Howard Hodgkin, a British artist whose lush, semiabstract paintings, aquiver with implicit drama, established him as one of the most admired artists of the postwar period, died on Thursday in London. He was 84.
The Tate Galleries announced his death but did not specify a cause.
Mr. Hodgkin was a relative latecomer to fame. A slow, methodical worker who could spend years building up a painting’s surface, he did not have a solo show until he was 30, and for years thereafter toiled against the grain, his work at odds with prevailing fashion.
His globs and stipples and smears — seemingly brisk and impulsive, but painstakingly applied and endlessly revised — ravished. On the Tate’s website, Nicholas Serota, the departing director of the museums, called Mr. Hodgkin “one of the great artists and colorists of his generation.”
But his coded emotional settings seemed elusive, even baffling, as did his stylistic relationship to current art. In Britain he was seen as an abstract painter, in the United States as representational — a
“I never expected anyone to be interested in my pictures, and there were years when I couldn’t even get my friends to look at them,” Mr. Hodgkin told The New York Times in 1990.
His paintings in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1984 propelled him into the top echelon of international artists. Seductive and arresting, they showed an artist at the height of his powers, and audiences responded.
“Not since Robert Rauschenberg’s appearance at the Biennale 20 ago has a show by a single painter so hogged the attention of visitors, or looked so effortlessly superior to everything else on view by living artists,” the critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine.
He added: “Here the wearisome traits of much contemporary art, its honking rhetoric, its unconvincing urgency, its arid ‘appropriations’ of motifs, are left at the door, and the slow-surfacing complexities of mature, articulate painting greet the eye.”
Mr. Hodgkin won the Turner Prize a year later, and as major gallery and museum exhibitions in Britain and the United States followed, one after the other, his distinctive blend of bravura brushwork, emotional depth and sense of mystery began to hold sway. He came to be seen as a highly original interpreter of the dramas that unfold in intimate, interior space, an heir to Bonnard and Vuillard.
“On the subject of sitting rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and balconies neither Hodgkin’s eye nor his hand has ever failed him,” the critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1990. “He is all-seeing on the subject of hotels, restaurants, private collections, public parks, costume jewelry, human exchanges of all kinds and day-to-day weather reporting. Manners and mores, ups and downs, ins and outs — all have their place in his paintings.
“He can make a wet afternoon in summer feel like the most blissful thing that ever happened,” he continued, “and when he summons up the quintessence of a restaurant (in London, by the way, not in Paris) he makes us want to stand up and shout for the menu.”
Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin was born in London on Aug. 6, 1932, to a Quaker family with an illustrious pedigree in the arts and sciences. His father, Eliot, was a manager at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and a well-known horticulturalist. His mother, the former Katharine Hewart, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice of England, Gordon Hewart, was a homemaker and botanical illustrator.
With German air raids looming, Howard was evacuated in 1940 with his mother and sister to Long Island, where he stayed with family friends for three years.
After returning to Britain, he attended a variety of expensive schools, including Eton, and ran away from most of them, finding little encouragement for his determination to become an artist — his goal since the age of 5.
Judith Higgins wrote in Art News in 1985, “Highly stylized, fiercely outlined and angular, humming with erotic currents, ‘Memoirs’ announced the subject of all Hodgkin’s subsequent work: the great tradition in French painting — figures in an interior — transmuted, in Hodgkin’s case, by memory.”He painted on his own, and during a return visit to Long Island in 1947, he began going to galleries and museums in New York City, looking closely at the work of Matisse, Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard. One of his earliest works, the 1949 gouache “Memoirs,” served as a marker for the themes that would preoccupy him in the coming years.
In 1949 he gained admission to the Camberwell School of Art in London, where he studied briefly under Victor Pasmore and William Coldstream, the leading figures in the Euston Road School. He spent four years at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, where he studied with Clifford Ellis.
In 1955 he married Julia Lane, a fellow student at Corsham. They later separated. He is survived by their two sons, Louis and Sam.
Mr. Hodgkin was given a one-man show at Arthur Tooth and Sons in 1962, but for years he depended on teaching to make a living. In the mid-1950s he began lecturing at Charterhouse School. He later taught at the Bath Academy of Art and the Chelsea School of Art.
He produced mostly small-scale works until late in his career, on canvas at first but, beginning in the late 1960s, only on wood, usually old boards scavenged from London antique shops. In violation of the tenets of American abstraction, he embraced the frame, emphasizing its presence by painting on it directly, or including framing rectangles in the painting.
The strongly geometric forms of the early painting evolved into looser, brushier images that teased the idea of figuration. In “Jealousy” (1977), a red mass, barely human, coils angrily within a frame-like rectangle. The leaning, spotted rectangles in “Dinner at Smith Square” (1975-79) suggest, just barely, two people conversing over a table.
“I am a representational painter but not a painter of appearances,” Mr. Hodgkin told the critic David Sylvester in 1976. “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.”
His reputation grew. He had his first show in New York in 1973, and in 1976 Mr. Serota organized his first museum exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. In 1995 the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the traveling exhibition “Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995,” and in 2006 Tate Britain mounted a 50-year survey of his work.
If Mr. Hodgkin never quite rose to the celebrity rank of Lucian Freud or David Hockney, by the time he was knighted, in 1992, he stood at the threshold of “living treasure” status.
“To be an honest artist now, you have to make your own language, and for me that has taken a very long time,” he told Mr. Sylvester for the catalog to “Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, 1973-84,” a traveling exhibition that incorporated many of the paintings from the Biennale.
Mr. Hodgkin was an interviewer’s nightmare, notoriously reticent about his work and unhappy analyzing its meaning. He made it clear that art was a slow and painful business. At the same time, he confessed to feeling a sense of exhilaration in his final years.
“I don’t care a damn about what happens when I’m dead, but I do have a sense of increased urgency,” he told The Guardian in 2001. “And I think it’s made me more courageous.”