New Hockney exhibition
‘He can churn out paintings like this in his sleep’
David Hockney may have sprung to fame as a pop artist, but he has come to be regarded as the great champion of traditional artistic values. The Sixties wonder boy, now 78 and arguably Britain’s greatest living artist, bangs on endlessly about the value of drawing and hard observation. He has published studies of the techniques of the Old Masters, and much of his work these days falls into traditional genres. Yet while this exhibition presents itself as an exercise in one of them – the portrait – it is in many ways as much a piece of pop art as anything Hockney has done, featuring a host of faux-naive touches and zinging colour.
The 82 works here were all painted over a period of two years under identical conditions in Hockney’s LA studio, and each portrait was done in just three days on identically sized canvases.
The subjects, who include wellknown figures such as architect Frank Gehry, comedian Barry Humphries and textile designer Celia Birtwell, as well as Hockney’s assistants and neighbours, all sit in the same pale yellow chair, positioned on a turquoise floor with a blue background, or a blue floor with a turquoise background.
The effect as you walk into the Royal Academy’s Sackler Gallery is stunning: the paintings, hung on deep Venetian red walls, seem to glow from within: the turquoises and blues really jump out, and the faces tend to show bright pink against these high-key backgrounds. Yet this exuberant, almost overwhelming impression, rapidly wears off. The exhibition as a whole is instead characterised by a slightly numbing competence.
Hockney, we know, can churn out paintings like this in his sleep. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the jolting effect of the heightened colour, we’d probably be nodding off ourselves. These paintings don’t draw you in, but keep you at a consistent distance. A characteristic expression is deftly captured, but there’s little beyond that. Looking at the paintings of people I’ve met is particularly dismaying, whether it’s the mask-like visage given to former RA curator Sir Norman Rosenthal or the detached, journeyman caricature of writer and Daily Telegraph contributor Martin Gayford.
Looking closely at the paintings is revealing in that there’s often almost nothing there. A mouth and a cheek or the fold of a shirt over a stomach are indicated with the thinnest of lines and bits of cack-handed wash. That isn’t bad in itself; the illusionistic side of painting, the different ways artists conjure reality from bits of canvas, paper and paste have been preoccupations of Hockney’s from the beginning of his career.
There is entertainment value in the scale, subject matter and conception of this exhibition. Yet I walked through it unsure whether to be more impressed by Hockney’s ability to physically pull the whole thing off or more appalled at the fundamental lack of ambition – that an artist of his ability is not trying to push into riskier, more difficult territory at this late stage in his career.
Indeed, the show’s most perplexing image is the first, in which Hockney’s assistant, Jean-Pierre Goncalves de Lima, sits with his head in his hands in the exact posture of the figure in van Gogh’s famous Sorrowing Old Man.
Is this a vain attempt to equate Hockney’s portraits with genuinely great art or an homage to the all-ornothing personal statement he hasn’t been able to make himself? I very much hope it’s the latter.
Vivid: Hockney’s portraits of Barry Humphries, left, and Rufus Hale