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David Hockney: Here’s Looking at You

David Hockney, a perpetual student of art history, throws everything he has at the still-unsolved problems of perception and representation.

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 83 1⁄2 x 119 1⁄2 in.

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“The history of pictures,” David Hockney wrote recently, “begins in the caves and ends, at the moment, with an iPad. Who knows where it will go next? But one thing is certain: the pictorial problems will always be there—the difficulties of depicting the world in two dimensions are permanent. Meaning you never solve them.”

As Tate Britain’s retrospective (“David Hockney,” February 9–May 29) shows, Hockney may have looked at modern problems from more perspectives than any living artist. Over six decades, he has worked with fax machines and photocopiers, computer graphics and digital drawing apps, Polaroid snappers and video cameras, and of course the iPad, too. Yet Hockney has also attacked the monocular authority of the camera and the one-point perspective theorized by Alberti and Brunelleschi and returned repeatedly to the fundamental practices of drawing and painting, as well as the traditional formats of landscape and portraiture.

“The fox knows many things,” wrote the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1953, when Hockney was a teenager at school in the northern English town of Bradford, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously observed that Tolstoy had the convictions of a hedgehog but the nature of a fox. Hockney has addressed the problem of perception and how to represent the charge of human emotion that it carries, with the deep and sometimes prickly conviction of a hedgehog. He has answered it with the ingenuity of a fleet fox, often with a lightness that can be mistaken for levity and a distance that can be mistaken for coldness.

Hockney found fame and freedom amid the pools and palms of his mid-’60s Californian paradise, but he comes from a colder clime. Hockney is a gay man from Yorkshire, in northern England. In 1959, he arrived at London’s Royal College of Art speaking with a provincial accent at a time when class snobbery was still acceptable, and as a gay man speaking a coded language at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. From the camp comedy of A Rake’s Progress (1961), his satiric account of his first trip to New York, to the spiritual landscape of Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998), Hockney has derived liberation and inspiration from America, but his painterly sources remain mostly European. Walt Whitman may have influenced Hockney more than Edward Hopper.

The tension between foreground and deeper space in Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon recurs in Red Pots in the Garden (2000), a Matissean excursion into the English sublime. Similarly, Hockney’s persona remains that of the Yorkshireman abroad: sharp-eyed in intimacy and distant in irony, high-minded in aspiration and honest in labor, and always determined to do it his way. The speed and skill with which he went his own way still impress.

In 1960, Hockney discarded a brief and unhappy experiment with Abstract Expressionism, discovered a model in Picasso—the century’s great confounder of the hedgehog-fox antagonism—and synthesized a distinctive figurative vocabulary from contemporary British and French influences. In 1962 Hockney exhibited alongside contemporaries including R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones in the group show “Young Contemporaries.” Careful to distance himself from Pop Art, he titled his four contributions Demonstrations of Versatility. Another pair from that year were titled The Marriage of Styles. The assimilation is so accomplished that it becomes almost mocking. The element of challenge can only have been intensified by Hockney’s candid subject matter, which he defiantly called “homosexual propaganda.”

In Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10PM), W11 (1962) Dubuffet’s naivety collides with Pop, as two men, their genitals replaced by tubes of toothpaste, fellate each other’s Colgate. In Domestic Scene, Notting Hill (1962), a naked man stands behind a clothed, sitting man who may or may not know the other man is there. The sinister expressionism and patches of bare canvas of Francis Bacon meet the bedsit paranoia of a Joseph Losey film. A Rake’s Progress (1960–61) an early excursion into the history of English painting and a souvenir of Hockney’s first excursion to New York, replicates Hogarth’s narrative sequence but spoofs its morality tale, turning a sermon into a series of saucy postcards.

With similar boldness, Hockney created a visual identity for Los Angeles after his arrival there in 1964. “There were no paintings,” he recalled. “People then didn’t know what it looked like.” When he saw a freeway under construction, he thought, “Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!”

Evelyn Waugh, who was not impressed by California, observed that when Aldous Huxley went west, he changed not just his address but also his mind. Hockney’s Los Angeles is less a terrifying Piranesi prison than a liberating dreamscape—an artificial paradise in which, Gauguin-like, erotic forms are woven into bright patterns amid the sharp edges and rectilineal structures of office blocks and low-rise residences. The artificiality of the patterning is overt, advertised by the implausible perfection of the abstract architectural forms, the impossibly tight rhythms on the surface of the swimming pools, and the strip of bare canvas that runs around the image, creating a border like that around a staged photograph. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967), the water is not water in the realist sense so much as it is photo-realist. Hockney had been using a Polaroid camera as an aide-memoire since 1964 and bought a 35mm Pentax in 1967. The recession of the garden lawn is flat. The liquid to whose dispersal the eye is drawn is paint itself.

In A Bigger Splash (1967), the sky, the building, the pinkish concrete that surrounds the pool and the surface of the pool itself are all built from flat planes. A spindly pair of palms stand completely still, unnaturally smooth and rigid against the turquoise sky. The windows reflect a scene of equal tedium—more glassy square buildings and a few more noncommittal palm trees, all in shades of gray. Everything enhances the laboriously modest, affectlessly perfect acrylic brushwork that catches the movement of the splash. Is this an ironic rejection of the demonstrative splashing of expressionism, an argument for the understatement of personality? Or is the disappearance of the diver beneath the water an existential lament, like the multiple dives of Burt Lancaster as he searches for the traces of his lost youth in The Swimmer (1968)?

These are not actual places and people, even when they are identifiable people and real buildings. The buildings are shown in their Platonic form, without car parks, neighbors, or dirt. The fall of sunlight onto the water in the pool is represented by symbolic patterns from Dubuffet. The acrylic is applied with smooth dispassion, as though everything is under glass. Yet people live and work, swim, and have sex in these unnatural boxes of light: the naked man by the pool patterned with Bridget Riley squiggles in Sunbather (1966), the elderly collector with her zebra-stripe sun lounger in Beverly Hills Housewife (1966–67), the invisible sick people who must be hidden behind every window in the blank-eyed Medical Building (1966), where the lone luxuriant palm in the foreground sprouts in a pastiche of good health.

In Hockney’s revolt against abstraction, the senses break up the grid of forms. In Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966), the naked young man drags himself upwards, out of the grid of water. The imagination rearranges reality, with one eye on erotic satisfaction and the other on the history of art. In The Room, Tarzana (1967), Hockney’s boyfriend Peter Schlesinger lies on his stomach, wearing a white t-shirt, a pair of dirty white socks, and a pair of pale white buttocks. The pose has been compared to Boucher’s Reclining Girl (Mademoiselle O’Murphy) of 1751 and Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching) of 1892. The bedroom interior is derived from an advertisement for Macy’s department store, circa 1967.

The Room, Tarzana, with its controlled light effects and carefully staged interior, and Hockney’s simultaneous experiments with painting from photographs initiated a phase of increased naturalism. At the same time, the male nude, the white-buttocked symbol of sexual freedom, started to appear less often, to be replaced by a focus on intimate relationships. The plashing of sprinklers and pool water gave way to awkward silences, and tensions as unresolvable as the problems of two-dimensional representation.

Hockney had already identified the potential for psychological and structural drama in the double portrait. As early as The Last of England? (1961) he had imagined Ford Madox Brown’s heterosexual emigrants as himself and an imaginary “doll boy,” exiled by homophobia. The sequence of double portraits that he painted after 1968 are really triple portraits, in which Hockney is the third presence, and the viewer placed in his position.

Where Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach distort and damage the human form, Hockney insinuates himself into a domestic relationship. Often, one member of the couple faces Hockney. The other is in profile, and often depicted as less certain of his position in the relationship. In Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968), Isherwood is so serene that we can barely make out his expression. Bachardy looks across and frowns, as if Isherwood is not listening, or is more interested in Hockney. In American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman) (1968), Marcia faces the viewer proudly, but the subdivision of the space makes Fred look as if he is in a viewing cabinet, and as inert as a stuffed animal.

The use of one-point perspective, a device associated with religious art, intensifies the imbalance of power, and gives the revelation of a couple’s secret an annunciation-like significance. In Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1967), Geldzahler sits in a halo of light befitting a major art dealer, but it hardly matters whether Scott is on his way in or out. In My Parents (1977), it is Hockney’s mother who gives her attention to the viewer. While his father is distracted by an art monograph, Hockney inserts himself into the marital scene and catches himself at it, by showing himself in a mirror. It could be a scene from that other master of camp Yorkshire irony, Alan Bennett.

Yet naturalism, Hockney decided, became a “trap.” He escaped by Picasso’s method, in which the fox’s various paths always start from and return to the hedgehog’s question. For the last four decades, Hockney’s shifting approaches—the grids of Polaroid photographs that form a multi-perspectival temporal image, the photocollages that trace an event across time, the video recordings of dancers and jugglers at work, the processing of Cubism through the camera lens—have circled around the same question as Secret Knowledge, his scholarly examination of the use of optical devices in Western art, or his regular reversion to the classic formats of line drawing, portrait, and landscape.

The object of Hockney’s study remains human perception and its representation. The painter of light on surfaces likes to quote Auden’s long poem, Letter to Lord Byron: “To me Art’s subject is the human clay.” His demonstrations of versatility and his marriage of styles are ways of working the clay, of bringing the history of art to bear on new technologies of vision and creation. The history of pictures can be assembled into a linear sequence of past styles and closed schools, but the making of pictures occurs in a kind of eternal present. Technology changes the terms of the pictorial problem, but not the permanent difficulty of its resolution. As a modernist eclectic, Hockney is the most traditional of radicals and the most radical of traditionalists.

Following Picasso’s death in 1973, Hockney created the prints The Student—Homage To Picasso, in which Hockney, portfolio in hand, approaches a statue of Picasso; and Artist and Model, in which Picasso sits across the table from a nude Hockney. Here, Hockney is Picasso’s model, naked before the eye of the artist who will remake him as an image. Picasso is Hockney’s model, the image of the tradition to be emulated. In the process, Hockney, who to this day describes himself as a “student” of art, becomes the model student whose loyalty and diligence will be rewarded by inheritance. It is a double portrait and a triple relationship, in which the process plays out before our eyes.

By Dominic Green

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2017

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