David Hockney: Current

December 21, 2016
David Hockney inside the world-premiere exhibition David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor
David Hockney inside the world-premiere exhibition David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor

In 1988 a London critic described David Hockney as “the lost boy of contemporary painting.” A decade later, another newspaper columnist compared him to the Ancient Mariner, as a garrulous old codger. It’s a measure of Hockney’s elusiveness over the course of a very long, very successful career.

There’s some truth in both claims. The “lost boy” line was meant to ridicule Hockney’s lifelong fascination with new media, but his subject matter has remained defiantly traditional – encompassing portraiture, genre painting, still life and landscape. When he was the darling of swinging London in the sixties Hockney refused to be labelled a Pop artist. Then and now, he sees himself as a Realist. He may be a gay icon but as a painter he is remarkably straight – and forever willing to discuss his theories about art. If he is a better talker than a listener, it’s partly because of his deafness.

In a catalogue essay for the exhibition, David Hockney: Current, at the National Gallery of Victoria, British art writer, Martin Gayford, refers to the artist as a “radical traditionalist”. It sounds confusingly like someone who sees the Italian Renaissance as the pinnacle of cultural achievement and everything since as a decline. This hardly describes Hockney, who is willing to question every premise and convention in the search for truth.

Gayford and Hockney have recently co-authored the book, A History of Pictures, which features a series of dialogues on images ranging from cave paintings to stills from Hollywood movies. In this we get a better sense of Hockney’s so-called radicality. Conventional art history dwells on masterpieces and movements, but Hockney believes that to understand the universal appeal of art we should be thinking in terms of “pictures”. It’s a category that blurs the lines between high and popular culture, encompassing paintings, drawings, photographs and films.

Installation view of David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.© David Hockney Inc

Installation view of David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.© David Hockney Inc

This is the antithesis of the snobbery that puts painting on a pedestal and dismisses photography as a secondary artform. It’s also a rejection of the reverse snobbery that would relegate painting and drawing to the history books, and hail the future of art as digital.

Hockney’s view reminds me of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous one-liner: “This is not a just image, it’s just an image.” The artist can be highly critical of photography but happy to use it as a tool. From sophisticated digital imaging he will switch back to drawing on paper with a stick of charcoal. It’s the picture that counts, although the medium is crucial to the way any image is executed and received.

As the title suggests, David Hockney: Current is not a retrospective. That exhibition, to be held at Tate Britain, beginning on 9 February, will be one of the museum’s biggest ever shows. It’s timed to celebrate the artist’s 80th birthday in July.

The retrospective will be part of a sequence that began with Hockney’s record-breaking survey at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2012, followed by another blockbuster the following year, at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. These shows underlined Hockney’s credentials as the world’s most popular living artist; indeed, as one of the few living artists known outside of art circles. It was a safe bet that an Australian museum would seek out a Hockney show, and predictably enough it was the National Gallery of Victoria that took the initiative.

With so many key works ear-marked for the Tate one might imagine the NGV would be struggling for content. This may have been true for any artist apart from Hockney, whose work ethic is so prodigious he seems to become more prolific as he grows older. It’s partly an ageing painter’s need to keep producing while he still has the energy and the desire. It’s partly the fact that Hockney has surrounded himself with assistants who help him carry out his ambitious projects. Above all it’s his embrace of technology that has made it easier and faster to create a vast new body of work.

In the first room of this exhibition alone there are reputedly 1,200 images. They are not hung floor-to-ceiling but contained within the glowing screens of a set of iPads and iPhones attached to the walls. We stand and watch as a picture appears in front of our eyes, drawn by the invisible hand of the artist. Every gesture, every line, has been recorded by the computer to be replayed on demand.

nstallation view of David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.© David Hockney Inc.

Installation view of David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.© David Hockney Inc.

There is no single image that will stop viewers in their tracks, but Hockney’s facility and inventiveness is staggering. There are landscapes, still lifes, portraits, animals, even birthday cards and jokey messages. Hockney wakes up in the morning and draws the scene outside his window. He looks down and sees his phone charger, which he draws. Along comes a cup of tea, and there’s subject number three. He could do it all day.

It’s an inspiring performance for all would-be artists in the audience. Hockney gives the impression that making art can be as simple as breathing, although we know his fluency is due to the fact that he has been on the job, non-stop, for over sixty years.

It’s also a matter of temperament, because it’s far more common for artists to become less productive and adventurous as they grow older. Towards the end of their careers figures such as Edward Hopper or Balthus would produce no more than a painting or two per year. This is obviously not the way Hockney intends to sign off.

Not only can these iPad images be enjoyed on-screen. Hockney has found they can be printed out on a large scale and framed to look like massive paintings. In this show he concentrates on landscape, which has been a preoccupation for the past decade, following his return to Yorkshire in 2004. Back in Los Angeles since 2013 he has focused on locations such as Yosemite National Park.

Hockney’s iPad images remain the work of a dedicated painter-draughtsman. In style there is not a lot of difference between these pictures and his landscapes made with the brush. The biggest is the monumental, Bigger trees near Warter or/ou peinture sur le motif pour le nouvel age post-photographique (2007), painted en plein air on 50 separate panels. It’s a work of pristine beauty and simplicity that stole the show at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2007.

David Hockney, English 1937–Bigger trees near Warter or/ouPeinture sur lemotif pour le nouvel age post-photographique, 2007, oil on 50 canvases, 459.0 x 1225.0 cm(overall)Tate, London. Presented by the artist 2008 (T12887)© David Hockney. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney, English 1937–Bigger trees near Warter or/ouPeinture sur lemotif pour le nouvel age post-photographique, 2007, oil on 50 canvases, 459.0 x 1225.0 cm(overall)Tate, London. Presented by the artist 2008 (T12887)© David Hockney. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

Current also includes several examples of Hockney’s experiments with multi-channel video, including a suite called The Four Seasons (2010-11), which depicts a road near his Yorkshire studio at four different times of the year, each piece combining nine different videos on a single projection. This work has been gifted to the NGV.

There is also a series of recent photo-based works that challenge conventional one-point perspective, notably a piece that wraps itself around the floor and ceiling of an entire room.

Balancing these experiments is the series, 82 portraits & 1 still life (2013-16), shown for the first time in London earlier this year. Over many months Hockney undertook a portrait marathon, spending three days on each picture. The subjects are all friends or the children of friends, both famous and obscure. The chair is always the same, the backdrop a uniform blue or green.

Installation view of David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.© David Hockney Inc

Installation view of David Hockney: Current at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.© David Hockney Inc

It’s not a procession of masterpieces but an extended artistic meditation through which we become progressively more conscious of the way portraiture reflects personality by means of pose, gesture, dress and expression. Subjects reveal themselves in the way they slouch in the chair, or sit upright. Their choice of clothing, its casualness or formality, tells us much about the way they see themselves and how they wish to be seen.

Barry Humphries is the only sitter to wear a hat, demonstrating the flamboyance that characterises all his portrait appearances, with the notable exception of Louise Hearman’s Archibald Prize winner of earlier this year. In Hockney’s marathon, depth becomes less important than productivity. The compensation is the opportunity to see so many different personalities all captured by a single hand. It may be an endurance test but it’s the obvious pleasure Hockney derives from such self-imposed tasks that makes him seem so much younger than any other artist of his generation.

David Hockney: Current
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
until 13 March 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 24th December, 2016