During the time I was a guard at the Met my regular department was 20th Century Art and Design, and while I was there, that department seemed to have a love affair with Old British Painters, giving retrospective exhibitions to Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj, and Howard Hodgkin.
Of the three, I had the least use for Kitaj, whose exhibition was held in 1995. There were some beautiful drawings in charcoal or pastel in the show, but his paintings seem to me to be self-indulgent and unresolved and illustrative [some other time I’ll talk about the word ‘illustration,’ which was a bugaboo to me in art school and which can cause some folks to get their hackles up]. So-called ‘intellectual’ or ‘literary’ painting, Kitaj simply skimps on the painting, hoping the ‘meaning’ will carry the burden of the aesthetic weight. And painting doesn’t work that way. Too bad, because he had a beautiful hand at drawing, and I wanted to like his painting more, both because of his considerable ambitions and because he was born an Ohio boy, but the work just seems to me to be a weak pastiche of Degas and Chagall.
Lucian Freud’s exhibition in 1993 was a problem for me. At the time, I was committed to working from direct observation, and so I was very excited to spend some time with Freud’s exacting and tireless vision, because I had not seen much of his work in person before. My favorite piece by far was a small self-portrait, cropped to include not much more than the artist’s face and neck. And I remember changing my overall opinion of his work daily. His insistence on framing the works behind glass did not help. But I think what pulled me back and forth about his work was the meticulousness of the observation and commitment to a very specific and structured way of working on the one hand, and sheer ugliness of paint and surface on the other. They posted the famous de Kooning quote prominently in the exhibition: “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” But Freud does not use oil paint in a way that benefits from the properties de Kooning was talking about: oil paint’s fluid transparencies, translucencies, and creaminess. Instead, Freud, with his insistence on using so much Kremnitz white, a lead white that easily turns scabby and coagulated, and his insistent re-painting of surfaces without first scraping down the surface, uses oil paint in a way that takes no advantage of the inherent ‘fleshiness’ of the medium. My final verdict on Freud still holds for me today: a good, not great, painter with severe technical limitations and not great sense of light and color. Overrated, I have to say. I guess it helps to have Grandpa Siggy in your tree.
Which brings us to Sir Howard Hodgkin, whose work I admire most of the three, and probably admire more than any other 20th century British painter [not a distinguished list], probably because in their exuberance of marks and color his paintings are the least British of them all. Like Kitaj, his paintings were also exhibited at the Met in 1995. I remember working one of the first days of the show, on a Saturday morning before the galleries could fill with visitors, and there was one man looking at the art, a kind of short, late middle-aged, decidedly dumpy looking guy. Bilbo Bagginsish. Anyway, while this quiet and nondescript little old guy was carefully examining Hodgkin’s work, the guard on the next post up from me, also a painter, and I started to talk about the work. He asked me what I thought, and being a young painter who was trying to learn and form opinions and talk about painting, I told him what I thought. The first few rooms, the earlier work, I thought was loose and disjointed, didn’t hold together, was tentative in color, etc. But after those first few rooms, I thought they get more confident and the color gets richer and the marks grow in scale and it felt like to me that it really picks up steam and roars all the way to the end of the show. The other guard goes hmm, yeah, I see what you mean, and adds his own two cents.
When I move up a post an hour later I see that the museum has posted a blown-up black and white photo of Hodgkin on a ferry in Venice, and lo and behold [you, dear reader, probably saw this coming], that frumpy little dude who had the galleries all to himself that morning was Sir Howard himself. Oh my god, I thought, poor Sir Howard comes to New York for a triumphal retrospective at the Magnificent Met, and has to listen to some dumb shlub guard who isn’t impressed with his early work. “Damn colonists! Everyone’s a critic!”
Anyway, I still love Hodgkin’s work and I think he’s one of the best working today.