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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.

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The artist looked more dubious about The Photographer and his Daughter, from 2005, depicting Jim McHugh, a noted Los Angeles professional, and his teenage daughter, Chloe. Provocative hand on hip, Chloe glares out from the canvas as her father looks on from a chair, rubbing his chin. (Some viewers have been reminded of the unsettling eroticism of Balthus, the French-Polish antimodernist.) The night before, pretty in pink, Chloe had accommodated the news crews by standing by the painting and striking the same pose. But the canvas as a whole is a study in powdery blues, which Hockney is now thinking might look too dry. His preferred ratio of oil to pigment would explain that. "I don't use much oil," he notes. "I left Los Angeles just after finishing this one. I would have varnished it otherwise. That makes the darks richer too." He licks a finger and runs it over one of Chloe's blue eyes, scandalizing a curator. "See the difference?" Yes, for a second or two. Then the trace evaporates.

Over the decades, Hockney has evolved into the living artist most deserving of the title Old Master: eager pupil to Giotto, Jan van Eyck, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Ingres. His principal forebears among the moderns include van Gogh and, above all, Picasso, whose 30-plus volume catalogue raisonné ranks as a prize possession. To Hockney's regret, he and Picasso never met. But after the Spaniard's death in 1973, Hockney came to know and work with Aldo Crommelynck, Picasso's printer for a quarter century, and Crommelynck told Hockney that he was sure "Pablo" would have liked him. Hockney paid posthumous tribute to Picasso in 1973-74 with his etching Artist and Model—showing himself (nude) and the older painter (in signature sailor's garb) seated face to face across a table.

The Hockney depicted in Artist and Model looks seriously studious, but the image is graceful and witty too. Did the figure of fun from the Bradford Grammar School ever go away? Peter Schlesinger, the young California Adonis who wandered into Hockney's drawing class at UCLA in 1966 and became his muse and lover for the next five years, once described his first glimpse of the artist this way: "He was a bleached blond; wearing a tomato-red suit, a green-and-white polka-dot tie with a matching hat, and round black cartoon glasses."

Revisiting the artist's life via the portraits in the exhibition may make viewers wish to turn back the clock to see him as he was then; thanks to the movies, they can. The bleached blond—Rodinesque of stature, petulant, languid, his nose to the canvas—is on view in all his outlandish glory in the strange, once scandalous, art-house film A Bigger Splash by the director and screenwriter Jack Hazan, first released in 1975. In a seamless blend of documentary and speculative fiction—part Proust, part Warhol—the film traces the slow death of Hockney's romance with Schlesinger. When the film was made, Hockney was but a boy wonder on the art scene, nothing near the full-blown media star he was to become. But he made good copy. As a figurative painter coming up in an age of abstraction, he had the appeal of the eccentric. In a Carol Channing/village-idiot hairdo, wearing mismatched socks, cutting a moody swath through what Time had dubbed Swinging London, he seemed rather a clown, if mostly a sad one.

Yet within the flow of Hazan's narrative, the viewer can already catch sight of Hockneys that by now stand as icons of 20th-century art: those vistas of California's cloudless skies, palm trees (stout or spindly) and, oh, those swimming pools. More to our immediate point, we catch glimpses of standout paintings from the current show: Beverly Hills Housewife (1966), for instance, which depicts Betty Freeman, who might be more accurately identified as a photographer and patron of new music. Likewise present: Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, from 1969. An early and powerful champion of Hockney's, Geldzahler held a succession of influential cultural positions in New York (including curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) until his death in 1994. He was not handsome, but he had a presence. In the double portrait, he imperializes the center of a pink Art Deco sofa vaguely reminiscent of an open seashell. His portly frame is clothed in a three-piece business suit and tie, minus the jacket. Skin shows above the sock on his right shin. Lips parted, sedentary, judgmental and remote, he stares straight out from behind rimless glasses, freezing out his partner, Scott, who stands in profile at far right in a belted trench coat. In Hazan's film, Geldzahler is seen studying his glasses as Hockney has painted them, an exercise visitors to the current show will find well worth their while. The highlights on the lenses and reflections of details in the room evoke the uncanny clarity of early Flemish painters.

The formality and stillness of the scene have put some critics in mind of a latter-day Renaissance Annunciation. Old Master allusions like this crop up all over the place in discussions of Hockney's art. To Barbara Shapiro, co-curator of the current show (with Sarah Howgate, of the National Portrait Gallery, London), this makes perfect sense. "Thanks to his book Secret Knowledge, people know that David is interested in the optical techniques of the Old Masters," she says. "But what they don’t necessarily get is how much he loves the paintings as pictures, for the spaces they create and the stories they tell and the way they bring to life people from long ago and far away. More than other contemporary artists, he goes to exhibitions of artists from the past for the sheer excitement of it. Every time I visit his house, he's showing me art books and catalogs. His collection is amazing. It's exciting to talk with him about what he's looking at."

Hockney's immersion in the art of the past can be evident even in his depiction of a single face. In 1989, he would paint Geldzahler again—by now snowy-bearded—in a knit cap and plaid hunting jacket looking for all the world like a Titian doge. Or take the double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, depicting friends of the artist's from the London fashion scene and their cat. Mrs. Clark—nee Celia Birtwell—soft and guileless in a floor-length robe of deep purple velvet, poses to one side of a half-shuttered French window. Mr. Ossie Clark, barefoot, in a sweater, a cigarette in hand, reclines in a cane-back metal chair, his air tense and guarded. On Mr. Clark's lap, a snow-white cat gives the viewer its back. The portrait has been likened—fancifully—to the Van Eyck masterpiece The Arnolfini Wedding, a painting that Hockney examined in his book Secret Knowledge.

Still: that Old Master mantle. Does it compute to confer such gravitas on an artist so easy to enjoy? The keynotes of his work throughout a long career have been curiosity and joie de vivre, combined with a certain propensity to wear his heart on his sleeve. Like Matisse, he is a symphonist of the feel-good palette. His frank appreciation of male skin, especially in pools and showers, has opened him up to imputations of decadence and frivolity. "It's useful to recall," wrote Time, "that one of Hockney's enduring contributions to the history of the nude—we mean this—is the tan line." Besides, there is the matter of his technical experimentation. We're talking Polaroids here, video stills, photocopies, art by fax and, in a bold leap backward, the cumbersome camera lucida.

At the time, these departures could seem aberrant, misguided or simply silly. "David Hockney Portraits" offers a panorama of the work in virtually any medium you like, and the verdict, in retrospect, looks very different. As a wall label for the Boston installation proclaimed, "Hockney is unafraid of change." True enough, where technique is concerned. But changes in technique have served a consistent purpose: to approach, ever more closely, the circle of intimates who are the objects of his constant gaze.

Of course, one's vantage point affects the view. Deeply. Perspective, as Hockney once explained to a new acquaintance at a dinner party, is a matter of life and death. One-point perspective as codified in the Renaissance, he demonstrated with a little illustration, is a dead view, a mechanical view, the view of an unmoving, unblinking eye. The eye, in short, of the camera. But the human eye doesn't see like that. It's constantly in motion, even when we are standing still. Rather than one vanishing point, there should be vanishing points without number. "We’re 3-D creatures," Hockney says. The artist's task, as he conceives it, is to capture the act of seeing as we experience it in the confines of two dimensions.

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