A year ago or so, my interest in David Hockney was rekindled after seeing A Bigger Splash, a documentary made by Jack Hazan in the early '70s about Hockney (his work, his friends) and certainly one of the best films ever on a contemporary artist. It made me yearn for actual Hockneys - beachy pinks and swimming pool blues along with the exact shades (natty beiges) of Boho London. When I said this - that I was hungry for Hockney - certain supposedly with-it art-world types groaned. There is, I guess, the difficult case of Hockney, not unlike that of other artists who become as famous, if not more so, for their own image as for the ones they make. In addition to the caricature - dapper dandy (bow tie, zippy shoes, round specs, boyish do) - that precedes anything he does, there is, well, what you might call the gay thing. Along with but differently than Warhol, Hockney infused the work that made him famous from the get-go with a matter-of-fact dose of carefree homosexuality. Naked boy beauties diving into pools, lounging in the aubade sheets, showering together or alone, sprucing up various hosts' environs - at first they lent his art a casual note of scandal, though to some it now seems passe or, even worse, safe and blue-chip. The earlier period is seen as quaint, and most of his recent endeavors - flowers, dogs, landscapes - are shelved, somehow not worthy of contemplation, which is one meaning of "blue-chip."
Of course, sorting all this out would be really easy if I liked most of the recent work as much as the earlier things, if the curved stripes and the thin strip of blue sky and the plowed fuchsia fields of Double East Yorkshire, 1998, were as pre-possessing as, well, the painting from which A Bigger Splash takes its title, or Still Life on a Glass Table, a brilliant early '70s study of the erotics of banality. And where Hockney's photoworks idiosyncratically broke new ground - fracturing perspective and messing with photography's momentariness by attenuating its frozen flash across a series made into a collage - these new paintings (even the supremely daunting A Bigger Grand Canyon, a vivid sprawl of wet-clay golds, sunset reds, and desert pinks) seem satisfied with gorgeous color and a tug-of-war against the "tyranny of vanishing-point perspective." Many of the paintings become illustrations of his earlier ideas rather than an ongoing exploration. That they don't quite succeed may have more than a little to do with the fact that they borrow so heavily from Hockney's opera set designs; even if both employ paint, what makes a stage design amazing may have nothing to do with what works in a painting.
Despite my reservations, there is pleasure to be had. Hockney's charcoal, pencil, and pen-and-ink drawings are masterful - energized and energetic - and in the paintings, loaded with touches that out-Grandma Grandma Moses, he retains a truly remarkable gift for color, although, in the vibrancy of the hues, he's abandoned the subtlety of his early works for vivaciousness. The sheer gutsiness or foolhardiness of the project - painting something as impossibly grand as the Grand Canyon (on sixty canvases, making up one mother of a work) - pleases. To show how great a painter Hockney is may take a ruthlessly winnowed retrospective (on the order of the intimate Peter Blum gallery overview of Francesco Clemente), but whether that comes sooner or later, this variegated bouquet of paintings does not dissuade me from my assurance of Hockney's importance. Like Auden a generation before him, Hockney's move to the States began with a brilliant flourish, a daunting body of work already behind him; some of what followed is difficult to reconcile with those earlier beauties.
Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum based in Los Angeles.
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|Title Annotation:||Los Angeles Louver, Los Angeles, California|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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