How do we categorize David Hockney? Over the nearly six decades since he first declared himself a boy wonder, when he was in his early twenties (he’s now eighty), he has been at various times (and often simultaneously) an ambitious painter, an incisive draftsman, an inventive designer of stage sets, and an enthusiastic explorer of such “alternative” media as computer-generated imagery, Polaroid photography, video, and iPhone and iPad drawings—and I’m probably leaving something out. Even if we concentrate chiefly on his paintings and drawings, as “David Hockney”—the focused, well-selected, elegantly installed retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—mainly does, it’s clear that the Yorkshire-born artist has always been something of a chameleon, restlessly changing his approach in response to new stimuli, new places, and new materials.1

The Yorkshire-born artist has always been something of a chameleon.

Jointly organized by Tate Britain, London, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Metropolitan, where the curator is Ian Alteveer, of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibition begins with paintings made in 1960—when Hockney was still a student at the Royal College of Art, London—and ends with newly minted works from 2017. The selection includes more than eighty paintings and drawings, along with some of the photo collages that the artist calls “joiners,” and a three-channel animation of iPad drawings, presented on three large screens. Perhaps because the exhibition’s portraits are some of the most compelling works on view and because the images of particular places feel so specific, the cumulative effect is of a kind of visual diary, writ very large, a deceptively light-hearted, deeply personal account of Hockney’s interests, travels, friendships, and affections.

The earliest included works are testimony to the seductive touch and the precocious ability to compose a surprising picture that won Hockney attention and sales before his graduation from art school. There’s something very European about these paintings, with their suave combination of Abstract Expressionist sweeps and delicate, often referential drawing. Even back then, when Hockney was still plainly searching for a personal identity, investigating a wide variety of clues from the work of the artists he admired, there’s a unifying subtext of trying to reconcile the allure of illusionistic painting with the glamour and currency (at the time) of abstraction.With its ambiguous figure and casually lettered inscriptions, The Cha-Cha That Was Danced in the Early Hours of 24th March (1961) clothes the slender dancer and his reflection in loose, gestural, quasi–Ab Ex strokes and places him against a background of geometric blocks of flat red, blue, black, and the ochre of canvas, turning a minimalist abstraction that—for another artist—might have been an end in itself, into mere accompaniment. The floating written messages further change our reading of the space by remaining unequivocally on the surface. The fusion of pictorial languages, the varied paint applications, the stylized reference to the figure, and, above all, the accomplished pictorial structure are all hallmarks of Hockney’s work of the time. They are evidence, too, of his awareness of the work of R. B. Kitaj and of some of the pioneers of British Pop art, with its stylish, playful return to figuration as a deliberate challenge to the dominance of abstraction. The simultaneously brash and refined coexistence of what would once have been called “high” and “low” art allusions in Hockney’s work of the early 1960s could be read (at least by those of us of a certain age) as the visual equivalent of the music of his fellow Northerners, The Beatles. Add, almost immediately, the presence of Hockney’s London dealer, the irrepressible John Kasmin, and, a few years later, of dresses and fabrics designed by Hockney’s friends, Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, all occasionally represented one way or another in his early paintings, and you’ve got some of the best of Swinging London covered.

David Hockney, Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, 1963, Oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A key—and prophetic—work among the earliest paintings is Domestic Scene, Los Angeles (1963). Inspired, we learn, by a photo in a muscle magazine produced in Southern California, it presents a profile view of two young men, one under a shower, the other clad in a small apron and white athletic socks, washing his companion’s back. A red telephone, a vase of lilies, and a Matissean flowered armchair, anchored by a dark bar, a triangle, and a rectangle, all pushed to the edges of the canvas, turn the blank expanse into a suggestion of an interior. Despite its title, the painting predates Hockney’s first trip to Los Angeles, a city he had long dreamed of visiting. (Hockney would soon live there for an extended period, later returning for a few years to Yorkshire, and now lives there again.) California light and L.A.’s quirky urban- suburban landscape would, of course, become major themes in Hockney’s work. The homoerotic character of the image, which would also be a persistent theme, was already present in works he made before graduating from the Royal College, a daring declaration of self at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the United Kingdom. Accentuating the diaristic quality of the exhibition is a “real,” more intimate version of Domestic Scene, Los Angeles entitled Man in a Shower in Beverly Hills  (1964), a more robust, less tentatively rendered figure against a grid of tiles, made in response to Hockney’s eventual, formative trip to the West Coast.

One draws conclusions about the triggers for Hockney’s paintings at one’s peril.

Some fanciful landscapes made in the mid-1960s, occasionally with some of the whimsy of Saul Steinberg’s unforgettable city and country drawings, record Hockney’s travels through the American West, while deadpan “portraits” of conspicuously unremarkable office buildings document his fascination with the American-ness of Southern California. The next group of works, made in the late 1960s, bears witness to his delight in brilliant California light and American space. Everything becomes more economical and ample. Color intensifies and clarifies. Many works in the selection emphasize water—water gleaming in swimming pools, cascading in showers, gushing from neatly aligned lawn sprinklers. Water is absent from a full-length double portrait from this period, American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968), but the image is almost as much about the glass of the four-square minimalist building behind the figures as it is about the two protagonists and the works of art around them. It’s as if Hockney’s goal were to capture the impossible: the play of California light on something transparent, unstable, and ungraspable. (The south of France seems to have had a similar effect.) At the Met, the installation underscores the impact of intense, seaside California light on the artist with the contrasting works in the next gallery: a group of cool, precise, meticulously naturalistic double portraits from the late 1960s though the early 1970s, paintings that, for the most part, evoke more Northern, urban locales.

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler & Christopher Scott, 1969, Acrylic on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The selection includes such well-known psychologically loaded works as Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968) (the two in matching armchairs, held away from us by a large table, with a stack of fat books in front of each man, like a surrogate figure)— admittedly a California picture. There’s also the New York image, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1968), with the legendary curator, in shirtsleeves, on a fabulous pink Art Deco sofa and his friend standing rigidly nearby in a raincoat. For British content, there’s a double portrait of Hockney’s parents, at once affectionate and oddly formal, with neither figure seeming particularly relaxed, and Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970–71) (Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell, and their handsome white cat, in contre-jour against a window flooded with pale light). The delicacy and scrupulous attention to particulars in these works announce that Hockney has been focused on the representational painting of the past, including the great English tradition of portrait painting, a connection emphasized by these paintings’ generally subdued palette. The range of mostly pale colors, notably different from the light-struck California paintings, is suggestive not only of the eighteenth century but also of Renaissance fresco painting.

Yet one draws conclusions about the triggers for Hockney’s paintings at one’s peril. The generous space of the New York and British “old master” portraits, the sense that the figures inhabit large, high-ceilinged rooms, both seem to echo the amplitude of his California paintings, while the usually frontal poses and geometric background elements are unambiguously modernist, as are some of the allusions. Witness Looking at Pictures on a Screen (1977), a full-length profile portrait of a chubby Henry Geldzahler in Hockney’s studio, against a geometric background with reproductions of works of art. Like Édouard Manet’s celebrated portrait of his champion Émile Zola, with its Velázquez reproduction and Japanese print, Hockney’s painting of his curator friend itemizes some of the artist’s sources. We recognize well-known paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Piero della Francesca, and Vincent van Gogh, clues to the character of Hockney’s trued and faired interiors, his hieratic figures, and his occasional taste for pattern and intense color. We can read Looking at Pictures on a Screen as an oblique homage to Manet, but the picture is a very deliberate reversal of the portrait of Zola; the subject is standing instead of seated, the space is expansive instead of compressed, and, perhaps most important, light-washed pale hues take the place of the velvety blackness of Manet’s portrait. Still, there seems to be some connection—a flavor or a memory.

David Hockney, Colorado River, 1998, Oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It becomes increasingly clear, as we move through the exhibition, that Hockney has always been testing himself—and continues to test himself—against a broad range of works from the art of the past and recent past. His composite Polaroid collages of the 1980s—the “joiners”—and some of his paintings on conjoined multiple canvases can be described not only as technical experiments or investigations of perception, but also as contemporary explorations of the implications of Cubism’s shifting viewpoints and fractured planes. Hockney’s composite images make literal the frequently cited idea that Analytic Cubism’s fragmentation and transparent overlappings are equivalents for the disjunctive way we perceive the world around us. Yet we read Hockney’s mosaics of not-quite-continuous images quite differently than we do Cubist works. While some of the “joiners” suggest movement, in the way Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs do, most of the others encourage us to reconstitute mentally the original image, despite the insistent presence of the organizing, flattening grid.

Hockney has frequently worked at an enormous scale, designing opera sets.

The spatial adventurousness of the “joiners” and works such as the exhibition’s much-less-fragmented photo-collage of the artist’s mother, from 1982, prepares us for the last sections of the installation, devoted to large, ambitious landscapes made in England and California over the past three decades. They are unified by their saturated color and their frequent nods to Pablo Picasso’s post-Cubist efforts, allusions as insouciant and free-wheeling as the hints at—say—Piero in the solemn clarity of the portraits of the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of all, the landscapes are about space, from a gently rolling expanse of neatly delineated green fields in The Road Across the Wolds (1997), to a superheated, rather disorienting 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998), to the unexpected angles of the terrace of Hockney’s current California residence—which is not to ignore the abstracted roller-coaster forms and switchback zooms of the paintings from the early 1990s. The generous space and economy of many of the later paintings remind us that Hockney has frequently worked at an enormous scale, designing opera sets. The theater’s built-in contradictions of reality and illusion may account for the tipping and compression of even the deepest, most initially convincing allusions to space, such as the receding roadways in the six-panel A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March (2006) or in Hawthorne Blossom near Rudston (2008). In these, an apparently straightforward evocation of depth is called into question by assertive paint application and the interruptions, both subtle and obvious, created by the use of multiple canvases. Together, they announce that the painting is a material fiction made by a particular individual. The unpredictable shifts in the views of the deep blue terrace and its railings in a group of garden and house paintings from 2016 and 2017 continue the theme. Hockney may be probing the limits of conventional representation, paying homage to Picasso’s late paintings of Vallauris, or simply having a fine time painting familiar subjects with the license and lack of inhibition that art historians describe as late style—or all of the above. The animated iPad drawings of views through his Yorkshire bedroom window, made between 2010 and 2013—informal responses to changing seasons and light—certainly suggest relaxed pleasure, while the intensity of backlit iPad color seems to inform the paintings made since then.

Installation view, “David Hockney” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Drawing—not on an iPad—has always been Hockney’s strong suit, as attested to by a wall of figures and portraits, most executed with taut, expressive ink lines, plus a few watercolors, placed at the installation’s mid-point. The group is even more diaristic than the selection of paintings. We recognize Hockney’s parents, friends, lovers, fellow artists, and selected celebrities, including Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell, R. B. Kitaj, and Andy Warhol. His art dealer, Kasmin, makes an appearance, as do W. H. Auden, the restaurateur Peter Langan, and the architect Colin St. John Wilson, all conjured up with elegant restraint and the simmering energy of concentration—which is not the same as evidence of effort. But four drawings, all dated 1999, at the extreme left side of the grouping, lack that invigorating tension. Instead, they seem slick and—well—predictable. According to their labels, they were made in pencil with the use of a camera lucida, which reminds us of Hockney’s much-publicized claim that many artists of the past employed mechanical devices to achieve the astonishing naturalism of their drawings. Witness, Hockney has said, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ ravishing portrait drawings. In Hockney’s view, only a mechanical aid would make possible the amount of detail manifest in these commissioned works, produced largely to generate income. If anything, the slipperiness of Hockney’s camera lucida drawings should be proof that Ingres never used such a device.

“David Hockney,” as installed at the Met, along with the show’s comprehensive catalogue, edited by the Tate curators Chris Stephens and Andrew Wilson, have much to recommend them, starting with the lean-but-representative selection, which treads a nice balance between well-known works and surprises. I would have loved to see Hockney’s early series of drawings A Rake’s Progress (1961–63) again, but you can’t have everything. I’m still not sure where Hockney belongs in my personal pantheon, but that’s another matter.

1 “David Hockney” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on November 27, 2017 and remains on view through February 25, 2018.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 45
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