Simple, Open Pleasure in a New Landscape

In the central gallery housing Hockney’s drawings is a crayon portrait from 1974 of Andy Warhol, looking frail and a little lonely on a stuffed green chair in Paris. A comparison between the two artists, who were friends, is instructive. The parallels are clear: both gay, blond icons of Pop art, both protégés of Henry Geldzahler, both sons of working class parents, both prolific and witty writers. But here the similarities end, and the two artists begin to seem like inversions of each other. After the initial erotic frenzy of his work from the 1960s, the sexuality in Hockney’s art largely retreated behind discreet visual conventions; sex in Warhol was comparatively hardcore, particularly in his films. Likewise, the theme of death is explicit in Warhol and circumspect in Hockney. Warhol’s narrative voice is arch and elusive, willfully blank; Hockney’s direct and incisive, and at times, almost doggedly earnest. But the most striking zone of commonality and difference has to do with the way the two artists treated the issue of mechanical reproduction.

The philosophy of David Hockney

David Hockney. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 20, 2017–February 25, 2018.

There are some painters whose influence on the course of painting is so diffuse as to become unremarkable. This is the case with the illustrious octogenarian David Hockney. Without him, it’s hard to imagine the category of queer figurative painting, for example, or the casual semi-abstraction seen lately in much American art. The point goes double for painting in Los Angeles, the city where Hockney has made most of his work, with its cerulean swimming pools, indolent bathers, and cubist highways, and which now looks (the city, and much of its painting) like the displaced Yorkshireman’s art.

By the same token it’s also banal to note these connections, along the lines of observing that many rock bands over the years really owe a lot to David Bowie. Hockney and his work have always been admired and distributed (among living artists perhaps only William Wegman, of the trained Weimaraner dog photos, has more publications to his name) and the price of this degree of middle-class, poster-above-the-dentist’s-chair cultural saturation is the dereliction of serious critical regard. I’m not alone in having encountered and idolized Hockney during my formative years as a painter, and therefore in having spent a lot of time over the years minimizing, second-guessing, if not disavowing altogether, that early artistic crush. Sometime during college, for instance, I consciously changed my handwriting to resemble Hockney’s casual-yet-elegant scrawl. I had completely forgotten this deliberate transformation—forgotten the why behind the how, the invisible Hockney hand guiding my own—until I started thinking about this essay. One’s relationship with Hockney, in other words, is like any influential romance: easier to renounce than repress.

His retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a good occasion to take stock of the artist’s long and varied career, to contemplate both the official Hockney mythology (joyful experimenter, charming virtuoso, like Picasso without the sadism) and the official Hockney critique: that, compared to other great artists of this era, he’s a bit on the thin side, philosophically speaking.

The retrospective takes as its starting point Hockney’s turn as the star pupil at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he’d already become a minor media figure in the city: a pacifist vegetarian who affected Stanley Spencer’s bobbed haircut and National Health glasses and was, above all, very openly gay at a time when not many young men were, even in the progressive circles of the art world.1 Though he could draw and paint angelically from high school on (an early canvas of the artist’s father shows all the hallmarks of the celebrated portraits of two decades later, though in nascent form), the earliest works in the show are studious, somewhat reserved takes on a generalized Abstract-Expressionist language that you could have found at any art school in the Western world around 1960. Hockney’s key development was to enhance these compositions with snatches of language (suggestive fragments recalling Earl’s Court graffiti or “dear diary”-type confessions) and crudely rendered glyphs that first hinted at, and then quickly began to shout about, male homoerotic desire. Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11, wherein two limbless, engorged ogres on a bed mutually fellate each other, big tubes of Colgate toothpaste where their penises would be, is a boundary-testing work of art for any era, much less Britain in 1962. 

It wasn’t long until the abstract color fields and anxious brushwork receded into something like theatrical backdrops, against which Hockney staged more and more cohesive pictorial dramas. He painted about his friends and lovers, trips to America and Europe, movies, magazines, and poetry (Whitman and Cavafy were important references) with buoyancy and charm. Looking at his vignettes of the early 1960s in chronological order, you feel the last, sooty residues of wartime austerity gradually leaving English painting, to be replaced with the sunny, sexy new feelings of the postwar. This effect is as much about form as content: not only do the pictures incorporate more and more of the consumer-culture signifiers of Pop art, but they literally get brighter and brighter as the years progress.

This, in turn, is due to two developments. First, Hockney gradually switched from oil paint to acrylic, a postwar art material par excellence that first became commercially available in the 1950s. Pure pigment suspended in a water-soluble plastic emulsion, acrylic allowed him to build paintings in quick, semi-translucent layers laid down step-by-step. The technique suited the artist, who had trained as a printmaker and whose linear, essentially drawing-centric style wasn’t always served by the fusty, gelatinous hassle of oils.

And second, of course, was the United States, where Hockney traveled several times during and immediately after art school. He first went to New York, where, in every art student’s wet dream turned real, he sold his student prints to the Museum of Modern Art and immersed himself in the nightlife of a new (and vastly more permissive than London) city. He first visited Los Angeles in 1964, road-tripped with friends to and from teaching stints in Iowa and Colorado, and then settled in Santa Monica a few years later.

“In California, the bars don’t close until two,” the newly-peroxided artist drawled in a 1966 film interview, sending up the stereotype of the young Englishman abroad, mildly alarmed by and absolutely in thrall to the licenses afforded by life in America. He turned this attitude, a self-mocking yet earnest touristic enthusiasm, into a useful position from which to make art. Hockney took up essential features of Southern California (the blueness of its air, its smattering of glassy office blocks and spiky, phallic palms, its climate-defying displays of open water) that an artist from the region would disregard as clichés. The overall pictorial agitation of his student works gave way to more ordered, sometimes classical, compositions. The third room of the retrospective gathers nearly all the greatest hits of Hockney’s first Los Angeles period, the splashes and swimmers and showerers, and the canvases radiate simple, open pleasure in a new landscape and the many new ways one could possibly paint it.

Next room, from Los Angeles to London to Paris, and portraiture. From 1968 to 1972, Hockney executed a decade’s worth of portraits, very big and mostly of significant couples in naturalistic spaces: Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy in Santa Monica, in modernist armchairs with stacked books and a bowl of fruit; Met curator Henry Geldzahler and artist Christopher Scott in New York, glass coffee table, tulips; fashion designers Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, cat, telephone, Notting Hill flat. Markedly more subdued than Hockney’s previous body of work, these paintings show an era and a social circle in the throes of melancholy. Their theme, intimacy and its opposite, is enhanced by the size of the canvases, which makes the images cohere only at a distance. “They’re all about emotional disconnection,” a man behind me in the crowded gallery to whispered to his partner. The disconnection isn’t just emotional: when you get up close, all the elements of the pictures seem fragmented and abstract.

The midpoint of the exhibition is a small room of Hockney’s drawings and photographic works—too small to represent the critical role of non-painting media on the development of Hockney’s practice. A sampling of the small crayon, pencil, and ink portraits of friends and lovers that the artist has made consistently throughout his career lets us glimpse a casual, intimate counterpoint to the formality of his large-scale paintings. A handful of the Polaroid collages that Hockney produced in the early ’80s only begins to suggest the depths of the love-hate relationship the artist would go on to develop with the medium. There is no record of Hockney’s long involvement with printmaking—no etchings, lithographs, silkscreens, or Xeroxes.

The next gallery sees the artist, having achieved an apex of restrained naturalism, going modern again. In the ’80s, back in Los Angeles and pursuing extended engagements with opera set design and Picasso, Hockney produced a series of inventive, and sometimes wholly invented, landscapes and interiors. Gone is the High Renaissance perspective of his large portraits; replacing them is a goofy take on cubism. The paintings are thin, fast, and loose, and the colors, untethered to any observed conditions of light, achieve straight-from-the-tube brilliance, sometimes to the point of mania. The best ones work a bit like Chinese landscapes; the elements of the greater Los Angeles area are flattened onto the picture plane and converted into abstract, textural phenomena built around simple ways of manipulating paint: roads are crawling black or blue squiggles, trees are washy clouds of translucent green, city blocks are scraped-out grids over flat zones of color.


The rest of the show whizzes through the quasi-abstract work of the ’90s (Hockney’s drolly titled “Very New Paintings”), and then his post-millennial plein air landscapes. The most recent of these landscapes were painted in Yorkshire, in oils, and they synthesize many of the different approaches to painting taken in the lifetime of work preceding them. The Yorkshire paintings incorporate the multiple-perspective constructions of the preceding Picasso-meets-Nickelodeon invented landscapes, while returning a measure of naturalism to the color palette. They’re constructed but spontaneous, Arcadian yet cheeky, and so on. A group of strong paintings of the artist’s Los Angeles home, executed over the past few years, brings us up to the present. The show ends with three animations on mid-sized flatscreen displays demonstrating the artist’s work over the past decade with digital paint programs for the iPad.

I find Hockney’s iPad work—about which a lot of commentators have been greatly excited—irritating. It strikes me that one of the least interesting artistic uses of the computer is to treat it like a sketchbook. But the digital monitors do bring in a theme that’s downplayed in the retrospective (due to its focus on Hockney’s paintings at the expense of works in other media) and which I think is key to situating the artist in relation to subsequent developments in contemporary art—namely the role of technology in his artistic processes.

In the central gallery housing Hockney’s drawings is a crayon portrait from 1974 of Andy Warhol, looking frail and a little lonely on a stuffed green chair in Paris. A comparison between the two artists, who were friends, is instructive. The parallels are clear: both gay, blond icons of Pop art, both protégés of Henry Geldzahler, both sons of working class parents, both prolific and witty writers. But here the similarities end, and the two artists begin to seem like inversions of each other. After the initial erotic frenzy of his work from the 1960s, the sexuality in Hockney’s art largely retreated behind discreet visual conventions; sex in Warhol was comparatively hardcore, particularly in his films. Likewise, the theme of death is explicit in Warhol and circumspect in Hockney. Warhol’s narrative voice is arch and elusive, willfully blank; Hockney’s direct and incisive, and at times, almost doggedly earnest. But the most striking zone of commonality and difference has to do with the way the two artists treated the issue of mechanical reproduction.

Between the two of them, Hockney and Warhol exploited nearly all of the ways an image can currently be fashioned, duplicated, and distributed, from the traditional printmaking techniques of etching and lithography to modern developments like photography, screenprinting, film, video, Xerox, fax, and all of their digital counterparts and extensions (naturally, one wonders what Warhol would’ve done with Photoshop). Hockney is an enthusiastic proponent of these technologies and a keen observer of how they work; many of his paintings thematize the omnipresence of image reproduction in contemporary life. (He’s also uncannily gifted at making works of art that translate well from the wall to the page or the screen; it’s no stretch to think that his entire oeuvre from art school onward has been produced in full anticipation of its eventual publication in other media.)

But Hockney’s attitude toward the techniques of image reproduction remains strictly technical. His works in other media are, ultimately, extensions of the art of painting and tools for delivering a certain kind of image to the viewer—namely, the kind of image David Hockney tends to make, usually but not exclusively through a process rooted in observation and manual drawing. Therefore, a digital Hockney painting done with the open source “Brushes” application for the iPad will resemble a Hockney done in oils and will be (despite having different formal qualities and capacities for exhibition, reproduction, and distribution than one of his old-fashioned “analog” paintings) more or less the same kind of thing. Across all media, an essential Hockney-ness persists.

While it’s true that a Warhol is also visually unmistakable as a Warhol, the signature technique of his work—the photomechanical silkscreen process—plays a different conceptual role in his art than similar processes do vis-à-vis Hockney. Warhol used the camera and the printing press to bypass, rather than extend, the tradition of autographic painting, with its attendant criteria of mastery and innovation and expectations of unique, subjective content. The system of image reproduction itself both determined form and became content for Warhol in a way it never truly did for Hockney. This turns out to have had serious implications for how art unfolded since the 1960s, and the Warholian paradigm, wherein the artist is to a greater or lesser extent detached from the whole enterprise of self-expression via skilled handicraft, has had a lot more traction in contemporary art in general than the Hockneyesque has. 

Hockney, who never particularly felt the need to disavow his own mastery or dismantle the Western tradition of painting, began to get a little shirty about this state of affairs around the turn of the millennium. Concerned that his kind of painting was in danger of losing its foothold for good within the culture of art, and seeming to fixate on the hegemony of the photographic image as the reason for it, he embarked on a gallant quest to reconfigure the relationship between the painterly and the photomechanical. The result, a book of art history for the general audience called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001), presents us with something like Hockney’s version of media theory.

Extracted from the Da Vinci Code-esque intimations of century-spanning art-historical conspiracies through which it was marketed, the book’s basic premise is deftly argued and fairly simple: optical technologies have played a longer, and larger, role in the development of Western painting than we imagine; painters have been using cameras and lenses since cameras and lenses were first around. This straightforward observation has since allowed Hockney to perform some interesting philosophy-of-art judo. By arguing the thorough integration of technology into painting from the outset, he could position photography (the most durable stage of this optical, technological lineage, which extends directly into the digital era) as a subset of a general imaging practice most comprehensively represented by the idea of painting. This would, somehow, redeem painting from the charge of historical obsolescence. It’s a wacky idea, though no wackier than any other artist’s ideas about art. Pursuing it further (and with a smaller axe to grind) might offer new possibilities for thinking about image and technique beyond the current terms of debate.

Regardless, the first years of the 21st century have brought us a lot of painting that returns, entirely without irony, to the kinds of concerns Hockney is interested in, and the sense of traditionalism he’s often charged with. Some of it is entirely reactionary, but some of it is pretty interesting. Counterintuitively, a lot of it has been nurtured by the internet—and by a community of viewers much broader than that served by the narrow distribution channels of the contemporary art world. So, there’s certainly some usefulness in a general theory of painting that can accommodate the many ways those intimate painterly acts, looking and picturing, have always been tied to the histories of light-based technologies. But ultimately, Hockney’s theories aren’t that important; the main thing is the brilliant example that his art provides: of painting as a popular—not just Pop—art.

  1. Anything biographical here is taken from Christopher Simon-Sykes, David Hockney: The Biography, 1937-1975 (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2012) or David Hockney, That’s the Way I See It (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993). 

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