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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Hence, for instance, the experimental collages of Polaroids, snapshots and video stills that Hockney began making in the early 1980s and took to calling "joiners." The process taught him a lot about creating a sense of movement and feeling of space, and about collapsing an extended span of time into a single image. It has been said that with this technique of overlapping photographic images, and their inevitable slight discontinuities in time, Hockney taught the camera to draw. Thus he has taken what he understands to have been Picasso's Cubist agenda further. The point is not so much to show all sides of an object at the same time, but rather to enter into much closer proximity to it, to explore it more intimately. Doing so takes time, which may be why Hockney so seldom shows figures frozen in dramatic action. Hold a gesture and you get a pose: something inert, dead, fit only for the camera. The stillness in a Hockney painting is in a sense the summation of movement not seen: movements of the body, movements of thought, encompassing, as a snapshot cannot, stretches of time, rather than a single point.

That quality is one he looks for in the work of other artists too. Hockney himself has sat for portraits by many artists, from Warhol to British artist Lucian Freud. For the exacting Freud, he posed without regrets for a marathon 120 hours. "You see the layers," he says. Indeed, the weary-eyed portrait reveals hurts and gloom he does not always care to show in company. Not that Hockney doesn't see them himself. They are there in unsparing self-portraits from the past two decades. What's different about the self-portraits, though, is the fierce quality of Hockney's gaze locked on the mirror's.

In whatever medium, what drives Hockney is the need to render the act of looking. The faces he has chosen to look at are those of friends, lovers and other members of his household, including pets. "Oh, you're painting your dog," a friend once exclaimed in surprise as she walked into Hockney's studio to find a painting of his dachshund Stanley on the easel.

"No," came the reply. "I'm painting my love for my dog."

And kin: Hockney’s father, Kenneth, an accountant's clerk of independent political convictions and fastidious sartorial habits; his mother, Laura, a Methodist and strict vegetarian, pensive and petite; his sister, Margaret; his brother Paul. Studying the parents' faces, it strikes me that David has inherited Kenneth's face and Laura's eyes. But family resemblances are elusive; a few steps on, I change my mind. "If you don't know the person," Hockney has said, "you really don't know if you've got a likeness at all."

Kenneth, as it happens, was the subject of the first painting Hockney ever sold: Portrait of My Father (1955), which was also one of his first oils. Recognizably a Hockney, yet tense and hardly prophetic in its morose tonality of blacks and browns, it was originally shown in the mid-1950s at the biennial Yorkshire Artists Exhibition in Leeds, principally a vehicle for local art teachers. Hockney put no price on it. He figured no one would buy it anyway. Even so, the opening on a Saturday afternoon, with free tea and sandwiches, struck him as "a great event, an enormous event." (He was in his late teens.) Imagine his amazement when a stranger offered him ten pounds. Since his father had bought the raw canvas ("I'd just done the marks on it"), Hockney wanted to clear the sale with him first. Kenneth said to take the money ("You can do another").

But there's more to the story. Not only had Hockney père bought the canvas, he had also set up the easel, a chair for himself to sit in and mirrors in which to watch his son's progress. He kibitzed constantly, complaining notably about the muddy colors. Hockney talked back: "Oh, no, you're wrong, this is how you have to do it, this is how they paint in the art school."

That spirited debate set a pattern Hockney still follows when the occasion warrants. Even now, he will set up mirrors for his sitters from time to time. Charlie Sitting, painted in 2005, is a result of this process. Poetic and allusive, the work seems a sort of reverse-gender illustration of the Victorian ballad "After the Ball." Dressed in a tuxedo, the subject—Charlie Scheips, a freelance curator and former Hockney assistant—slouches in a chair, tie undone, a flute of champagne in hand, a faraway look in his averted eyes.

Actually, Scheips told me at the Boston opening, the suggestion of heartbreak is pure illusion. Scheips donned his after-six finery early one morning at Hockney's request, then assumed the position. Knowing his model's interest in seeing him work, Hockney set up the mirror on which Scheips' eyes are fixed. Another painting from the same year, Self-portrait with Charlie, depicts Scheips in his dual role as model and onlooker, perched on a side table, frankly absorbed in Hockney's unseen canvas-within-the-canvas.

Hockney doesn't mind being watched. On the contrary, it's what he lives for: "'I'm just looking,' people say. 'Just looking!' Looking is hard. Most people don't."


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