Requiem For a Not-So-Heavyweight: Hockney at the Met

David Hockney is a master conjurer of placid images and what such images conjure. A narrationist and seducer, a liquid storyteller using visual language: line, color, space, composition, texture, style and scale. His compositions have a prodigious elegance. One cannot help feeling joyous when looking at his art. His flamboyant use of the light side of colors is a visual delight and proves the point that all colors go together.

Hockney is like a book illustrator who has eliminated the subtitles found in children’s’ tales and graphic novels, replacing them with personalized titles, each image a story on its own. He presents pictures open to interpretation; but just in case the viewer should be confused, the works’ titles serve as crib notes. Where such titling is insufficient, the implied narrative is amplified by curator’s notes. There is a Hallmark Card quality to many of Hockney’s paintings–a near-kitsch aspect that evokes sanguine homilies to nature and to a life of pleasure minus emotion.

Possessed of the Yeoman quality Yorkshiremen are known for, Hockney shoulders the craft of an artist like a Journeyman…much the way a Blacksmith might face his furnace. The pleasure he derives from working as an artist is clear. Hockney leans into his work like a long distance walker pushing his way into space while his mind is voraciously consuming the view before him, editing it as it turns into a painting or drawing.  His work embodies an exuberance not found on many gallery or museum walls.

The titles of his pictures, which often invoke Matisse, Picasso, Geldzahler, Hogarth…“old masters,” reveal Hockney’s sense of worth. These nods are meant to add gravitas. This is the crowd he’d like to be in.

If Hockney’s oeuvre is seen as an expression of his personality, it seems he’s a sort of post-pubescent prodigy who revels in the physical luminescence of the human body; sitting, standing, swimming or taking in a landscape whether it’s Outpost Drive, Nichols Canyon, or someone’s (he tells us whose) swimming pool. With Hockney the story comes first. Or to say it more precisely, the story is inseparable from the process of assembling a piece, be it a collage of polaroids or a painting. This gives the viewer an experience of entering the mind of the artist. (His drawings, by contrast, are less engaging.) His best work has the vitality of perpetual youth. I am reminded of a line from a show tune….”Anything you can do I can do better,” because his work seems to strut its stuff of color and composition, letting it all hang out there on the walls.

Hockney revels in his command of a visual vocabulary.  He channels Van Gogh’s stippling patterns of color to limn a sky and Matisse’s color schemes to represent interior spaces. Cubism and Surrealism are present. There is no Strum und Drang, no suffering subjects–just wonder and excitement at what the visual world has to offer.  Hockney is a colorist and his use of color for its own sake draws the viewer in. He’s aware that a color only has “definition” in the context of other colors.  In-other-words, a color is known by the company it keeps. In the figurative paintings and drawings there’s an absence of emotion. (I’m reminded of the portraits of Alice Neel.)  His subjects tend to have blank expressions. They appear in the picture plane like props on stage sets. The other objects in his paintings, the plants, books, furniture are tokens placed on the picture plane like sign posts to direct the viewer to consider the larger picture.  His paintings are never about the subjects or objects themselves…instead they are there to demark the artist’s own story.

Scale is important to him for its own sake. “You need a bigger picture to see things,” he has said.  His search for scale has led to his use of grids. These took the form of multiple canvases of the same dimension, onto which as a group, a larger image has been painted.  Hockney also incorporates grid-like structures in his assembled Polaroid works which cultivate a cubist-like diffraction of images.

Shortly after the first iPads were introduced, Hockney saw an opportunity to control a digital palette and style. In the Metropolitan’s show, there are three displays which present the creation of a digital painting. They underscore how those paintings could be reproduced on a much larger scale than the iPad’s screen.  Hockney was thinking big when he conceived them.  As I watched the paintings develop on screen at the Met, the time-lapse projection rates reminded me of a trailer for a 1956 movie, The Mystery of Picasso, by filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot.  It is two minutes twenty seconds long, about the same length of Hockney’s iPad creations.

Hockney is a systematic painter. He tends to stick with a modernist style for a stretch as if to demonstrate his newly acquired facility to represent the world like the luminaries of the past century.

His voice, despite being sanded to a sheen of polished roughness from smoking, reflects his Yorkshire roots which are always on display, at once confrontational and standoffish.  At eighty years he remains an enfant terrible.