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David Hockney and Friends

Though the artist doesn't think of himself as a painter of portraits, a new exhibition makes the case that they are key to his work.

Big predictions can take time to come true. When David Hockney, a working-class Yorkshire lad, left his Bradford school at 16 to go to art school, his English teacher and form master assessed him in these terms: "He has undoubted ability in art, especially in cartoon and sign-writing work. Although fundamentally a serious-minded boy, he has allowed his form-mates from his third-form days, to make him an almost legendary figure of fun. It is only in his last year that he has shown his serious side—but we have enjoyed his company." The headmaster appended a kindly valediction: "Best wishes to him in his new start. He will be glad to be rid of the 'figure of fun' & to establish himself as a sincere & serious person by steady work & merit."

For half a century, the boy from Bradford, as he still often calls himself, has been hard at it. He's 69 now, and the honors have accumulated. New work shows up constantly in commercial galleries as well as in such institutional extravaganzas as the Whitney Biennial of 2004, in New York City, and the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition that same year, in London.

"Hockney is so famous, so popular, such a great talker and character that it's easy to take him for granted as an artist," Jonathan Jones, the art critic of The Guardian, observed not long ago. "If you’re a critic, it's tempting to give him a bash. But Hockney is a significant modern painter. He is one of only a handful of 20th-century British artists who added anything to the image bank of the world’s imagination."

A major retrospective is an occasion, and such a thing is before us now. "David Hockney Portraits"—featuring some 150 paintings, drawings, etchings, photographic collages and watercolors—covers the work of more than 50 years. Alphabetically, the list of sitters in the show's catalog runs from the poet W. H. Auden (whom Hockney remembers as grumpy) to Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters magazine, mostly by way of people only their immediate circles will have heard of. The show made its debut at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in February and is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through September 4. Los Angeles is one of the cities to which Hockney's ties are closest; the other is London, where the tour concludes at the National Portrait Gallery (October 12, 2006 to January 21, 2007).

"There are no glamorous people in this show," Hockney said in Boston. The history of Western art has produced two basic types of portraitist. On the one hand, the professional brush for hire, who specializes in the rich and mighty: Hans Holbein the Younger, say, or Frans Hals, Sir Anthony Van Dyck or John Singer Sargent. Then there are the inveterate students of human nature: Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh. Hockney places himself squarely in the latter camp: a portraitist for art’s sake. The commissions he has accepted over the decades are scarcely enough to count on the fingers of one hand.

Starting in spring 2005, Hockney has been immersed in a project of a very different sort: the landscapes of his native Yorkshire through the four seasons. "Portraits of trees!" he quips. Though he made suggestions for the current show, he didn't choose the pictures. "Ordinarily a show of portraits by one artist can be boring," he says. "The paintings must be interesting as paintings. That's why I wouldn't have thought of this. I've never thought of myself as a portraitist. But then I thought: I did portraits all the time." To encounter the paintings in full-court press is an occasion as novel for him as it is for any visitor.

He is not displeased, nor need the visitor be, that the definition of a portrait has sometimes been stretched beyond the breaking point. Does the vaguely autobiographical series "A Rake's Progress" (1961-63)—in 16 satirical etchings of his first impressions of America, inspired by the 18th-century printmaker William Hogarth—in any sense constitute a portrait? Not really, any more than does a full-length rear view of a nude in a swimming pool. Even so, there are aspects of Hockney's work—the landscapes (Grand Canyon, the Hollywood Hills), exotic locations (formal gardens of Japan, the Alhambra), the theater (ravishing sets for opera productions of Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, Ravel)—even the most latitudinarian curators would have had to exclude. No matter. "Art's subject is the human clay," W. H. Auden wrote in his long "Letter to Lord Byron." Hockney loves the passage and quotes it often: "To me Art's subject is the human clay, / And landscape but a background to a torso; / All Cézanne's apples I would give away / For one small Goya or a Daumier." Portraits—people—prove a uniquely apt lens for bringing Hockney's life's work into focus. It might, in fact, have been a neat touch to recycle Hockney's title for his first solo show, in 1963: "Pictures with People In."

The Boston opening was a glittering affair, sumptuously catered, with free-flowing champagne and an open bar. Friends, portrait sitters and collectors had flown in from across two oceans. Seeing the portraits in the same galleries as many of the living originals was illuminating. "Art makes me see!" Hockney says, recalling the time in Chicago in 1995 when the great Monet retrospective opened his eyes to the bushes on Michigan Avenue, to the "beauty of a shadow on a leaf.” In Boston, that remark took on new resonance. Stepping from the exhibition over to the smoking tent (the artist is a militant smoker), one had further opportunity to study quite a few of his subjects. The spontaneous play of expression—of glance returned and glance deflected, of curled lip or rising eyebrow—cried out for a great sketch artist's quick, accurate hand. Alas, the man of the hour wasn't working that night.

Called to the microphone in an auditorium filled to capacity, Hockney was brief in the extreme. "I've had one or two other big exhibitions," he began, beaming shyly (or was that a blush?). "It would never have occurred to me to do portraits. I don't know what to say. Thank you all." His tweedy clothes and his build, stooped from a lifetime behind the easel, recalled a bluff, outdoorsy country squire. Dancing eyes and an impish smile belied his years. His speech could not have lasted 60 seconds, yet his glow of deep pleasure gave it an eloquence.

On the whole, Hockney liked what he saw. Strolling through the exhibition the next morning for another private look, he gave an approving nod to the first of his rare commissioned portraits: the ailing Sir David Webster, retiring general administrator of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, painted in 1971. Against a blank wall, Sir David is seen in profile, gazing like a weary eagle from the roost of a Marcel Breuer chair. A vase of coral-pink tulips—Hockney's favorite flower—placed low on a glass coffee table brings the composition into coolly formal balance.

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