HOWARD HODGKIN & Robert Natkin by Peter Fuller / by Laurence Fuller

Introduction by Laurence Fuller

Howard Hodgkin died earlier this year, he was perhaps the most prominent abstract artist to come out of Britain. The American painter Robert Natkin, a lesser known abstract expressionist and the one American painter my father Peter Fuller chose to champion. Studying Abstract Expressionism at the moment for the development of a new film project, though I never naturally gravitated to abstraction in my own aesthetic. I find it strange Natkin is often left out of the dialogue as his paintings are so beautiful. This article, first published in Modern Painters in 1988, remains a tribute to all three men. At this time Peter was exploring spiritual and transcendental ideas, establishing a new religious order out of art. Abstraction usually pushed reimagining of the natural world too far out even for Peter's line of thinking, but he accepted the challenge when it came to these two men, Natkin in particular.

Howard Hodgkin & Robert Natkin

by Peter Fuller

  Self Portrait Of The Artist , Howard Hodgkin

Self Portrait Of The Artist, Howard Hodgkin

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It is now four years since Howard Hodgkin's exhibition at the Venice Biennale an event which brought a dramatic change in his standing throughout the art world. This is his first exhibition since then and the  majority of the paintings are based upon Venetian subjects. The most immediately impressive is undoubtedly Dinner at  Palazzo Albrizzi, a large and eloquent picture which draws upon recollections of the ornate surroundings and florid conversation of a Venetian dinner party which the artist attended. 

 

 

The first thing that needs to be said about Hodgkin's paintings is that they depend for their effects not upon gesture or line but upon colour. This is significant, for we have been told again and again - not least by Patrick Heron - that there is something crabbed and cramped about British art; that the writhing lines' and literary and empirical tendencies in our national cultural life have somehow impeded that full and expansive use of colour upon which the greatest painting depends. Hodgkin has not only mastered colour - where are his peers in Europe or America, today? - he has done so on his own terms. His colour does not give off the feel of an Englishman on a summer holiday - as, say, Matthew Smith's, did. 

 

I have often seen it written that Hodgkin's colour is indebted to Matisse; but the sensibilities of these two painters are very different, even at odds with each other. Matisse was a painter of gorgeous Mediterranean splendour, of sensuousness and luxury. But Hodgkin's way with colour has always been different. Look at, for example, his oval Love  Letter, in this exhibition: a work like this is self-evidently fringed with pensiveness and melancholy - even with pain ; and a penumbra, or after-taste, of such feelings is rarely absent from even Hodgkin's most immediately radiant paintings. 

 

I would say that Hodgkin's use of colour has about it something resembling Ruskin's perception of Italian, decorated Gothic which is, perhaps, one reason why Hodgkin responded so warmly to the architecture of Venice. In a remarkable passage in the chapter on 'Byzantine Palaces in the second volume of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin (who is so often wrongly accused of that deadening English naturalism to which Heron understandably objects) argues that, in fact, none of us sufficiently appreciates the nobleness and sacredness of colour. It was the splendour and translucence of decorative form which had attracted Ruskin to Venetian Gothic in the first place; he was concerned to refute the arguments of those for whom colour was (the mere source of a sensual pleasure'. All good colour, he wrote, (is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most'. 

 

There is, admittedly, something sanctimonious about what Ruskin is saying here. And yet a more secular version of his defence of the transcendental face of colour resurfaces in Bloomsbury, and especially in Roger Fry. Hodgkin is related to Fry, and has intense childhood memories of visits to Fry's sister Margery with her glowing Omega furniture. In one sense, Hodgkin (though, I believe, a greater painter than any Bloomsbury produced) can be seen as the heir of this tradition: Fry thought that the root of aesthetic value lay not in the imitation of natural forms, but rather in what Clive Bell called 'significant form'. Unlike Bell, however, Fry believed 'significant form' involved something other than agreeable arrangements of ... harmonious patterns, and the like. He insisted that it implied an effort on the part of the artist (to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit'. In this, for all his Francophilia, Fry owed at least something to a Ruskinian sense of colour; and it is just such an effort that seems to imbue the best of Hodgkin's pictures: they become surfaces packed not so much with petits sensations as with feelings.

 

The emerald greenness of Hodgkin's recent Welsh pictures, like Down in the Valley, 1985-88, clearly owes something to his perception of nature; even so, the sense of the specific which they offer springs from the representation of emotion rather than appearances. If I were to look for parallels to what Hodgkin is attempting in French painting it would be not towards the splendid and open blandness of Matisse, but rather towards Vuillard and Bonnard. Interestingly, these artists had little to offer American abstraction in its search for a painting of pure sensation; for like Hodgkin's, their colour was as much about feelings as sensations and their emotional meanings sprang, in part, from magical illusions - endless plays upon the mergence of figure and ground, and those quivering * ambiguities which deliberately confuse portals, frames and vistas, insides and outsides: not so much trompes d'oeil as trompes de coeur

 

Many of Hodgkin's effects seem reminiscent of architecture and the stage ; even so, he is a painter who has the greatest respect - in that over-worked phrase - for the 'integrity of the picture surface'. In fact, the sense of plastic autonomy with which he invests his pictures often goes far beyond that; in the first issue of Modern Painters, Brian Sewell wrote that Hodgkin's works were like 'Omega tea-trays'. Sewell intended to be derogatory ; but he drew attention both to the way in which Hodgkin incorporates decoration and to the (thingness of his pictures, the feeling which each of them gives of being something self-contained ar separate, a world on its own.

 

I asked earlier where Hodgkin's peers as colourists were to be found. I certainly know of one, a painter from West Redding, Connecticut called Robert Natkin, whose recent work will be on exhibition at Gimpel Fils, in London, this autumn. Natkin is, I believe, one of America's most under-estimated artists. Sadly, he has never had a London exhibition outside a commercial gallery.

 

  Field Mouse: Redding View,  Robert Natkin

Field Mouse: Redding View, Robert Natkin

But here I should declare an interest. I first saw Natkin's pictures in two exhibitions in Bath back in 1974; I found the large, abstract paintings he was making at that time immediately attractive, seductive even. Natkin seemed to create a shimmering veil of colour which enticed the eye to caress it; but as I enjoyed the surface in this way, it appeared to dissolve and I felt I was drawn through into an entertainment of a different order, a tragedy perhaps. 

  Intimate Lighting A & B , Robert Natkin

Intimate Lighting A & B, Robert Natkin

The experience became not so much that of a skin of light as of a limitless vista, an engulfing illusion of boundless space. Here, too, colour could be associated with a feeling - like that described in Edmund Burke's writing on the sublime - which had more than a touch of terror about it. After all, the surrender which engulfment involves must always be tinged with a threat of annihilation. 

 

Such pictures reminded me of what Greenberg said about Klee: that he could not accept the flatness of post-cubist painting; that in his work, colour 'intensifies and fades like light itself, translucent, vaporous, porous'. In Klee, Greenberg wrote, there was (a kind of depth, but not one in which "real' events and objects are probable.' Klee created (an atmosphere without dimensions', and this was the 'brilliance' of his art - as it was of Natkin's, too. Even so, like Hodgkin, Natkin never relinquished a re-assuring sense of the unity and physical presence of the two dimensional surface.

  Intimate Lighting Late October 5 O'clock , Robert Natkin

Intimate Lighting Late October 5 O'clock, Robert Natkin

 

I was fascinated by Natkin's pictures and I wanted to understand why I found them so beautiful and so moving. Since then I have written innumerable reviews, articles and catalogue introductions about Natkin's work; I have published one book on him and we are working on another. Readers of Art and Psychoanalysis (which will be re-issued by Chatto and Windus in November) and of my autobiographical study, Marches Past, will know something of the importance which his work has played in my life and in the shaping of my ideas about art. I have always felt that if I could understand the feelings I derived from Natkin's best paintings, then I would understand something fundamental about my responses to art. 

 

  Apollo Series  by Robert Natkin

Apollo Series by Robert Natkin

These days, it is Natkin's fleshier and richer pictures - those he calls his Apollos, the Berne series, and, more recently, the Hitchcock paintings, named after the film-maker - which interest me more than the diaphanous abstractions of the mid 1970s. In these later works, for me, the parallels with Hodgkin seem selfevident. Natkin is also a painter fascinated by Vuillard and Bonnard and excited by the emotional potentialities of the decorative. He is certainly an outsider in terms of American tradition. 

  Apollo Series  by Robert Natkin

Apollo Series by Robert Natkin

 

For him, the stage, the transformations of theatrical lighting and the proscenium arch are central, too. He is fascinated by the decorative details on architecture and clothes. Like Hodgkin, he is a painter who eschews expressive gesture and makes use of a repertoire of conventional shapes, devices and techniques including that of a process of imprinting with an indented cloth wrapped around a sponge. Natkin, too, believes that the subject is paramount: he has never thought of himself as an abstract painter, pursuing colour harmonies for their own sake. His illusive and allusive suggestions of space and colour are intended to create surfaces which are redolent with feelings. For him, as for the Bloomsbury theorists, art is not a matter of sensation alone, but rather a mode of the spiritual life, a means for the creation of a secular equivalent to the religious idea of redemption. 

  Nightwatch  by Robert Natkin

Nightwatch by Robert Natkin

 

The comparison between Hodgkin and Natkin is likely to please neither painter and can, of course, be pressed too far: any question of influence can immediately be discounted. The difference between them is highlighted by their weaker works. A less than successful Hodgkin (of which there are not many) approaches the condition of preciousness ; a less than successful Natkin, by contrast, veers towards that of sentimentality. Natkin has more than a touch of the vernacular about him: but this may also be one of his greatest strengths.