David Hockney at the Met

THE ARTIST – David Hockney is eighty years old: born 1937 in Bradford, England, a former textile producing industrial city (Britain’s fifth largest) in Yorkshire, two hundred miles north of London. Like Manchester and Liverpool, Bradford fell into decline after World War II. While Hockney’s family were working class, the artist notes that his upbringing was genteel, an attitude that he says was then pervasive, transcending class differences. The artist’s father painted as a hobby, and was a conscientious objector during the war.

Educated in local state run schools, Hockney’s every move within his studies was calculated to expand his exposure to art. This was an intuitive gravitation, and in his early youth, Hockney saw few examples of fine art. He was excited about simply the act of making pictures. Then, for him, an artist was the person who painted posters for a shop or drew advertising art. Gaining recognition, and a further foothold, wherever a sympathetic teacher would help, Hockney went on to Bradford College, majored in art, and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy, step by step gaining the best possible art education. He became a star almost overnight with a show of his expressionist pop paintings at London’s Kasmin Gallery in 1963, which begin his exhibition at the Met.

THE EXHIBITION – In the initial room of early works, the influence of Francis Bacon comes to mind. Hockney’s line quality and figural handling is expressionist, and distorted in a raw manner that also recollects Dubuffet.

David Hockney becomes the artist you recognize when he moves to L.A. in 1964. These paintings are more visually accurate and done in the sunny colors of the west coast. While not photorealistic, they are straightforward if simplified crisp realism, using at times a square format, which suggests their source in Polaroid photos. Hockney was struck by how common swimming pools were in L.A. while hardly anyone had a private pool in Britain, and of course, how much living occurred outdoors. Characterizing this period are such paintings as A Bigger Splash, 1967, showing a mid-century modern California house and swimming pool (with a meticulously painted water splash which is said to comment on abstract expressionism), and the somewhat Op spirited A Lawn Being Sprinkled, 1967. Swimmers, along with patterned reflections seen through the waters, comprise a human element. In many cases, as in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1974, the pool is painted on a specific zone of the canvas deliberately left unprimed (in contrast to surrounding imagery where the surface is conventionally prepared) so that a color field, stain technique of transparent tints, thinned down, watery acrylic paint, soaked directly into the fabric weave could perfectly capture the effect of sunlight through water.

A middle gallery, filled with vivid, large-scaled double-portraits from the 1970s, shows personalities and style reflecting the era. These portray one figure looking straight ahead and the second, in profile, conveying a more introspective demeanor. Here, the subjects include Met curator and NYC cultural arts commissioner Henry Geldzahler and his partner, artist Christopher Scott; the artist’s parents; London fashion designers in Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970-71; and the writer Christopher Isherwood (Berlin Stories) with his partner, painter Don Bachardy. These works are cool in execution, pastel colored, and highly detailed like renaissance portraiture. The nuanced and varied paint handling, adjusted to best convey each element in the scene, shows Hockney realizing the wide range and potential of acrylic, then a relatively new media.

Following, are Hockney’s well-known 1980s photo collages based upon cubism. Each work comprises an arrangement of image fragments, cumulatively depicting a landscape or figure from many faceted angles. In the same room, a collection of drawings (including portraits of Andy Warhol and W.H. Auden) conveys a more straightforward treatment. These revisit the artists’ insightful figuration and purity of line.

The several galleries that follow feature works familiar to Hockney’s New York audience from exhibitions at the Andre Emmerich Gallery during the 1990s, and more recently with Pace. These expansive paintings, some mural-like, show the California landscape surrounding the artist’s home in the Hollyood Hills. Hockney’s home and studio is itself portrayed in a Matissean palette (its actual colors) with exotic foliage and flowers. Pigments are high-keyed fauve, many straight from the tube, full of startling contrasts and producing vibrant pattern. Panoramically encompassing many pictorial elements, such works feature a novel compositional vantage point that expands upon cubism’s multiple viewpoints, spilling horizontally past the normal parameters, and relating to the photographs encountered earlier. The brushwork is gestural and paints lavishly applied: these are painterly paintings. There are also scenes of trees and landscape from the artist’s native Yorkshire, to which Hockney periodically returns The exhibition concludes with work done on the I-pad and a flat-screen display presenting dozens of color-drawings in an animation sequence.

The exhibition, which appeared previously at the Pompidou and the Tate comprises over sixty major paintings and many more drawings and photographs. It’s a gem of a show, with a beautiful catalogue and is a must see this season. Some critics apologize, as if it is a guilty pleasure to admire work that is so pleasing. I say, that is no problem: art is meant to be looked at.

by Franklin Hill Perrell

Image: David Hockney (British, born 1937). A Bigger Splash (detail), 1967. Acrylic on canvas. Tate, purchased 1981. © David Hockney. Photo © Tate, London, 2017

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