R.B.K. is a landscape-oriented oil painting with a wooden support and frame that depicts a seated figure on the right facing towards a rectangular framed area in the centre of the painting. The scene is represented in bright colours in a loose style that appears fully abstract in places. Eight bands, each comprising three stripes in blue, pale green and dark green paint, run diagonally in roughly parallel bands across the painting’s foreground, as if the scene were viewed through a series of slats. The figure is depicted with a curvaceous body in various tones of blue, and its face, which appears as if silhouetted against a bright yellow shape, is partly obscured by one of the diagonal bands. The area on the left towards which the figure turns is framed with a dark blue outline and has a green and yellow rhomboid on its far side, suggesting that it represents an open door or a window shutter. Within this rectangular window or door area sits a largely abstract composition, although one of the shapes it contains resembles a flat red heart shape. The work’s pine frame is painted red along its top, while the rest is coloured light green.
This work was painted by the British artist Howard Hodgkin during 1969 and 1970, while he was living and working in London. Its support comprises a single sheet of plywood that has been pinned and glued to four outer battens. This is fitted into a rebated groove on the inside of the pine frame, with a metal plate securing it in each corner. The plywood was initially primed with a very dry, thin white layer possibly comprising chalk and animal glue, after which paint was loosely applied across the work in multiple layers. The diagonal stripes were painted last, over the top of the existing forms underneath, and the paint is generally opaque in colour and matt in finish throughout the work.
R.B.K. is a portrait of the well-known American painter R.B. Kitaj (Ronald Brooks Kitaj), a friend of Hodgkin’s who was also based in London during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of Hodgkin’s works from the this time are portraits of figures from the British art world, including artists, critics and dealers, yet many of these show their sitters in ambiguous environments and with a colourful abstraction that makes them difficult to identify, as is seen in R.B.K. as well as Mrs Nicholas Monro 1966–9 (Tate T01117) and Mr and Mrs E.J.P. 1969–73 (Tate T07111).
Since the early 1970s Hodgkin’s paintings have almost exclusively been executed on wooden supports (see, for instance, Come into the Garden, Maud 2000–3, Tate T12322). The critic Michael Auping has suggested that R.B.K. may have been the first work to be produced in this way, Hodgkin’s paintings until that point having generally been executed on canvas (Michael Auping, ‘A Long View’, in Metropolitan Museum of Art 1996, p.17). In 1984 Hodgkin explained that one reason for his starting to paint on wood was that unlike canvas it ‘has such a character of its own. In a piece of wood with grain ... you get these beautiful wave patterns ... there is already something to work with – either with or against. It has an identity already. Whereas a white canvas is just a piece of white canvas, it hasn’t any identity or will of its own at all’ (Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield, ‘Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield in Conversation’, Art Monthly, no.78, July/August 1984, p.5). This statement seems particularly relevant to R.B.K. given that when viewed in person, the grain of its frame is visible through the paint.
R.B.K. was also among the first of many works in which Hodgkin painted his frames in colours that featured in the main composition of the painting. As the director of Tate Nicholas Serota has observed, this has the effect that in Hodgkin’s works ‘the frame is not something to be added as protection or separation once the painting has been completed’ but is an integral component of the work (Nicholas Serota, ‘Introduction’, in Irish Museum of Modern Art 2006, p.13). The critic James Meyer has argued that Hodgkin’s emphasis on the frame has allowed him simultaneously to emphasise the physical ‘thingness’ of his works and the ‘transparency’ evoked through their pictorial depth (James Meyer, ‘Hodgkin’s Body’, in Irish Museum of Modern Art 2006, p.49). Discussing R.B.K. in particular, Meyer has claimed that the painting highlights this combination through a complicated play of surface and recession: ‘the literal frame functions as a window revealing the sitter ... through a screen of diagonal bars. In the distance, a window frames yet another scene’ (Meyer 2006, p.49).
Howard Hodgkin Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1996, pp.17, 157, reproduced p.157.
Howard Hodgkin, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2006, pp.50, 164, 179, reproduced p.79.
Marla Price, Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Paintings, London 2006, p.103, reproduced p.103.
Supported by Christie’s.