Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Although Howard Hodgkin had been creating portraits since the age of 16, this is the first time they’ve been brought together for a solo show. But he never got to see the final result: the 84-year-old British artist died just two weeks before the opening of this exhibition. News of his passing came as the first painting was hung.

With this in mind, it’s a challenge to not view the work through a tinted posthumous lens. However, ‘Absent Friends’ more than delivers. It’s a sonorous, lovingly curated moment that reminds us just how few artists can touch Hodgkin on use of colour.

With the exception of his early figure paintings (just skip past those), these are ‘portraits’ in the most tentative sense. They are a tug-of-war between abstraction and representation, where thick licks of paint are stacked like slabs of cake to describe his subjects. See the ’60s and ’70s double portraits of Hodgkin’s ‘art scene’ friends that take up an entire room. In some, stray limbs flail and faces stare out from the canvas, dotted with red splodges for eyes. In the same breath, as with ‘Mr and Mrs E.J.P.’ (1969-73), he’d use garish masses of pox dots and lines of primary colours to conjure their memory.

His work is about capturing a ‘feeling’ on canvas; he frequently gobbled up the frame with paint, as though his exuberance couldn’t be contained. At times, it’s all so loud it can leave you with visual tinnitus, unable to take it in.

He had a sense of humour too. A room of his best works from the ’80s, ‘Portraits of the Artist and His Friends’, houses ‘DH in Hollywood’, a painting of David Hockney as a big pink penis emerging from a swimming pool, topped with a streak of yellow hair.

In the final space hangs his final piece, the frenzied ‘Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music’. By the time it was made, he was using a wheelchair and had an assistant lift him up so he could smear the paint on to the canvas. It’s not his best work, and you can sense there was more he wanted to give. He was battling with his medium to the very last.

Hodgkin’s love for instinctive, gestural splashes led him to create the kind of paintings that make certain people point at a floor stain and say ‘Is that art too?’ Or worse: ‘I could do that.’ Well, it isn’t. And you didn’t. He did


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