodgkin, ‘An Exchange’, in Howard Hodgkin Paintings, London 1995, p. 80). Hodgkin harnesses his unique language to the fullest. Goodbye to the Bay of Naples is both a sumptuous emotional vision and a wistful distillation of shimmering, sunlit splendour. No square inch is left blank; as an entire object, the work is charged with powerful eloquence. A farewell it may be, but space, time, feeling and the physical world are melded into brilliant totality, and the embers of memory glow bright.
A PERFECT LIGHT: MY PARENTS & HOWARD HODGKIN
How did my parents acquire two Howard Hodgkin paintings—”The Green Chateau” and “Goodbye to the Bay of Naples?”
I worked at Knoedler Gallery from 1980 to 1985. I started a week after graduating from Brown in art history, with an internship that became a full-time job. My parents were concerned that I would never earn my way with an art history degree, and pleaded with me to go to law or business school. Nonetheless they often traveled from Chicago where they lived to New York to visit me at Knoedler, and soon became interested in starting an art collection.
Art was an important part of our family life. My mother and father both sculpted as a hobby, and regularly took my siblings and I to the Art Institute of Chicago where my love for art began.
Hodgkin’s first show at Knoedler was in 1981. The exhibit gave Hodgkin a bigger presence in the U.S. Knoedler represented Frank Stella, Richard Diebenkorn and the estates of Calder, David Smith, and Gottlieb. At the same time, there was an Old Masters department, and masterpieces came through on a regular basis.
Hodgkin, who was well-versed in art history, was excited to show in such company and thrilled by the context—the gallery was down the block from the Frick Collection.
When Hodgkin’s works arrived at Knoedler from London they were stored in a room on the third floor, along with works by Calder, David Smith, Miro, and others. I brought my parents there a couple of months before the show and they fell in love with “The Green Chateau.” I told them it was on reserve for MoMA.
On the day that Larry Rubin, the gallery’s director, and Hodgkin installed the exhibition, Kynaston McShine was the first curator from MoMA to circle the gallery. Next, as I recall, was William Rubin, Larry’s brother. In the end, MoMA decided to acquire “Red Bermudas” instead of “The Green Chateau.”
I walked to my office, which was a tiny cubicle behind the reception desk, called my parents and said, “I have to make this quick. MoMA just took ‘The Green Chateau’ off reserve. Say yes.” My parents said yes. I hung up, walked out and said the painting was sold. I was 23 years old, but confident that Hodgkin was the connection to Vuillard, Bonnard and Italian period Degas.
Hodgkin’s second show at Knoedler was in 1982. He was a notoriously slow painter, often working on paintings for many years, so to offer him a second show only a year and a half after the first was a huge acknowledgement of the success of the first show. Various Hodgkin works had been placed with some of Knoedler’s top collectors, to remain in private hands a long time—not flipped. Larry Rubin was impressed with Hodgkin’s work, his intelligence, wit, knowledge of art history, poetry, literature.
Hodgkin’s first show came with a catalogue, but he opted to have a poster sent out for the second show. Reproduced, in full color, was “Goodbye to the Bay of Naples.” I got the poster on my desk the same day my parents got it in the mail. I called my parents the minute I unfolded the poster. “This is undoubtedly the greatest painting Howard has ever painted,” I told them. “Say ‘yes.’” My parents said yes. I walked into Larry Rubin’s office and told him that my parents were buying it, sight unseen. The date of their invoice is November 13, 1982, the day the show opened.
My parents loved both paintings. Going to Venice for the 1984 Biennale, where Hodgkin’s work was on view at the British Pavilion, was one of the thrills of their life. Lunch at Cipriani, the boat ride over and back, talking with Hodgkin, meeting top collectors, prosecco everywhere, was a dream for them. They came back intoxicated from the experience. My mother wrote across an entire page in her journal of the Venice trip: "Fantastic, unbelievable, perfect, romantic, fun-loving trip - to be remembered always!!".
They lent these works to museums when requested, and the paintings stayed on their respective walls in Glencoe, in the home I grew up in, and then in Highland Park, when they moved to an apartment after my father retired from his medical practice. This, of course, accounts for why the works remain in stellar condition. My parents were careful not to let them be exposed to direct sunlight.
Let me add a few personal notes about Howard Hodgkin. He became a close friend. In 1983, I took him to lunch at a small place called The Left Bank, which was under the sidewalk on Madison Avenue, two blocks from Knoedler. We had planned to walk up to the Guggenheim to see two of his paintings in a show, including “Reading the Letter,” a small but superb work. It was hugely important for him to have his work in the Guggenheim. He was nervous, and excited, and had a Bloody Mary or two to steel his nerves. It was a horrid hot humid New York day. At the Guggenheim, we rounded the ramp and on spotting his painting, he clasped my wrist very tightly. He stood stiff, blinking. It was a great dream fulfilled. I was moved to have been with him at that moment.
When I went to Venice to view his British Pavilion exhibit, Howard was staying at the Pensione Accademia, which he loved for its proximity to the Gallerie dell' Accademia, and its extraordinary Giorgione The Tempest, and for its staff, which called him “Maestro.”
The garden at the hotel was perfect for him. August roses were past their prime, climbing up the walls. This was classic Hodgkin terrain, a memory in the making. We talked about our lives and shared ideas. He was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known, with the keenest eye for looking at art. He would wait a moment until I got his witticisms, then cock an eyebrow, appreciative that I did.
Howard invited me to his studio in London. He had been thrilled when he took over the former auto garage behind his townhouse, just opposite the British Museum. The studio was magnificent, with an expansive skylight and perfect light. There, I viewed one painting at a time, always just the two of us, or with Andy, Howard's long-time assistant moving a scrim over the one I had just seen. Howard would continue to show me paintings until he sensed I was unable to absorb another. Then he would stop. He would not consider showing another painting. He took it as a compliment when a visitor to his studio would stay focused, and he disliked it when someone drifted or let idle talk enter the studio.
When Howard showed at Gagosian Rome, my wife Jeannette and I had an aperitivo for about fifty people in our Rome apartment, including many from Rome’s art world. Everyone adored Howard. He was in a wheel chair, holding court in the center of the room. He had been in ill health for many years before his death, and I wanted him to know that he had touched me and changed my life. I made a toast to Howard; we made eye contact, and it was tremendously moving to me. In his final years, I treated every visit as if it might be the last, and offered him thanks for our long friendship.
James Barron has an art gallery in Kent, Connecticut. Previously he worked at Knoedler Gallery with Post-War and Contemporary American art and at Jan Krugier Gallery, with the Marina Picasso Collection and modern masterworks.