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Spontaneity in the Abstract

HOWARD HODGKIN By Andrew Graham-Dixon; Harry N. Abrams Inc. 192 pp., $49.50.

Should one take an artist's word at face value?

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At the outset of a new book about British painter Howard Hodgkin, the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon makes it clear that he thinks not. ``Artists' statements hold out the false promise of a dangled bunch of keys, none of which proves to turn in the lock,'' he writes.

He is referring to something Hodgkin said about himself: ``[I am] a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.'' So the reader assumes that ``Howard Hodgkin'' - the first full-scale monograph on Hodgkin (though volumes have already been written in catalogs, art magazines, newspaper reviews, and interviews) will run counter to the painter's own explanations or observations about his work.

But on the whole, Graham-Dixon finds himself taking Hodgkin's basic statement seriously enough, and even ends his book by saying: ``He has tried to devise ... an art that can speak of loneliness and sociability and fear and beauty and idealism and pessimism and loss and memory and anticipation and jealousy and love. And he has succeeded.''

The author has in the course of the book argued, it is true, that Hodgkin's images ``strive to remain ... as ultimately ungraspable as experience itself.'' And he does describe one characteristic painting as ``a surrogate for an experience that cannot be recaptured.''

In making such statements, he contradicts Hodgkin's contention that his pictures ``represent'' experiences, since representation must surely imply ``grasping'' and ``recapturing'' the ``emotional situations'' that were the springboard of the paintings. So the artist believes experiences can be recaptured in the form of paintings (as in music or poetry), while his critic is not always so certain.

Graham-Dixon sometimes even suggests that Hodgkin, in striving for the impossible, is making pictures that are actually about inevitable failure.

And yet Hodgkin's mature paintings of the last two decades have all the marks of achievement and fulfillment. Unlike a great many abstract paintings of that period, they are never nihilistic, never full of emptiness, never bland. They are intense concentrations of form and color, of inner and outer, of forward and back spaces that genuinely act in lieu of the conventional need for a recognizable depiction of a physical appearance. Sometimes they go full circle, however, and a recognizable visual ``subject'' does appear - a moon or a sunset or a hill.

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Indeed, Hodgkin has gone so far as to state that he is never in any doubt about when a picture is ``finished.'' They ``are finished when the subject comes back.'' They may go through years of reconsideration, of overlaying and underlaying, until they arrive at what looks like a surprisingly spontaneous conclusion.

These paintings, far from striving to remain ungraspable, actually demand of color, of the movement and character of paint, and of marks and spaces the containment and conveyance of feeling and experience. Without that demand, and the striving for it, Hodgkin's paintings might be too easily dismissed as ornamental and abstract. Instead, they are - as Hodgkin has stated - metaphors, in the language of picture-making, for emotion. And the feeling and mood of each Hodgkin picture is remarkably different.

Whether or not the pictures share with the viewer the specifics of Hodgkin's original ``emotional situation'' is another matter. His aim is to make them into self-contained objects that both he as artist and we as viewers can look at with the same eyes. He is satisfied that the ``subject has returned.''

But how can he be sure that we see in his paintings what he sees in them? The author of this book at times seems much more specific in his decoding of particular paintings than the metaphorical nature of the pictures themselves ever intended. Even if what we see cannot be the same as the artist sees, however, that does not make the pictures failures. We may find in them equivalents and promptings for our own ``emotional situations.''

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