Howard Hodgkin sits in a wheelchair in his studio. Light falls through the glass roof on to big boards propped against white-washed brick walls. One by one, his studio assistant starts moving them to reveal a glistening array of new paintings. It seems banal to call them beautiful – but that’s what they are.
“When I was young,” says Hodgkin reassuringly, “I used to mind people describing my pictures as beautiful. I don’t any more.” Why did he mind? “I used to think that it meant the subject was neither here nor there.”
Hodgkin paints what most people would call abstract art. Yet he insists that every slither of luscious colour refers to a particular place and time. His serpentine brushwork is not decorative. Each painting has a “subject”, as he puts it.
No one can fail to see that when confronted – as I am in his studio – with a painting called Pain. It is a small wooden panel 27cm wide. Hodgkin paints on wood because “it doesn’t answer back”. He reuses old wooden frames, their antique materials and ornate woodwork becoming part of the painting. Pain is a series of fierce brushstrokes on a stained brown board, in horizontal bands, red above black above purple above a muddier, bloodier red. There’s a smear of weak white. Such bands of colour are similarly used to create oppressive moods in the paintings of Mark Rothko, but where Rothko’s colours are soaked in, Hodgkin expresses himself in visible, dramatic, unfinished brushstrokes. The result is much more personal and direct.