Visual Arts Review: David Hockney and the Art of Absorption

The subjects of David Hockney’s portraits have been totally absorbed into his art and autobiography.

“David Hockney Portraits” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

By Peter Walsh

BOSTON, Mass.— The biggest crowds at the MFA’s “David Hockney Portraits” hover near a wall of large-format etchings titled “A Rake’s Progress” (1961-63). Based on a famous set of 18th-century satirical images of the same name by William Hogarth, Hockney’s “Rake” etchings are one of the finest achievements of his young career — and probably in the history of English printmaking. Strictly speaking, though, these prints do not even belong in this show.

Despite their autobiographical content, the “Rake” images are not portraits. They make up the first in the three brilliant series of etchings Hockney did in the ’60s, which also include ” Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C. P. Cavafy ” (1966), and “Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm” (1969). But they are not true illustrations, either.

In Hogarth’s originals, a young English prodigal squanders his youth, money, and ultimately his sanity in reckless dissipation. Steeped in Hockney’s own, off-center humor, with his peculiar shapes and oddly abbreviated, doll-like figures, the remake depicts Hockney’s own first trip to New York City , his adventures amid the terrors and temptations of American culture, his first taste of artistic success, and his first contacts with the New York gay scene. Hockney has entirely transformed Hogarth’s narrative — to the point of partly reversing its meaning — by making it into his own memories.

Something quite like this is also going on in the “portraits” in the MFA exhibition. The people in the show — family, friends, lovers, heroes, celebrities, important patrons, as well as near strangers — have been totally absorbed into Hockney’s art and autobiography. These pictures, for the most part, are not about them. They are about him.

To be sure, similar struggles for dominance happen with nearly every powerful portraitist (John Singer Sargent comes to mind). But Hockney’s favorite models appear so often, and are so thoroughly integrated into his life, that they often seem to have no independent existence. Still, Hockney’s personal charm, talents, and skills are all so prodigious that no one seems to mind.

Take the wonderful “Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices” (1965), one of the strongest formal sittings in the show. Hockney’s father — a dapper and eccentric accountant from provincial Bedford , in Yorkshire — sits next to a pile of cubist blocks borrowed from a Leger canvas. The vaguely phallic shapes lined up above his head are, we’re told in a label, brushstrokes borrowed from Abstract Expressionist paintings.

The senior Hockney’s Cezanne-like face wears an indulgent expression, despite being hemmed in by his son’s work tools. He is, in fact, one of only a handful of the painter’s models who resolutely keep their own identities while being wrapped in Hockney’s art. In “Artist and Model” (1973-74), by contrast, Hockney even manages to upstage his greatest hero, Picasso — making the Master old, wrinkled, and fully clothed, while he portrays himself as young, beautiful, and nude.

Much of cocky energy in these early works comes from Hockney’s mischievous mixing of soda and vinegar — abstract shapes and expressionist splotches with classical realism, deliberate crudeness with breathtaking technical virtuosity, childlike simplicity with bawdy Music Hall humor and homoeroticism. Later on, things calm down quite a bit. The huge talent remains but the chemistry changes. And the explosions happen a lot less often.

Hockey’s large, mid-career portraits in oil never have quite the charm and erotic charge of his drawings and prints, or the early paintings. In key works like “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott” (1969), Hockey develops a standard set of elements for his double portraits — near photographic style, stark, fashionably modern setting, one casually seated, frontal figure contrasted with another standing stiffly and awkwardly in profile. These paintings are filled with an intriguing, suggestive stillness, but promise psychological depths they never quite deliver.

In the late ’60s, Hockney’s homoerotic work, a hallmark of his entire career, turns to true portraiture. By then, Hockney was living partly in Los Angeles. There he met Peter Schlesinger, a classic Californian in Hockney’s eyes, who became the artist’s lover and favorite model.

Daring and even revolutionary at the time, Hockney’s images of Schlesinger and other beautiful young men seem far less edgy now that erotic male images sell almost as many commercial products as female ones. But their basic point — that the male body, too, could be a sex object — helped bring about just this change in mainstream culture.

For many of his male nudes, Hockney uses traditional techniques, his breathtaking line, and classical references — voluptuous Boucher girls with exposed, upturned buttocks or languorous Ingres odalisques — reversing the gender while leaving in all the original erotic tricks. As beautiful and touching as these images often are, they suffer a bit from the artist’s heavy breathing. More convincing are the equally ravishing paintings and drawings of his friends, Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, stronger for their air of aesthetic detachment.

“A Bigger Splash,” Jack Hazan’s film about Hockney and the breakup of his relationship with Schlesinger, was released in 1974. The movie — a surprise hit in some of America’s more decadent cities — featured many of the same people and paintings in the MFA exhibition. It more or less completed the total fusion of Hockney’s career, life, and relationships with his status as an icon of gay pop culture.

About this time, Hockney’s art begins to stiffen. The brilliant flashes of abstraction, the mind games, the silly shapes, the thrilling, deadly accurate jokes, slowly drain out of the work. As the trajectory of his fame and success move ever upwards in the ’70s and ’80s, Hockney adopts a realist style of icy, almost frightening precision. The brilliant draftsmanship caresses expensive clothes, fashionable furnishings, wealthy faces. Some of these scenes (“Portrait of Sir David Webster,” 1971) are so cold and empty you can hear the rush of the air conditioning.

Sadly, things go mostly down hill from here. There are a few — too few, really — of Hockney’s fascinating, neo-Cubist photo collages from the ’80s. But the visitors thin out in the last galleries and even the sitters start to look bored. The subjects are trendier and older: there are lifeless repetitions of the earlier double portraits, painted in a self-consciously awkward style that — from one so deeply talented — seems pure affectation. There is a wall of dreadful, garishly painted heads — visitors to Hockney’s LA studio. They resemble nothing more vividly than those framed cartoons of patrons in once-trendy restaurants, whose famous subjects have long since moved on.

“David Hockney Portraits” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA through May 14, 2006. Afterwards, the exhibition will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 11 — September 4, 2006) and then to the National Portrait Gallery, London (October 12, 2006 — January 21, 2007).

Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. As an art historian and media scholar, he has lectured in Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, London, and Milan, among other cities and has presented papers at MIT eight times. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in anthologies. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than eighty projects, including theater, national television, and such award-winning films as Spotlight, The Second Life, and Brute Sanity. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard University.

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