Alan Suckling and Pádraig Murphy
“pictures”—a bag it shares not only with photography but with cinema and illustrations of all forms. This is an understandable bid from a practitioner who, having reached a plateau of recognition in the art world during his youth, fell out with its increasingly conceptual mainstream from the 1970s onward and never wholly regained its critical approval, but who still has proved a robust survivor able to reach a public so wide that he is virtually immune from intellectual condescension. Look, he is effectively saying, my practice runs rings around your highfalutin theories. But the maneuver hits two linked obstacles. One is that if, as Gayford rules, “abstraction . . . is outside our history of pictures”—excluded from it for not “looking at something”— then that history so patently lacks a handle on twentieth-century painting that it can be little more than whimsical. Figurative and abstract modes have intertwined at least as frequently and productively as canvases have with snapshots, California Art Collector, with its nod to the abstractionist Bridget Riley, being a minor instance to hand.
The other, adjacent problem repeatedly hovers in the margins. For instance, Hockney, discussing the almost undisputable use of lenses by Vermeer, adds that he
probably used similar techniques to many other artists. He just painted his pictures better. Understanding a tool doesn’t explain the magic of creation. Nothing can.
We can all agree with that. But it is useful to give a cohesive term to such mysterious recognitions of quality, which is the point at which the word “art” gains its force. We dangle that notion over and above the extant records of production, those flattish rectangular objects, positing a principle higher and perhaps deeper than any particular picture of something.
At a time when such a notion of art feels particularly tenuous, with a sense of onward direction uniting few working artists, this Hockney retrospective in all its expansiveness could be taken as thoroughly apposite. Here is a model of a lateral approach to visual affairs, in which the video and the iPad lie side by side with the canvas and photo composite, all surfaces intended to please: for it is a fact of behavior that “people like pictures,” as Hockney remarks, and the more varieties of attentiveness that are laid out for inspection, the better that taste is serviced. The ground on which they are laid feels mildly warm and seldom hard, for resistant realities have no place here. Yes, Hockney, in marked opposition to nearly every major artist of his day, is an apostle of niceness and kindness.
Yet experience of the exhibition surely complicates this typecasting. To go from work to work is to discover how some rugs sink deeper than others, and that worthwhile art turns on depth, not on breadth. What flickers through the show’s finest pieces, flaring most vividly into life in images from 1960s California such as The Room, Tarzana but intermittent to this day, is an alternating current between attention and affection: a yearning that somehow to make could be to have and to share, checked by a suspicion that it can’t be. Marco Livingstone, a scholar with a thorough knowledge of Hockney, writes well in the exhibition catalog when he invokes “the key role played in the best of his art by the most admirable of all human emotions: love.”