Let­ters from

Alan Suck­ling and Pádraig Mur­phy

The New York Review of Books - - Contents -

“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.”

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