F1: Howard Hodgkin is widely regarded as one of the most important artists working in Britain today. A major retrospective of Hodgkin’s paintings is on display at Tate Britain and has been curated by the Director of Tate, Nicholas Serota. In June 2006 they met at the gallery to discuss Hodgkin’s life as an artist and the experience of working together on the first exhibition to span the whole of Hodgkin’s 50 year career.
M1: Howard, what did it feel like to be an artist in the ’60s in London?
M2: It felt like being a non-person really. I remember once going to a perfectly ordinary party perhaps with people a bit older than me and somebody said what do you do? And I said I’m a painter. And they immediately turned away.
M1: And that was because painting had no place in the culture?
M2: No, no place in the culture and no place in society. I mean you couldn’t…
M1: But the myth is that David Hockney and Peter Blake and Kitaj [1:22] and others were all separated figures in the ’60s.
M2: They were, but not immediately.
M1: Only later?
M2: Only later.
M1: And what about your own position? Were you celebrated in the ’60s?
M2: No. I don’t think anyone knew who I was at all. I probably didn’t either. There’s hardly any connection between the art world now and of course the completely non-art world then. I remember being interviewed in Washington and somebody said and what about the art world in London, what’s that like? And I said what art world, without a moment’s thought.
M1: But there were critics and there was writing and there were good artists, so what was absent?
M2: I think publicity and commercial pressure was missing, and there was no cohesion like there is now.
M1: I mean it’s always said that now collectors dominate the market. Were there collectors of your work in the ’60s?
M2: Yes, there were. But they were lonely eccentrics. They probably still are for all I know.
M1: And were they collecting your work and other artists’ or only your work?
M2: I tended to have collectors who only or predominately bought my work. The great exception and the man who in his time I think made what one could call an art world was Ted Power.
M1: His collection was abstract expressionism and great early twentieth century painting and sculpture such as the Bran Coosey [3:18] which is now in the Tate.
M2: He had more than one and he also had at one moment over 20 Pollocks. And he also collected pop art.
M1: Your work was sometimes shown as pop art, partly I suspect because one of your first exhibitions was a joint exhibition with Allen Jones and so you were regarded as in a generation that had to be pop. Did you ever consider yourself to be a pop artist?
M2: Never for half a second. But I thought pop art was wonderful because it’s simply enlarged the possibilities of what one could do, apparently. I didn’t realise then you could really do whatever you liked.
M1: Well, the world has changed, how has the art world changed since the ’60s?
M2: It’s changed so much that it must be like the difference between an undiscovered country and one that is suddenly colonised and become full of commercial enterprise and so on.
M1: I think probably the most disconcerting thing about it is the fact that because information travels so quickly people assume they know everything.
M2: Yes, I’d agree with that.
M1: And they’re also very, very reluctant to give an artist or art time. So I suspect that artists find it much more difficult to develop not their work but their position in the world because they’re so frequently dismissed, either lorded or dismissed almost instantly by the time they’re 30.
M2: Yes. And I think that speed of communication has been immensely destructive. I think of artists that I know we both admire very much like Ellsworth Kelly. I wonder if Ellsworth had been a young artist now, these speculations always said it, but whether he would’ve been able to do what he’s done, because he wouldn’t have been left in peace to do it.
M1: Well, I think I mean Ellsworth did a very sensible thing by taking himself out of America and being in Paris for five or six years. And then when he went back to America, I won’t say he went underground because there was no overground, and you just became a practising painter with close friends and showing occasionally. By that means he was able to develop over a long period, which I think is in a way a luxury not open to artists today.
M2: No, it really isn’t open to them. And the other thing that neither of us have mentioned is money. There wasn’t any money in the art world when I was young.
M1: When you began painting in the ’60s did you expect to make your money to be able to live from your art or only from teaching?
M2: Only from teaching, which is a very demoralising position to be in, but everyone I knew was doing the same thing. What young artists do now I simply don’t know. But then they certainly don’t need to teach I imagine.
M1: So for an artist then was being like a poet today; you never had any expectation of making real money.
M2: No. Well, now it would be unreal money, and the quantities are too great to think of in any other way. I was once asked by a researcher at the House of Commons of all places what I thought about the remuneration of artists, and it wasn’t a very fruitful conversation but he did tell me at the time that Henry Moore insisted on paying his income tax in full and it was just under £1m a year. And this part I didn’t believe, that there was no other person in England, no other private individual who at that time paid that amount of income tax. But it was to me completely meaningless.
M1: You’re well known for your interest in the art of the past and the art of other cultures, but are there artists working today whose work you admire?
M2: Well, as you ask that question in that way I don’t think there is an artist working today who I admire as much as I admire the work of Dugger, who the more I know about seems to be the kind of artist you never come to the end of. But…
M1: But Dugger is a very high mountain.
M2: Oh, ridiculously high mountain.
M1: Are there any other peaks?
M2: Oh, many other peaks. But I greatly admired the work of the late Patrick Caulfield and he was a great friend, and I had curiously reticent and occasional conversations with him about painting. But I think what made it possible for both of us to have these conversations was how far apart our actual work was. And I regret, and it is an enormous regret that I’ve never had a relationship with another artist in the sense that so many great artists of the past clearly did.
M1: In which there would be a dialogue…
M1: …rather than an occasional conversation.
M1: What was it about Patrick’s paintings that you admired?
M2: Because I thought he was a true classical artist and he was very brave about that; he took tremendous risks. The fact that where he painted his pictures looked very calculated and was very neat, he didn’t mean he wasn’t taking huge risks with the picture itself and its relation to its content. His character I think was what meant the most to me.
M1: Well, he was certainly a singular figure whose own rather isolated position in the art world, even in England, was for years, although he showed he was not really celebrated, he was very much an underground figure.
M2: Yes, and he was much misunderstood because people compared his work to Lichtenstein which I think upset him very much.
M1: Now, this exhibition looks at 50 years’ work, a little more than 50 years’ work; was putting it together an exhibition, surveying your whole career and therefore effectively your life as an artist a daunting prospect?
M2: It was a little bit but it had an element of This is Your Life about it as well. But I’m not disappointed by my early work and it doesn’t make me feel sentimental either. But it’s very difficult at this moment for me to look at it, look at the exhibition with a properly dispassionate eye, that’ll come hopefully in a few weeks.
M1: What now interests you about your early work?
M2: The fact that I did it at all, because I think my early work was in a perfectly normal and natural way the beginning of all my work, it was literally early work. But now I’m surprised by how much that’s the case.
M1: Is there a moment in the show that you think marks a movement from early work into work that you feel stands not as early Howard Hodgkin but as independent paintings that survive in their own way, in their own right?
M2: Well, that’s difficult to say because I think the earliest picture in the exhibition does amazingly stand out on its own.
M1: No, I would agree. And when it came to making the installation here did you have thoughts about the way in which that should be achieved? I mean you’re well known for caring passionately about the way in which your pictures are shown?
M2: Well, I’m so pleased that you seem to have far more radical ideas about that than I did. I think your arrangement of the space is all I could’ve hoped for.
M1: Well, the plan was to make a very simple route through the career and to leave the rooms as straightforward as possible and to give occasional vistas, but in particular to try and bring you quite close up against the paintings, rather than always seeing them as small postage stamps across a large room. And on the whole I think that has worked.
M2: Well, sitting where I am now I think it’s worked extremely well.
M1: So what worried you about making this exhibition?
M2: I think the only worries were positive; they were hysteria that came from overexcitement. And I didn’t really I think, which is being very presumptuous, wonder whether it would hold up. Because somewhere hidden away under layers of English self-doubt I thought it would.
M1: I think you’ve had several exhibitions that have looked at the previous ten or even twenty years’ work, but there hasn’t been a show for thirty years that has looked at the whole career. But the reason I think to do the show at this particular moment was that I found myself visiting your studio four or five years ago, then again two or three years ago, and I have been enormously captivated by your paintings 15, 20 years ago and when I first encountered them 30 years ago. And I suddenly had this sense of a new freshness, revere[16:05], new sense of taking risks, and I felt that this would therefore by the moment to try and bring it all together and show essentially how you’re an artist who has gone on taking risks and big risks at every stage in your career and that’s not such a frequent thing to encounter these days. It’s very easy for an artist who’s established themselves and has a signature and a renown to go on painting the same pictures. And I think I would say what this exhibition demonstrates is that while you’re consistent the way in which you achieve your object changes quite dramatically through the show.
M2: Well, thank you.