Personal Practice (Coursework, Part 1): (Ex: 1.2) Research Point: Howard Hodgkin, Mark Rothko, five

Research Point: (5 hours)

(1) Howard Hodgkin

I thought of Howard Hodgkin because I like his work and he shares some of the traits I identified in my work. He paints abstracts which have no direct visual reference, he’s gestural, uses bright colours, was a printer (and I love prints especially Julian Trevelyan), and has a starting point for his work, often based on real events.

1932 – 2017: British painter and printmaker. From Wikipedia:… he came from a well to do family with deep roots in the establishment – evacuated to US during WW2 (he was 7 at the start of the war) – on return he was educated at Eton and then Bryanston school in Dorset – he ran away to be an artist – studied at Camberwell Art School and bath Academy of Art – he had his first solo show at 30 and was established by age 48.

There are several of his paintings in the Tate which might give me an insight into his work.

‘Rain’ (below) was his first large painting and the style he is famous for, before this he had been known for his mantlepiece paintings on canvas. It is 164 x 175 cm, oil on composite panel (so a hard surface with no give). He painted it in mid career so was already well established when he made the shift from small/medium to large paintings, and an intimate to a much more gestural style.

Hodgkin, H (1984-89) Rain At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hodgkin-rain-t05771 (Accessed 28/12/2020).

The Tate article says (McLean-Ferris, 2014), “Throughout his career, Hodgkin has produced seemingly abstract scenes that nonetheless reflect situations or environments.” She further explains that he mixes elements of abstraction and figurations as in Rain with the abstract centre and representational grey border that recedes and suggests a rain cloud.

Hodgkin said of ‘Rain’:

My pictures are finished when the subject comes back. I start out with the subject and naturally I have to remember first of all what it looked like, but it would also perhaps contain a great deal of feeling and sentiment. All of that has got to be somehow transmuted, transformed or made, into a physical object … when that’s finally been done … and the subject comes back … then the picture’s finished. (Hodgkin in Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, 1973–1984, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1984, p.97.)

This is fascinating as he’s working with memory (visual/emotional/sensory) to recreate a moment – which is exactly how an actor works – and then giving it physical form by turning it into a painting. As an actor you turn your ‘moments’ into a performance, Hodgkin turns his moments into a painting. He is not working from a sketch (he may have made a sketch at the time but that’s unknown to me) so has no visual reality to ‘copy’ from. He’s using his senses and emotions to time travel back to a moment… and then turn that moment into an object. When he has translated his ‘moment’ onto canvas he has finished. For a figurative artist that would be when they have captured a visual likeness (most probably as compared to a sketch or photograph), which therefore have a large objective element… but Hodgkin’s paintings are purely subjective.

It is fascinating that his later abstracts are so successful. This would suggest to me that there is something universal in his paintings that people can connect with. That, even though we don’t have direct access to it, he has found a way of painting how we all see the world at a subconscious level?

Thinking about my own work this is very usefulful and suggests a way forward. The part I liked and found freeing about my previous practice was painting the landscape as I remembered it, that is how the ‘moment’ was for me. What I found restrictive was copying the shapes on my plein air sketch because it was mixing objective raw material (my sketch) with subjective raw material (my experiences).

However, in the way Hodgkin works his visual memory is contiguous with his sensory and emotional memory of the ‘moment’, they are all subjective. I was using subjective materials (physical and emotional memories) with an objective material (my physical sketch) and that was blocking my flow. The benefit, of course, is that my painting is much more objectively figurative and one level more likely to sell. But as a 2nd year student finding my voice it is much more important that I use this time to explore my options as an artist than focus on trying to sell my paintings because somebody recognises a local view.

Reading Hodgkin’s obituary in the Guardian (McNay, 2017) some further information leapt out… Hodgkin was a colourist and was an early fan of Matisse. I love colour so here is another connection with my practice. Also Hodgkin was said to be a fan of Vuillard, and both Vuillard and Matisse had elements of decoration in their work… and Matisse had a flatness that could fit with printmaking. Another interesting fact was that although Hodgkin’s works appear fast and spontaneous he was a meticulous worker often reworking his pieces, and often only painting ten works a year.

I found an early painting sold at Sotherby’s.

Hodgkin, H. (1960) Bedroom [screenshot] At: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/howard-hodgkin-and-the-mystery-of-mrs-burt (Accessed 28/12/2020).

His later work becomes even more gestural than Rain but in ‘Bedroom’, one of his ‘mantlepiece’ paintings, you can see the influence of Vuillard in the intimate domestic interior, a hotel room in Paris. This was oil on canvas and 107 x 127 cm, so not tiny but not too big to go into a middle class home.

What is particularly interesting is that if you take out the people and the painting on the wall it is completely flat (with gestural marks) and could be a pure abstract… so he is already mixing figurative and abstract elements. Also, though the people are obviously figurative there is very little information, the faces are abstracted and the most figurative element on the people is the near woman’s leg and shoe. But, even though these people are highly abstracted it still feels like he knows them, they are not invented/imaginary… they are real.

The painting on the wall is strangely ‘realistic’? and pushes the painting in the direction of abstracted figuration, rather than more purely abstract. This must have been deliberate as it alters the whole tone of the painting (maybe it made them more saleable?) but I’m not sure why as it clashes with the more abstracted elements of the painting.

So, in conclusion, he was a colourist who used his visual and emotional memories to create an object which captured an important life moment. He often used flat colours and gestural marks and mixes figurative mark making with abstraction.

McLean-Ferris, L. (2014) Rain At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hodgkin-rain-t05771 (Accessed 28/12/2020).

McNay, M. (2017) Sir Howard Hodgkin obituary At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/09/sir-howard-hodgkin-obituary (Accessed 28/12/2020).

(2) Mark Rothko

B. 1903 – D. 1970. His Wikipedia entry says he was born in Russia but… was an American abstract painter of Latvian Jewish descent. He is best known for his color field paintings which depicted irregular and painterly rectangular regions of color, which he produced from 1949 to 1970.

His family initially moved to Portland, Oregon, then New York… where as a young artist he painted mainly urban scenes… In response to World War II, Rothko’s art entered a transitional phase during the 1940s, where he experimented with mythological themes and Surrealism to express tragedy. Toward the end of the decade Rothko painted canvases with regions of pure color which he further abstracted into rectangular color forms, the idiom he would use for the rest of his life. The entry doesn’t say if he fought in WW2 but at 39 when the US entered the war, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7 1941, he would have been well aware of what was happening in Europe, and in the merchant fleets that sailed the Atlantic.

Reading Rothko’s long entry in detail is illuminating. What leaps from the page (apart from being a deeply intellectual/well read/artistically steeped/sincere/high integrity/socialist leaning/damaged/troubled) is that his art and final signature style, which brought him fame and fortune, was evolved out of a rich and fertile life. Like some beautiful flower in the jungle Rothko’s art is rooted in a rich and complex network of connections

His artwork brought viewers to tears because it embodied his subjective understanding (grown out of every book, conversation, artwork and life experience he had had) of the world, it was his inner world ‘made flesh’. It was informed from within, not without. Not defined by his style or technique but by the life which gave birth to his voice.

There are so many elements that I could bring in but I think one stands above the others… he painted himself. In the same way that Hodgkin turned a private moment into a physical object, Rothko turned his psyche into a painting.

This is a big boost for me because it supports my feeling that everything I read (and all the new artists I ‘meet’ on the course) goes into my painting. I feel skill is essential to express my subjectivity on canvas, but it is the psyche that makes the painting, not the skill on its own… which is the difference between taking a degree (and/or living at the centre of a vibrant collaborative art community such as New York in the 50’s and 60’s) and learning skills on your own from how to videos on Youtube.

As a side note, Rothko was called a colourist and was said to be heavily influenced by Matisse, and both of these influence my work.

Rothko, R. (1957) Light Red over Black [screenshot] Tate (s.d.) At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothko-light-red-over-black-t00275 (Accessed 29/12/2020).

This is a large painting:  2306 × 1527 × 38 mm, oil on canvas.

Interestingly in the Wikipedia article Rothko is stated as saying the size is meant to overwhelm people not as a spectacle (something outside yourself that you look at/watch/observe) but as an intimate experience (by standing close you can only see part of the painting and it fills your senses).

Standing in front of a Rothko is like meeting a stranger who you are perfectly intimate with and have licence to explore with your eyes. The effect is of communion with another person on an unspoken level. And yet (part of) his genius is that Rothko’s works also work/entertain/please as colouration when reduced to 18 x 12 cm on a glassy smooth Mac screen.

(3) Abstract artists today

I looked at the following article: Cohen, A. (2020) 11 Emerging Artists Redefining Abstract Painting. At: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-11-emerging-artists-redefining-abstract-painting (Accessed 29/12/2020). This features 11 emerging abstract artists as chosen by Artsy on Jan 6, 2020 1:00pm by Alina Cohen.

I will look at the first five.

The same paintings with captions…

1. Jadé Fadojutimi (2019) A point to pointlessness… [gestural abstraction painting the indescribable such as pain, struggle or conflict]


2. Ruairiadh O’Connell (2019) Gotham Jubilee [… to layer and confront complex ideas with material processes…]


3. Han Bing (2019) Silver lining [inspiration from city streets and architectural façades… representational at times, but more moments of perplexity]


4. Alteronce Gumby (2019) Their Eyes Were Watching God [every good artist has their magic tricks… fantastical deceptions of color and form… some form of logic or making reference to nature]


5. Leah Guadagnoli (2019) Towards the Glow, Inside the Light, Acrylic, [resemble stained glass windows… shapes have meaning… We cannot help but see something, insert personal meaning… The history of abstraction, geometry, and pattern at large, across centuries and cultures, cannot go ignored. Abstraction, above all, is a common language composed of many dialects.]

  1. Jadé Fadojutimi (2019) A Point to Pointlessness. I don’t have a size but a similar painting at the Pippi Houldsworth gallery, London is 170 x 180 cm, oil and oil stick on canvas.

  2. Ruairiadh O’Connell (2019) Gotham Jubilee Resin, Jesmonite, 61.3 × 45.1 cm at Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

  3. Han Bing (2019) Silver lining … work courtesy of the artist on Artsy website. I couldn’t find a personal or gallery website, or any details of his work, on Google. But ‘Silver lining’ looks like oil on canvas… I found some pictures (without any details) on the internet showing his paintings propped against a wall standing on paint cans… and they looked large… at least 2 x 3 m.

  4. Alteronce Gumby (2019) Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tempered glass & acrylic on wood, 121.9 × 121.9 × 5.1 cm

  5. Leah Guadagnoli (2019) Towards the Glow, Inside the Light, Acrylic, canvas, pumice stone, insulation board, upholstery foam, and aluminum panel, 135.9 × 95.3 × 3.8 cm (This had a gallery price, $8000)

My thoughts…

Building an art practice

‘Sustaining Your Practice’ isn’t until Level 3 (but I could be there in less than a year) but as an art student it’s never too soon to try to understand the art market.

Back of an envelope calculation… $8000 in a gallery… max $4000 to artist… $1000 to make… $3000 ‘profit’… so an emerging artist over 10 years experience represented by a top gallery (a bit like young ‘star’ actor getting a big international agent) you would have to sell at least 10 paintings a year.

These are all large canvases of over a meter, so you would need a good studio (not cheap in New York or London), the canvases are expensive to buy and cover with paint, and your shipping costs will increase significantly. So a more graduate friendly size might be 60 by 60 cm. I think you would have to build up to large canvases as they are a significant investment in time and money and you need to be fairly certain of selling them.

If you add up all their ages and divide by 5 you get an average age of 34. So, these are Emerging Artists with 13 years experience. They will be (if the art world is anything like acting, which I expect it might be) the tip of a very large iceberg. Most 34 year old artists will not be earning a living by selling ‘art objects’ in top international galleries, they will be teaching, in industry, running two jobs and painting at the weekend, or doing something else.

So, I’m 64… half way through my 2nd year and selling to friends for £150 to £250… and should graduate by age 67… with health I’ll have a 10 year career… so why not aim high… emerging at 77!

Materials

Painting can use many mediums and only two (at most) of these artists use oil on canvas. And one of those is a mixed media artist using oil and oil stick.

New materials need new techniques but open up new visual and textural possibilities, and bring new meanings. For example the sculptor Subodh Gupta uses Indian/Hindu cooking utensils as the raw material for his sculptures.

So, I should be open to new media. But also mastery over your tools allows greater precision and opens up more possibilities. So, I think it’s a balance between experimentation and expertise, but the driving force should always be what works for the work, and not using mixed media just for the sake of it. I could easily experiment with acrylic and oil pastel for example as I know these fairly well. My fear would be adding a novel medium just for effect (like ground glass) and not because it adds meaning. However, I like texture and additives such as marble dust can be very effective.

The pieces themselves

I can see they would all look beautiful in a big house, you’d need a mighty wall and space to show them off, but none of them grab me as filled with meaning… however, I think they would all bring pleasure, which is a big part of an art object in the commercial market.

However, compared to a Hodgkin or a Rothko they all feel meaning light.

Jadé Fadojutimi (2019) A point to pointlessness… [gestural abstraction painting the indescribable such as pain, struggle or conflict]

I like the gestural abstraction and colour composition but for me it doesn’t communicate an inner world of pain or struggle as it’s too busy. It’s a very clever painting and I find it pleasurable, but nothing else.

2.

Ruairiadh O’Connell (2019) Gotham Jubilee [… to layer and confront complex ideas with material processes…]

I find this very beautiful but totally meaningless. Or to put that another way, it does not communicate any inner subjectivity and without the text I would have no idea that this was exploring treating Parkinson’s disease by working with a dance troupe.

For me, this is more like painted sculpture or relief work, though I accept it could equally be defined as a painting.

The process looks like you carve (or stamp) the resin and then spray it? Or maybe there’s a way of mixing different coloured resins?

3.

Han Bing (2019) Silver lining [inspiration from city streets and architectural façades… representational at times, but more moments of perplexity]

Visually this is interesting. My eye moves around and tries to decode the almost figurative shapes, and has a picture plane that morphs from 2D to 3D. But the colours feel dull (like a choir that’s singing a little flat or somebody is out of tune). However, the mark making is varied. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful.

It may represent the city streets if you saw them everyday, but I’ve lived in grotty graffiti covered, poster ripped cities and this doesn’t ring true.

4.

Alteronce Gumby (2019) Their Eyes Were Watching God [every good artist has their magic tricks… fantastical deceptions of color and form… some form of logic or making reference to nature]

I am not surprised he doesn’t want to talk about his work as I struggle to see anything other than a clever process. Again, it is clean and commercial, and I can see it in a big house. But it feels more like high end interior decoration than art.

It looks more like a framed piece of marble than a meaningful work of art.

5.

Leah Guadagnoli (2019) Towards the Glow, Inside the Light, Acrylic, [resemble stained glass windows… shapes have meaning… We cannot help but see something, insert personal meaning… The history of abstraction, geometry, and pattern at large, across centuries and cultures, cannot go ignored. Abstraction, above all, is a common language composed of many dialects.]

I am strangely drawn to this and think the colours work well, they are both contrasting and complementary which instills the piece with both energy and calm.

The shapes are integrated with the colours and I love the way the design is not quite symetrical around the rays of the sun… and the hint of hand made finish at the edges.

There is lots of compositional interest and it breaks the bounds of geometric abstraction. It is almost meaningful… lyrical and mysterious…but ultimately not something I’d want to live with, or make.

Ideas for my piece

No ideas or techniques jump out at me from the younger artists, and none of them have (for me) any depth of meaning.

It has made me realise that I want to make work that is rooted in subjectivity (Van Gogh saw the world in a unique way, so too Hockney and Matisse, Hodgkin express a moment from his life and Rothko paints his psyche). These are not not concept artists nor are they they painting beauty per se, though their paintings are beautiful.

So, I think I might have a play and see what happens. I could make one painting where I add different materials and another where I stick to oil paint and let the colours lead me.

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