Painting by numbers

Howard Hodgkin's latest work is as vibrant as we have come to expect, yet there is a sense that he i

Early this month, 20 new paintings by Howard Hodgkin went on show at the Gagosian Gallery in Britannia Street, one of London's largest, and therefore most demanding, private spaces. The setting is sleek: polished grey concrete floors, soaring white walls, and no indiscreet references to whether or not anything is on sale to the general public - or, if so, for how much.

All the paintings on these walls were finished within the past couple of years. It took years to make some of them, because Hodgkin paints at exactly the speed that suits him. Some of the works are almost as large as anything that he has ever made. Others are unexpectedly small. The first work that greets you when you walk through the door is called Hello. It is the tiniest greeting I have encountered in a long while, although the spirit of the painting - the falling swatches of alternating blue and orange - is open-handed enough.

In a few of the works there is a lightness, and lightsomeness, of spirit which seem to suggest that Hodgkin may be dancing on pointe these days. Despite this feeling of elderly playfulness, all these paintings are tough and resilient objects. We can see that from the manner of their making. Every one is painted on wood, sometimes quite old, even wormy, wood. One of them seems to have been painted on a recycled breadboard. Nothing too precious about that. This means that Hodgkin can work the paintings just as hard as he likes, and still not risk damaging the surface. The painter Leon Kossoff, who is just a few years older than Hodgkin, works on board for the same reason. These dedicated older men certainly put the materials through their paces.

This is Hodgkin's first big show since his retrospective at Tate Britain in 2006. Some things have changed; others have remained the same. Hodgkin still gives his paintings titles suggestive of anecdotal readings. This hints that they are figurative works of a kind, though no untutored eye would ever take them for figurative art. Nevertheless, they suggest figuration, and the way in which he handles paint has nothing dry, angular or geometrical about it. His paint is always on the curve, always suggestive of the human form (often quite sexily so), and in the full flush of emotion from first to last, even if this seems to be about remembered people, places and things.

Take In Egypt, for example. This is by far the most readily recognisable image in the show, and one that Hodgkin has often reprised in prints. The painting consists of a single flourishing palm tree. Its fronds splay forth in all directions like a great, blue - yes, blue - hosanna-like flourish. The tree trunk consists of several thick, columnar strokes - green, russet, a muddy pinky-brown. The most unusual group of paintings is a trio whose titles, taken together, make up several lines from the chorus of the old cowboy song "Home, Home on the Range". In Home, Home on the Range itself, the first in the series (he produced this signature painting between 2001 and 2007), the colours flee in all directions. You feel the weight of the frenziedly scrubby brushwork. This degree of pictorial turmoil, this degree of studied untidiness, right on the surface, is unusual for Hodgkin. He usually combs his colours from left to right, lusciously, or makes sweeping, rainbow-like arcs, as if the paint were so much thick human hair. But here, all the colours are densely busy beating each other off, or getting involved in some kind of terrible scrum.

By the next painting, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, the skies and mood have lightened, and we feel ourselves to be inside a scene of pure American pastoral. Within the work itself is a framing device that leads the eye to believe we are staring towards rising green ground. Above that, we glimpse what we take to be a ragged sky. The third painting, Where Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word, is formally quite different from the first two: it consists of winglike waves of horizontal colour, orange and yellow, and, above them, tumbling swatches of blue. Much of the surface has been left unpainted.

These are not abstract paintings at all. Hodgkin has always been at great pains to point that out. Each one has a subject matter, and he once described that subject matter very carefully so that we would not make the same mistake next time. "I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations." So, there we have it. Does that make sense? Yes and no. And just what is an emotional situation anyway? Let's look again at the titles of some of the paintings on view in the gallery: Close Up, Strictly Personal, Blushing, Hello. Such titles make us want to ask questions of a kind that would lead to anecdotal answers: Blushing about what, exactly? How close up? Why are you saying hello to me when we have not even met? In short, they seem to be a kind of tease. You could even speculate that they are a species of lowbrow tease that is attaching itself to highbrow art. Are the different ways in which the marks, shapes and colours work in partnership with each other suggestive of the moods indicated by the titles? Do they seem to sum up those moods in some way? Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no. The colours of Blushing, those luscious tampings of pinks, make the painting look like a crude, if not literal-minded, interpretation of the title.

Others are much more elusive, if not arbitrary. In these cases, the titles seem to be wildly subjective. I made a mistake at one point. None of the paintings is captioned, so you have to carry two sheets of paper around with you, and it is quite easy to get confused. I thought that a painting called Ozone was in fact called Strictly Personal (in fact, that's the next one along in the second gallery). I had constructed a tiny narrative about Hodgkin's inner life based on the mistaken title, and had to tear it up and start all over again once I discovered that the subject matter was "in fact" something to do with the awful damage we are doing to our planet.

Hodgkin has said that he always keeps the subject in mind when he is painting, no matter how long he takes. No matter how much the painting seems to be veering away from its subject, the painter always returns to it in the end, like a faithful homing pigeon. Now, given the rather vague nature of so many of these titles, can this really be true? Or could it, too, be a bit of a tease, a way of giving us something to talk about? Because, frankly, there are few things more difficult to talk about than the content of an abstract painting - and especially when, according to the artist, it is not an abstract painting.

So let us accept that the issue of titles might in the end be a bit of a red herring, and think about the paintings themselves. They have all the hallmarks of Hodgkin in his prime, but many have those characteristics to a much lesser degree than in the past: the tremendous swoops and sweeps of multiple colours in one (Hodgkin loading his brush with more than one colour at a time); the sense that huge feelings have been compressed into the dimensions of a pressure cooker. Yes, there is all that, yet again. But there is also a strange thinness about many of them, a feeling that Hodgkin is doing once again what he has so often before done better.

The colour sense seems less acute. The colours in combination seem to energise each other less than in the past, to be less engagingly combative. These surfaces no longer feel so vibrant and alive. And, if anything, the titles feel as if they are trying to give the paintings reasons for feeling more cheerful about themselves.

"Howard Hodgkin" is at the Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia Street, London WC1, until 17 May. Click here for more details.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis