Hidden from public view in a gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art, Ealan Wingate of the prestigious international Gagosian Gallery swung his arms like a conductor of a vast orchestra. His instruments were the richly textured, brightly colored abstracts of British artist Howard Hodgkin, whose first West Coast museum show opens at the museum Saturday.

And with each crook of an arm, each wag of a finger, paintings leaning against the walls with names such as “Blood,” “Snake” and “Spring Rain” were moved to create new harmonies. The Gagosian represents Hodgkin, so it was Wingate’s job to represent the artist in the hanging of the show.

Beside Wingate, Hodgkin’s studio assistant Andy Barker nodded yes and no to each adjustment. Museum officials stood to the sides, watching, responding and affirming the decisions.

“Can we bring ‘Snake’ over here and see if it looks good?” Wingate asked.

Gloved exhibition assistants carefully and quietly lifted the painting to a new spot on a different wall.

Wingate chewed his thumbnail as he considered the new positioning.

“It’s a little bizarre, but I like bizarre,” Wingate said. He then turned his attention to a painting titled ‘After Ellsworth Kelly.’

“Let’s move ‘Ellsworth’ over here,” he said.

When that painting was put beside “Snake,” the studio assistant shook his head. Wingate agreed that maybe “Snake” should hang on a wall by itself.

“Let’s keep going,” Wingate shouted. “Let’s go through the whole exhibit.”

The Hodgkin show is opening simultaneously with works by 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough. While Gainsborough did his daring portraits of women more than 200 years ago, Hodgkin is a living artist who continues to paint. The museum curators put the two shows together because they are linked by luscious, juicy brushwork.

The Gainsborough exhibit went up more or less as planned last week.

“The fact that the Gainsborough show went up without moving a picture is the exception,” said John Marciari, the museum’s curator of European art.

Museum staff added finishing touches to the lighting of the room for the Gainsborough exhibit. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Two matters complicated the Hodgkin hanging. First, hanging a living artist is always subject to change, because the artist often has a strong opinion about how the show looks, museum officials said. Second, the museum purchased one of Hodgkin’s paintings, titled “Hotplate,” that has been added to the show.

Museum officials declined to reveal the purchase price of the painting, which is about 10 inches by 12 inches. Scot Jaffe, the museum’s associate director of exhibition and collections, described the piece as “an immense, tiny picture with a strong presence.”

“It is one of the major acquisitions the museum has made in recent years,” Jaffe said, adding that the artist picked it out for the museum.

The San Diego Museum of Art purchased Hodgkin’s painting “Hotplate.” Photo: Sam Hodgson

Despite the many changes to a long-standing plan on where to hang the Hodgkin paintings, no one in the room seemed the least bit flustered. It was part of the process necessary for a dynamic exhibit, they explained. And everyone wants the best exhibit possible.

Because of all the changes, the hanging continued through Tuesday.

Between moves, Wingate explained: “I’m trying to let each painting come into its own — so the viewer sees each one as the artist wanted them to see it.”

Wingate didn’t limit his changes to where paintings hung. He also changed the placement and content of the signage on the wall.

“[Hodgkin] would love to have this last sentence removed,” Wingate said of a line of text posted at the entrance of the exhibit.

“It’s just saying he’s a great guy, and everyone knows that.”

♦♦♦

Below, more glimpses of the hanging of the Hodgkin exhibit by photographer Sam Hodgson.

Ealan Wingate embraces artist Hodgkin, who entered the exhibit space as his paintings were being hung. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Hodgkin meets Roxana Velásquez, the executive director of the San Diego Museum of Art. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Dani Dodge is an artist and writer. You can reach her at Dani@DaniDodge.com, see her work at www.danidodge.com or follow her on Twitter: @DaniDodge.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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