When Andy Barker wrote his thesis on one of England’s most celebrated contemporary painters, he never knew it would spark a 22-year-long working relationship with him. As Howard Hodgkin’s studio assistant, Andy accompanied him on various travels around the world, particularly to India.
We chat to him about his experiences with the late artist and a new Limited Edition print inspired by a tree he spotted from Hodgkin’s Mumbai balcony.
Q: Hi Andy, you were Howard Hodgkin’s studio assistant for over two decades, can you tell us a bit about how you came to meet him?
A: I started working for Howard in 1995. I had previously written my thesis on him and that’s how we met several years before I actually came here, to his studio in London.
Q: His practice changed over time, particularly during the end of his career when his mark making became looser. What was it like to witness those changes?
A: Yes, his paintings evolved over many years and, the more experience he had making marks, the more he freed himself up. I think, with his later work, he took a lot more chances.
I made him longer brushes so he could access the wooden boards he painted on, even from a seated position in his wheelchair. He became more confident in later life with his mark making, more gestural. He was more liberated as he got older.
He was also very focussed. When he wasn’t working on something, he covered up the other paintings in the studio and, when he wanted to work on a particular piece, he would ask me to uncover it and nothing else.
I think the idea was to have blinkers – not be distracted by other works. And as soon as he’d finished with that particular work for that day, the screen would go back over again.
‘Quite often, Howard and I would be looking around junk shops for wooden boards to paint on. Sometimes he even painted on chopping boards.’
Q: Hodgkin painted on large wooden boards, how did he go about choosing them?
A: There were so many different ways he chose which boards and panels to work on. Quite often, Howard and I would be looking around antique or junk shops for wooden boards to paint on and occasionally he’d find an old panel he liked the proportion of, then he would ask me to connect the frame around the edge. Sometimes he even painted on chopping boards he found.
Q: You’re a painter too, would you say your own work is influenced by his practice?
A: I would say my practice has been influenced by him, yes. But, visually-speaking, the only thing that links is the use of colour – I use quite bright colours in my work.
We also shared an interest in hot countries so that’s another influence which has come into my work. And the other thing is that I paint on wood – that’s something I learned from Howard and I found that really useful because it’s a great surface to work collage on to.
Q: Can you tell us more about your use of collage?
A: Collage has been a running thread through my work since around 1990. My compositions come out of lots of layering of images from my extensive photography archive. I make black and white photocopies of my photographs and use those as the basis.
After that, I apply paint and introduce any colour I like. I like building up the layers in playful ways. Sometimes I produce a contour that doesn’t exist by tromp l’oeil effect. I don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. It’s a process which surprises me sometimes.
‘Howard’s 2017 painting, ‘Cocktails for Two’ resonates with me because after work in Mumbai we would often sit on the balcony of his studio together and have a cocktail.’
Q: The titles of your paintings are really intriguing, how do you decide upon them?
A: I quite like my titles to be slightly playful. They shouldn't be taken literally. One of my paintings, ‘Looks like rain’, for instance, feels like a sort of throwaway line but it does actually relate to a specific memory of being in India and staying in a hill station just outside of Mumbai.
I don’t necessarily want people to feel the emotional side that I put into the work. I think people should come with their own experiences. I don't want to dictate how anyone looks at a painting of mine.
It’s similar to the way Howard helps people with his titles – if you take a Howard painting, which looks very, very abstract, and he gives you a title, it’s a little clue. He’s not saying ’This is how I want you to see it.’ Instead, he’s saying, ‘here’s a little clue. You make what you can with your own experiences.’
Q: You experienced a lot of travel with Hodgkin, particularly to India, can you tell us about the studio in Mumbai?
A: It was in the middle of Mumbai in an apartment block, quite a swish one actually. It was in an area called Colaba which is on the coast. Every year, Howard would take a studio there, normally for a few months in December, January, and February.
One of my favourite Hodgkin paintings was actually one of his last works which he painted in India. It’s called ‘Cocktails for Two’ and he painted it just before he came back in 2017. It resonates with me because after work in Mumbai we would often sit on the balcony of his studio together and have a cocktail.
‘I saw that tree every time I accompanied Howard to Mumbai – six years in a row. It was only later, when he died, that I decided to make a painting of it and call it ‘The Singing Tree’.’
Q: Can you tell us more about the subject matter of your own paintings?
A: A lot of my work comes out of travelling. Things such as palms and exotic flora and fauna frequently come into my work. My new Limited Edition, ‘The Singing Tree’ is based on a memory of looking out from Howard’s studio balcony in Mumbai.
As I said before, at the end of every day’s work, we would relax on the balcony and have a drink. I would be looking out over the city taking photographs and it was there that I first saw the tree in the distance. I noticed it because it was the only tree that was moving. It was literally shaking. I knew that was where the crows were – crows are very common in India.
I wanted to get closer to the crows, so it became a bit of a ritual for me; getting up very early every morning, having a banana, walking over to the gym, and listening to the dawn chorus of crows on my way.
I saw that tree every time I accompanied Howard to Mumbai – six years in a row. It was only later, when he died in 2017, that I decided to make a painting of it and call it ‘The Singing Tree’. It’s based on what I imagined to be under the tree.
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