SPOTS AND stripes in steel blue and sapphire, in greens, and reds that melt together -- pink, carmine, orange, Dayglo, tangerine.

Colors clamor on the walls of the Phillips Collection in the paintings of contemporary British painter Howard Hodgkin. Thickly spread on wood instead of canvas, the colors excite. But that is not all. For Hodgkin, they depict emotional experiences. There's a story behind each one -- which he's loath to reveal.

"It gets between the spectator and the picture," Hodgkin says, and causes one to think about the story instead of the picture itself.

A particularly intriguing picture in this show of 40 works is "Reading the Letter." Hodgkin has said he happened to be in the room when an unpleasant letter addressed to someone else was read. But one doesn't need to know its contents. The movement, the interplay of colors and shadings are enough in this confrontational scene.

Scene is perhaps too strong a word to describe Hodgkin's paintings. One is aware, say, of an interior or animate form. But Hodgkin performs a ballet in the twilight between abstraction and representation.

Portraits are the vaguest reminiscences, faces in the fire.

In "Second Portrait of Terence McInery," one finds the hint of a beard (green) and glasses (also green).

Hodgkin's paintings are like photographs out of focus. They are indistinct, as if taken with a pinhole camera -- but in startling, luminous colors rather than black and white.

And as in the very best photographs, somewhere in his paintings one always finds an exciting pattern that draws the eye: a series of spots, from dabs to daubs.

Like photos, they are framed. Using primitive wood frames, Hodgkin is a master of trompe l'oeil, fooling the eye into thinking it sees depth. He even paints frames within frames, to set up the masterstroke.

Hodgkin captures the most emotional experiences of his life on wood, instead of film. They are usually, he says, "moments of great pleasure." A symphony of reds, "Passion" flames and flares off on to its frame.

But it is always passion . . . considered.

Hodgkin takes years to finish a single painting, with thick globs of afterthoughts. But he works on many at a time -- about 27 unfinished paintings at the moment.

"Sometimes I have to lie about their age," says Hodgkin, "because it's taken so long."

For example, "Interior at Oakwood Court, 1978-83," a painting of speckled shapes within a red border: "I painted it endlessly," says Hodgkin. "It was of some people I didn't really know quite well enough, so I had to keep going back." And, he says, "I had to get to know them better in order to finish the painting."

It's not that he fusses over things. He just takes a while making up his mind.

But with an elegant instinct, he knows when to quit. "My pictures are fiished," he has said, "when the subject comes back."

HOWARD HODGKIN: FORTY PAINTINGS, 1973-1984 -- At the Phillips Collection through December 16.