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'The general effect is one of celebration'

BAM! Bam! Bam! At first glance, it looks as if the painter had soaked a batch of tennis balls in a bucket of paint and swatted them at the canvas in rapid fire, scoring an emotional ace every time.

But no, each of those precisely placed large dots and swaths is composed of many layers of paint stabbed onto a piece of wood and its frame with a big brush , maybe quickly for each stroke yet cumulatively over a long period of time. Howard Hodgkin is in no hurry to finish the match.

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It took Hodgkin 20-odd years to arrive at the small arsenal of shots he can command so precisely in paint. He deploys each type of mark in different ways to make his point. And brilliant, vibrating color stuns the viewer with offbeat harmonies and dissonances reminiscent of Indian miniatures.

In fact, Hodgkin is an authority on Indian painting. Other aspects of this appear in his own work: ''(a mixing of) modelling and flat pattern, Expressionism in terms of using emotive brush strokes, the smoothest possible paint, fragments of architecture, fragments of pattern, flesh which is described as simply flat areas of pink, and can turn into the most elaborate three-dimensional modelling in the same figure.''

''Small Durand Gardens'' is an example. Simple geometric shapes painted smoothly or roughly in acid yellows and greens or dull reds next to pastel colors and black indicate the architectural setting and figure. The play of these colors and shapes against one another creates a remarkable sense of space while it remains a flat surface. These abstract elements re-create for the viewer the sensation of unseen aspects of an event the artist felt at the time.

The less literal ''In Alexander Street'' is even more evocative of an intensely felt moment by use of the same means, except that here the color is jewel-like. Both paintings, and many other Hodgkin works, have a dramatic impact that makes one wonder if he has ever designed for the theater.

The general effect is one of celebration - of life, of a moment of heightened perception, of art.

Hodgkin has often spoken of his awareness of art history. His knowledge of the subject has put him in positions of responsibility in the British art world, such as trustee of the Tate Gallery.

Recently Americans as well as Europeans have seen what Hodgkin has been doing in the past decade. ''Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings 1973-1984'' is an international exhibition on the way to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., after a stay just concluded at the Phillips Collection in Washington. Organized by the British Council, it opened in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last summer. Later in the year it travels to Hannover in West Germany and then London.

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