By Helen A. Harrison
To say that David Hockney has been around is putting it mildly. His peripatetic life and personal experiences in Europe, Asia, and the United States, where he has lived on and off for half a century, have been the sum and substance of his work since his days at London’s Royal College of Art. The chronicles of those public and private journeys are now on display in “David Hockney,” an exhibition that commemorates the artist’s 80th birthday, on view through February 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Misleadingly described in the Met’s media release as a major retrospective, the exhibition is far from a complete survey of Hockney’s long and illustrious career. It neglects his illustrated books and prints, such as “A Rake’s Progress,” his suite of 16 autobiographical etchings inspired by William Hogarth, which made a great stir in the early 1960s with its faux naïve style and explicit homoerotic content. It also ignores his theater décor. Nevertheless, it spans the full six decades of his work, from 1960-2017, and shows both his versatility and his virtuosity as a painter, draftsman, photographer and experimenter with visual technology.
Looking at Hockney’s colorful, decorative canvases of the past 20 years, especially his homages to the lush tropical garden and brightly painted woodwork of his home in the Hollywood Hills, it’s easy to forget how transgressive his early work was. The first gallery offers a sampling of paintings from his student days that illustrate his precocious sophistication. They include motifs from popular culture — proto Pop art, if you like — and graffiti, expressed in an idiom that synthesizes gestural abstraction and cartoon-like stylization. Witty renderings of consumer products, from a packet of his mum’s favorite Ty-Phoo tea, incongruously inhabited by a nude male figure, to Colgate toothpaste tubes as phallic symbols, the imaginative flights of fancy delve deep into the artist’s gay psyche. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Britain until 1967, so such imagery was daring, not to say shocking, outside the hidden world of the gay subculture.
Hockney’s frank depictions of homosexual themes were to some degree made more palatable by the deliberately primitive way he rendered them. Simplified forms, flattened perspective and a crude drawing style made them seem somehow guileless, like the honesty of a child blurting out uncomfortable truths in public. In his California paintings from the following decade, for example, this approach gives his pictures of naked men showering or displaying themselves provocatively an emotional distance, a coolness that blunts their eroticism. Many of the later 1960s and ’70s canvases further explore this idea of detachment, especially the double portraits of intimates, who seem more apart than together. Others are literally composed of detached motifs, like “Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians,” a montage of images — or maybe imaginings is a better term — inspired by trips to the American Southwest and Switzerland.
If anyone thinks that Hockney’s reductive draftsmanship indicates a lack of skill, a wall of his drawings dispels that notion. He could draw like Ingres if he chose to, as we see in his sensitive character studies from life, including W.H. Auden, Andy Warhol, John Kasmin and the artist’s parents. Three of the drawings were made in 1999 with the aid of a camera lucida, an apparatus that reflects an image onto the surface on which the artist works. Hockney’s fascination with mechanical visual aids is well known. His admirable open-mindedness and curiosity has led to interesting experiments with various devices, such as the Polaroid camera and the iPad, both of which are represented here by successful examples. The camera lucida drawings, however, are failures, lacking the vitality and immediacy of his earlier, more spontaneous works on paper.
Unlike the titular character in Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress,” Hockney has gone from strength to strength. From his early success as a leader of the generation of British artists whose brash irreverence was the visual-art counterpart of the Beatles, to his recent iPad drawings, shown as a three-panel animation that channels Matisse in the digital age, his powers of invention and adaptation seem inexhaustible. If some of his detours, like the silly so-called “V.N.” paintings and garish 1990s landscapes, have led him off course, he quickly gets back on track by returning to the California of his dreams and his reality. Yes, it’s eye candy, but how sweet it is.