‘The habit of bracketing images with dense borders of patterned or monochrome paint – seen in The Green Château (1976-80) … – often turns the paintings into views through or into. It is a device that lends them much of their intimacy. The density of Hodgkin’s painted frames casts them in the role of buffer states, shields of colour erected to shelter the fragile, evanescent images at the heart of a painting from too close and immediate a contact with the world beyond the painting. It also turns his pictures into conduits, leading into private or secret worlds’
‘All Hodgkin’s pictures can be thought of as the grit of some experience pearled by reflection. They begin where words fail, evocations of mood and sensation more than visual records’
With its opulent palette of gilded primary hues, backlit by glimmering verdant shades, The Green Château (1976-80) is a visionary apparition from Howard Hodgkin’s breakthrough period. Carefully refined over the course of four years, its nuances of lighting, shape, depth and movement seek to capture the emotional resonance of a moment buried in his psyche. Through a series of frames and borders – over-painted green edges, rows of golden discs and a veritable temple of blue and red bands – the eye is drawn to the intimate architectural narrative at the centre of the composition, its turquoise interior bathed in golden light. Translucent veils of pigment sit alongside swathes of thick, granular impasto, choreographed in rich sensory layers. The work’s evanescent forms are held in tension with the solidity of its wooden surface – a medium favoured by Hodgkin for its resistance and stability. Prior to its inclusion in the British Council touring retrospective Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings – first staged at the 1984 Venice Biennale – the work was shown in the landmark exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1981. There, it took its place alongside some of the most celebrated masterworks of the period: among them Gerhard Richter’s Annunciation after Titian series (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. and Kunstmuseum Basel), Willem de Kooning’s great Untitled abstracts of the 1970s and David Hockney’s Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Christos Joachimides professed, ‘The new spirit in painting is one which has swept aside unnecessary convention to establish a new relationship between image and reality through a painting of intensive poetic force and piercing imagination’ (C. M. Joachimides, ‘A New Spirit in Painting’, in A New Spirit in Painting, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1981, p. 16). Giving form, texture and colour to the inarticulate, The Green Château embodies the ethos of this bright new dawn.
‘I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances’, asserted Hodgkin. ‘I paint representational pictures of emotional states’ (H. Hodgkin, quoted in E. Juncosa (ed.), Writers on Howard Hodgkin, London 2006, p. 104). It was during the mid-1970s that his diverse influences – from Old Master painting to Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism and Indian miniatures – began to coalesce into a distinctive language: one equipped to visualise sensation. In tandem with his growing critical acclaim – his first museum show was in 1976 – it was an emotionally liberating time for Hodgkin. As he began to explore his homosexuality, having left his wife in 1978, the artist travelled abroad, visiting David Hockney in LA the following year. A new sense of painterly freedom crept into his works of this period, marshalled by an increasingly defined set of geometric forms. Writing in the introduction to the 1984 retrospective, John McEwen explained how ‘Just as an actor can ring the emotional changes from performance to performance within a prescribed set of words and conditions, so Hodgkin – who has no doubt that the painter is a “performing artist” – prescribes his own set of pictorial limitations to afford himself the greatest freedom. The better the actor, the less he appears to act; the better the painter – it might be said – the more intrinsic his mark. Hodgkin, from his most conventional set of marks – the stripe, the zig-zag, the curve, the spot – has contrived his own instantly attributable pictorial language, ringing the emotional changes within this set of signs to increasingly suggestive effect’ (J. McEwen, ‘Introduction’, in Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, exh. cat., British Pavilion, XLI Venice Biennale, 1984, pp. 9-10). In the present work, these shapes take on the quality of characters or glyphs, subject to an inscrutable grammatical logic. Their angles and curves relate less to the architecture of the ‘château’ than to the architecture of memory itself. They are planes through which light and movement funnel: visual embodiments of feelings lodged in the recesses of the mind.
Like many of Hodgkin’s finest works from this period, The Green Château challenges the traditional boundaries between painting and frame. ‘My pictures often include a frame which I paint on as part of the painting’, he explains. ‘…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 M. Auping et al (eds.), Howard Hodgkin Paintings, London 1995, p. 20). Citing this particular work, Andrew Graham-Dixon has described how this strategy ‘often turns the paintings into views through or into. It is a device that lends them much of their intimacy. The density of Hodgkin’s painted frames casts them in the role of buffer states, shields of colour erected to shelter the fragile, evanescent images at the heart of a painting from too close and immediate a contact with the world beyond the painting. It also turns his pictures into conduits, leading into private or secret worlds’ (A. Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London 1994, p. 74). Their evanescent forms are held in tension with the solidity of the artist’s wooden surface – a medium that, like the boards of a stage, was favoured by Hodgkin for its resistance and stability. Contained and preserved within thick, luscious borders, the ‘green château’ is less of a physical reality than a residue of sensation: an outward expression of the artist’s interior realm. The work succeeds – to quote Andrew Marvell – in ‘Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade’.
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.