An Unexpected Pairing

An Unexpected Pairing

Poet Max Blagg on Howard Hodgkin and John Chamberlain.

Poet Max Blagg on Howard Hodgkin and John Chamberlain.

Howard Hodgkin, Summer Rain, 2002 – 2013. View lot >
John Chamberlain, Sprayed Myopia, 1988. View lot >

Phillips invited the celebrated poet to share his insights on two masters featured in our 20th Century and Contemporary Evening Sale upcoming in London on 2 March.


Howard Hodgkin once observed that "People are afraid of pictures which have visible emotions in them. They feel calmer in front of pictures which are placid." His usually small, gemlike paintings do radiate a certain calm, in the Baudelairean sense of 'luxe, calme et volupté'. Always painted on wood, these works are front loaded with emotion and sensuality. John Chamberlain's ferocious looking steel sculptures, reassigned to artistic purpose from salvaged motor vehicles, would seem diametrically opposed to the operatic lushness of Hodgkin's paintings, yet place this unlikely pairing together in a room, and their inapposite points seem to easily commune, disparities dissolved.

The two artists and their respective works are certainly unlikely bedfellows; Hodgkin a highly erudite and rather austere Englishman, Chamberlain a U.S. Navy vet and wild reveler who originally used the G.I. Bill to study hairdressing, in order, he said, to meet more girls. This was before his epiphany in Larry Rivers' backyard in Southampton, when he ripped the chromium fenders off a vehicle abandoned there, beat them into shape by driving over them with his truck, and thus created his first sculpture in steel, which he named Shortstop.

Chamberlain was fond of saying that he got his sense of color from de Kooning, and 'gesture' from Franz Kline, two major exponents of the AbEx ethos, both of whom were friends and drinking companions. It's difficult to imagine Hodgkin carousing with them at the Cedar Bar while Pollock was busy tearing the door off the lavatory, and yet the threads of his expressionistic work intertwine comfortably with the more explosive outbursts of the New York AbEx crew.

Hodgkin's sensuous, intense paintings, infused with his love of late 19th-century French painters like Degas and Vuillard, also reflect his passion for the vivid light and colors of India, a country he visited frequently throughout his life. These tropical colors contrast sharply with the white glare of the studio in which he worked, full of light and devoid of any decoration.

Many of Chamberlain's turbulent steel pieces, whose gaudy colors exude a jingle jangly urban rhythm, were produced in the sylvan setting of Shelter Island, where Chamberlain finally settled after sojourns in New York City, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Connecticut, and Florida. The vast studio on Shelter Island is a step away from his living quarters, and both areas were filled with the materials he used in his art, which was never limited to disassembled cars — he also produced works in sculpted sponge, in paper and aluminum foil, each piece crumpled and squeezed until the form pleased the artist's eye, often guided by his early love of poetry, which he had studied at Black Mountain College with Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. "If I have a room full of parts, they are like a lot of words, and I have to take one piece and put it next to another and find out if it really fits."

Hodgkin on the other hand wryly observed that "I never try to understand anything I do — it's a waste of time." But, he was also a lover of poetry, although he preferred more traditional English poems. The painting Green Thought in a Green Shade takes its name from Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem The Garden, “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.” In certain of his paintings a raw sensuality punches through the abstraction to evoke remembered moments as powerfully as one of Proust's madeleines. He is an artist who redefined the way we look at the world, bringing passion and memory into the language of painting. Both Hodgkin and Chamberlain shied away from describing or explaining their art, afraid that words would only limit the viewer’s mind and imagination. The sense of powerful feelings and emotion coursing through the work of both is more than enough to energize a room and anyone standing in it.


About Max Blagg /

Max Blagg, born in England, has lived in NYC since 1971. Long recognized as a highly respected poet, visual artist, and performer on the New York art and literary scene, he has appeared at innumerable venues including the Kitchen, Guggenheim Museum, Parrish Museum, St. Marks Church, The National Arts Club, and Bowery Poetry Club. Blagg has published several volumes of poetry and prose internationally and in the U.S. with Carpe Diem Press, Paradigm Press, and Shallow Books. Blagg's collaborations with artists, including Alex Katz, Richard Prince, Nan Goldin, Keith Sonnier, Jack Pierson, and Larry Clark, have culminated in books, artworks, and videos. His artworks have been exhibited at The Parrish Museum, Luring Augustine, Exhibition A, and collected by artists Richard Prince, Larry Clark, Nate Lowman, and Adam McEwen. Four of his "flyers" from 1984 were included in the Nan Goldin exhibition, MoMA, NYC, 2016. A poem/painting collaboration with Richard Prince was included in the Richard Prince Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, NYC, 2007.


Auction /

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
2 March, 5pm
30 Berkeley Square, London (map)

Viewing /

23 February – 2 March
Monday – Saturday, 10am – 6pm
Sunday, 12pm – 6pm

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