Take a Bow, David Hockney


David Hockney, "Domestic Scene, Los Angeles." 1963, oil on canvas. Private collection. © David Hockney
A blockbuster retrospective at The Met Fifth Avenue surveys the celebrated artist’s six-decade career
BY VAL CASTRONOVO

Think of him as an heir to Picasso and Matisse, a lover of cubist tenets and a great colorist. David Hockney, now 80, is a giant in the art world and still painting — every day.

He showed up at a preview of his latest show at The Met looking dapper as ever in cap, blazer, red tie, gray slacks and turquoise sweater-vest with matching turquoise socks, a playful nod to his signature aquamarine swimming pools. He used a black walking stick and seemed genuinely amused by the awe his appearance inspired. The black-rimmed owl glasses made him instantly recognizable as he slowly moved through the crowd to a chair beside the lectern.

“I want my work to be seen. I don’t have to be seen,” he said in brief remarks to a rapt audience. “Thank you very much.”

He may be keeping company on the museum’s second floor with Michelangelo, whose divine drawings are down the hall. But this art world royal was taking it in stride and enjoying the moment. “David wears his sophistication and his eminence lightly,” Sheena Wagstaff, head of the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, said.

The blockbuster show, comprised of paintings, drawings, photocollages and compositions on the iPad, is the fullest presentation of the artist’s works to date and includes his latest painting, “A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden” (March 2017), a picture of his home in Hollywood Hills with chopped-off corners.

Fans hoping to see his famous near-life-size double portraits and an abundance of California swimming pools and brightly hued landscapes will not be disappointed. The exhibit is an exhaustive, roughly chronological survey of Hockney’s work from his early abstract experiments at the Royal College of Art in London (1959-62) to his enchantment with naturalism after his migration to Los Angeles in 1964, where he has lived on and off since leaving the U.K.

Born in West Yorkshire in 1937, Hockney has never been wedded to a particular style of art. Many of his works, the early ones especially, are an amalgam. The influences go back 5,000 years. As Wagstaff said: “By his own description, Hockney’s influence was ‘the history of pictures,’ that is, humankind’s repertoire of artistic achievement since people first drew a line on a surface to describe what they saw in the world.” But with a special hat tip to the double figures in Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation,” Chinese scroll paintings, the fauves and Picasso’s dismissal of single-point perspective in favor of multiple vantage points.

Hockney painted what he knew. He reveled in the familiar, the stuff of his own experience. In the early pictures from the 1960s, he bravely outs himself, years before homosexuality was de-criminalized in Britain in 1967. He drew inspiration from graffiti in public toilets in the London Underground and from masters of abstraction like Dubuffet to create tributes to homosexual desire, some quite explicit. Phallic forms cheekily mix with scrawled words, lines from Walt Whitman and coded references to men he was smitten with.

Upon graduation from the Royal College of Art, Hockney was already a celebrity. The work softens and figures emerge in domestic interiors, suggesting partners in committed relationships (e.g., “Domestic Scene, Los Angeles,” 1963). Hockney was consumed by a desire to paint relationships, intrigued by the psychological dynamic — the tension — between couples.

Showstoppers “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” (1970-71), “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968), and “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott” (1969) are among the five grand-scale double portraits of friends and acquaintances here. (Geldzahler was The Met’s first curator of contemporary art.)

The wedding portrait of designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell in their flat in Notting Hill, separated by a long open window, riffs Jan van Eyck’s iconic marriage painting, “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434). The dog in van Eyck’s masterpiece is a symbol of fidelity; the cat on Ossie’s lap is a symbol of waywardness. Ossie’s right leg is extended, with his foot buried in the carpet, creating a kind of ominous line in the sand. Feelings of estrangement are palpable — and prophetic. The couple split in 1974.

According to Helen Little’s essay in the catalog, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” from 1972 is the climactic work in the series and signals the painful unraveling of Hockney’s relationship with Peter Schlesinger, whom he met in California in 1966. Schlesinger, depicted nude by the artist in several works, is fully clothed here. “Peter ... appears introspective and remote both from the viewer and from the distorted swimmer whom he looks down upon,” Little writes.

The rest of the galleries are largely devoted to color-saturated interiors and expansive landscapes that the eye can roam — Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, Yorkshire. A fan of smart technology, Hockney remains hip and continues to innovate. In his most recent painting, he flaunts his obsession with “reverse perspective,” a technique in which lines extend out toward viewers, inviting them in.

“I don’t think there are any borders when it comes to painting. There are no frontiers, just art,” he recently said.