David Hockney’s Life in Painting: Spare, Exuberant, Full
23 November, 2017
Give it up for David Hockney, one of painting’s elder statesmen, and for his crystalline retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which proceeds in a string of perfectly curated mini-exhibitions. Check at the door the usual caveats and tsk-tsks regarding this wildly popular Anglo-Californian — that he’s a lightweight; that his “moment” was the ’60s; that he’s obvious. Suspend at least briefly the belief that a tragic vision, or abstraction, is essential for entry into art history’s pantheon.
No, Mr. Hockney, at 80, is not Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter. But he has his own greatness, which flows from openly following his own desires — including his attraction to other men — while rigorously exploring the ways art and life feed each other, visually and emotionally. Full disclosure, forthright joy and forward motion are the dynamos of his art, which in my book at least, gives him an edge over Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
The Met’s streamlined show covers Mr. Hockney’s prolific career, now entering its seventh decade, with just 60 canvases and a small cache of drawings and photocollages. It spreads through eight galleries, each with its own surprises and quirks, all worthy of prolonged viewing, briskly laid out by Ian Alteveer, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Met, which collaborated on the exhibition with the Tate Britain and the Pompidou Center in Paris.
The tightly framed approach sidesteps the many often-wonderful byways of this artist’s capacious achievement, including prints and stage set designs, superb landscape drawings and videos. There are a mere 21 of his portrait drawings, mostly from the late 1960s and ’70s and none recent, just enough to affirm his exceptional draftsmanship. Five of his gimmicky if implicitly Cubist photographic collages beginning around 1982 signal his release from the confines of one-point perspective.
The photocollages form something of a gateway to the show’s last three exuberant galleries and the expansive landscapes, interiors and, most recently, views of the intensely blue wraparound terrace above the pool and garden of Mr. Hockney’s Los Angeles home. In these dizzying, tilting scenes, with their ardent surfaces and sometimes multiple, sometimes reverse perspectives, he proves that the legacies of Fauvism, Cubism, Post-Impressionism and biomorphic abstraction are ripe for further development — assisted by healthy doses of scale, magnification, spontaneity and saturated color. Thomas Moran’s views of the Grand Canyon and Constable’s hedgerows and fields figure in the mix. In a final wall text, Mr. Hockney says he painted his Los Angeles house “Matisse colors,” but you may already have sensed that he’s followed through on the dense blue, green, black and red of the French modernist’s implacable 1909 masterpiece, “The Conversation,” like no one else, Matisse included.
Such close focus is justified. Painting is the be-all and end-all of Mr. Hockney’s art, the point of departure of his forays into other pictorial realms and the port to which he inevitably returns, discoveries in hand. The only disappointment is that it ends slightly too soon. Two more galleries devoted to landscapes since 2000 would have been perfection. But exhibitions that don’t wear us out have their own rewards — in this case, a bird’s-eye view of an exhilarating artistic journey.
Mr. Hockney is sometimes pejoratively compared to lightweights like Raoul Dufy. Perhaps, but only if Dufy (no disrespect intended) had some of Picasso’s ferocious talent and Matisse’s fearless passion for color. It does not diminish Mr. Hockney’s greatness that his intelligence, gifts and omnivorous curiosity are propelled by an inherently sunny disposition. His love of his friends and family, his delight at the visual bounties of nature, his synthesis of other art and study of visual perception — these all shine through everything he does, in varying degrees, along with a supremely unconflicted appreciation of himself.
This is apparent in the pictures of homosexual love and comradeship, painted while he was a student at the Royal College of Art, discovering gay life in London and already an emerging art star. (His first solo show at the Kasmin Gallery in London in 1963 would sell out.) Made at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain, these courageous works haven’t been seen in any number in New York since 1988 — in the Met’s first Hockney retrospective. They precede by decades the artificial separation of identity art from, and elevation above, other kinds of art. They should be a revelation to younger generations, including painters using figurative styles to tell their own stories, just as his work encourages the conviction, also current in some quarters, that painting has no limits.
The artist often painted his friends standing or sitting motionless in their homes or in his studio. From left, “Looking at Pictures on a Screen,” 1977; “My Parents,” 1977; “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott,” 1968-1969; “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy,” 1970-1971. CreditCharlie Rubin for The New York Times
The earliest paintings indicate Mr. Hockney’s attention to Abstract Expressionism and Bacon’s figurative scrums and his penchant for scatterings of numbers, texts and product labels that presage Pop Art. They culminate in “The Third Love Painting” (1960) in which a large phallus-figure topped with black hairs contains a small block of hand-lettered text: the closing lines of a poem by Walt Whitman about his happiness while lying beside his sleeping lover, “under the same cover in the cool night.”
Homoeroticism turns sardonically explicit in “Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11,” from 1962, in which two podlike creatures pleasure each other, their genitals depicted as red boxes labeled Colgate. And it emerges from the bedroom in the Baconesque “The Cha-Cha That Was Danced in the Early Hours of 24th March,” from 1961. Here a blurred figure in a white suit wearing heels and carrying a handbag dances before abstract blocks of red and blue. His name, Peter, is indicated, as is the artist’s reaction: “I love every movement.”
In the 1960s, male desire and explicit homoeroticism began to appear in Mr. Hockney’s pictures, such as “Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11,” from 1962.CreditAstrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo, Norway
The next group of paintings — 10 from 1962 to 1965 — are a tour de force of artistic growth, spurred in part by travel, to Italy and New York and, in early 1964, to Los Angeles, about which he had fantasized for some time, inspired by both its sunny clime and the beefcake magazines published there. Evidence is the charmingly innocent “Domestic Scene, Los Angeles” of 1963, which shows a man wearing only socks and an apron washing the back of a man taking a shower, in the company of a comfy chintz-covered armchair. (The figures come from magazines like Young Physique.)
In these paintings, Mr. Hockney’s awkward figurative style fleshes out toward naturalism, impudently balancing between art and illustration. His scatterings of disparate props become more emphatic, as do expanses of raw canvas. These efforts may be the last, ironically cheerful gasp of the postwar period’s often lugubrious Existential figuration — at its best in Jean Dubuffet’s work, which Mr. Hockney admired.
Art becomes a character in its own right in two paintings that pair a man in contemporary dress with an exotically accoutered Egyptian statue. Aspects of Color Field abstraction show up as bright bands indicating rainbows, suns and mountains. Different modes of representation combine. In “California Art Collector,” a matron, rendered in modern grisaille, occupies an armchair beneath a lean-to that echoes the manger in Piero Della Francesca’s “Nativity” in the National Gallery in London.
The still spaces and figures of Piero’s art help Mr. Hockney achieve a unified naturalism, based on the observation of actual people, places and things. (In “The Room, Tarzana,” a quietly desirous image from 1967, the artist’s lover lies face down on a bed, naked below the waist.) The stage is set with clean-edged forms, suffusions of blue and nearly single-point perspectives that glorify the skies, swimming pools, architecture and lawns of Los Angeles. Abstraction lurks, especially in “A Bigger Splash” and “A Lawn Being Sprinkled.”
Eventually, his geometric stage set softens and the canvas is inhabited by the artist’s intimates, who stand or sit motionless, usually in pairs, in their homes or in his studio. Rendered with an exquisite tenderness, psychological subtlety and technical finesse, these subjects include Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy; Ossie Clark and his wife, Celia Birtwell; and Henry Geldzahler, founding curator of the Met’s department of 20th-century arts, and Christopher Scott.
Other portraits are set in the artist’s studio. In one, Geldzahler alone gazes at reproductions of paintings, including Piero’s “Baptism of Christ,” pinned to a folding screen; in another Mr. Hockney’s parents sit as if parachuted in from their Yorkshire sitting room, the same Piero reproduction reflected in an antique shaving mirror. These are spare yet sumptuous works, full of personal details, in the manner of European portraiture from van Eyck to Degas and Manet. They are so big and spacious you want to step into them, yet so finely wrought that you are happy to stay outside examining their fastidious surfaces.
Throughout this delightful, absorbing exhibition, Mr. Hockney’s canvases are alive with the various ways of wrestling three dimensions into two, a proclivity that he thinks has been hard-wired into artists, from the caves to now and into the future. In his works, we zoom in for blades of grass, shag rugs, tweeds, drips of water, pointillist wallpaper, dots and dashes of red and blue, tapestry-like expanses of green-on-green. And we pull back for his gratifying architectures of form and space, amplified by color and portents of abstraction.
In the show’s final gallery, Mr. Hockney’s paintings of his blue terrace are joined by a three-screen animation of his iPad drawings, his most recent excursion into new technologies, which began decades ago with the photo copier and fax machine.
On the screens, all manner of lines, marks and colors coalesce into the views from Mr. Hockney’s bedroom window in Bridlington, near his Yorkshire birthplace, where he recently lived for a time. In the changes of detail and style, of mood, light and season, we see the process of looking and making play out in real time. It feels like a parting gift, a secret shared and a way of saying, See? This is what it’s all about.