The Road Through Woldgate Woods: David Hockney at The deYoung

© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

David Hockney—The Black Glacier 2002

David Hockney,The Black Glacier, 2002
Watercolor on 6 sheets of paper (18 x 24″ each)
36 x 72″ overall

Six Fairy Tales, David Hockney’s pictorial interpretation of The Brothers Grimm, was my introduction to the artist in the late 70s.  Rather than portray moments of narrative action, Hockney chose to focus on the characters and their environments.  While telegraphing Hockney’s signature (and enduring) interest in places, people and certain still-life subjects, these etchings quietly enrolled me into Hockney’s view of the world—equal parts familiar, banal, whimsical, amusing, beautiful, sweet, ugly, and, sometimes, just a bit deliciously sinister.

David Hockney, Larry Gagosian,

David Hockney, Larry Gagosian, 28-29 September, 2013
Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36″

Relentless exuberance might be the best way to describe the Hockney on view in “A Bigger Exhibition,” the de Young’s current extravaganza. The show, aptly named on many levels, features 18,000 square feet of Hockney—some 398 works. Of that number 78 were completed in this year alone, a testament to the artist’s prodigious work habits.  The show displays quite a number of huge pieces, constructed, as are his videos, in grids of smaller canvases. Plein air landscapes of his beloved East Yorkshire countryside and portraits of his friends comprise the bulk of the exhibition, though it includes other pieces, including most interestingly The Great Wall.

David Hockney at the deYoung for press preview

The exhibition spans work completed in 1999 to portraits finished this month, though 2002 might be the most important milestone. This was the year Hockney returned to painting after a multi-year investigation of the use by Renaissance artists of the camera lucida, which culminated in the release of the fascinating and controversial Secret Knowledge.

David Hockney. A Bigger Matelot Kevin Druez 2, 2009

David Hockney. A Bigger Matelot Kevin Druez 2, 2009
Inkjet printed computer drawing on paper,
mounted on Dibond
63 7/8 x 42 7/8″

Hockney facilely creates in a variety of visual media, including iPad software and video. With the digital installation room the museum’s curators have accomplished a miraculous feat—people lingered, seeming to view works for longer than the all-too-common 30 second scan. (Although on a recent visit there was still a lot of shutter snapping. Hello, would you please put your iPhone away and just really look for a moment?)

David Hockney, Karen Wright2002 watercolor on paper 24 x 18 1/8"

David Hockney, Karen Wright, 2002
Watercolor on paper
24 x 18 1/8″

Color is Hockney’s seductive Siren, and she is both an asset and a liability. Taken as individual compositions, the bright saturated colors delight. Hockney Woods is a cheery place full of daringly-deployed “tube” greens mixed to a wide range of tints and shades.   Hockney uses the complementary antidote, magenta, in just the right amount to soothe those highly-agitated greens.  This palette does not replicate the lush Yorkshire countryside so much as symbolize it.  You won’t probably recognize this as England. With a color subconscious permanently colonized by Los Angeles,  the road to Woldgate Woods runs through Santa Monica.

En mass Hockney’s saturated colors have a different effect. A room of huge paintings have the power to overwhelm. I quit one gallery with a brain stimulated into nervous excitation.

David Hockney, Woldgate, 6-7 February, from 'The Arrival of Spring in 2013 Charcoal on paper, 22 5/8 x 30 1/4"

David Hockney, Woldgate, 6-7 February, from ‘The Arrival of
Spring in 2013′

Charcoal on paper, 22 5/8 x 30 1/4″

Good thing then that “A Bigger Exhibition” contains crannies of calming black and white drawings. These oases also serve to demonstrate the fundamental role drawing has always had in Hockney’s art.  “Drawing is an ancient thing,” he wryly observed at Wednesday’s press preview. “So why were they saying we’ll give it up? After 30,000 years, why would we do that?”

I will be back to study more carefully all the landscape drawings and his 2000 portraits of National Gallery guards. (These among the very few portraits Hockney produced of people he didn’t know; just like his inspiration Ingres, Hockney invited them to tea first to get to know them.)

David Hockney, Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006
Oil on canvas. 36 x 48″

Beyond color, what is striking about the work on display is Hockney’s attention to mark making and decorative pattern. The spirit of Rousseau is unavoidably invoked in some of the more densely foliated landscapes.  In certain instances of mark making Hockney may even have out-Van Goghed van Gogh.

David Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009 Oil on 8 canvases, each 36 x 48"

David Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009
Oil on 8 canvases, each 36 x 48″

One viewing of “A Bigger Exhibition” was barely sufficient to get a lay of the land, nevermind formulate a concrete sense of all the things this vast amount of work says about the artist.  I will be back to the de Young in the coming weeks. Nevertheless,  I can’t help but wonder whether this show would have been aided by some judicious editing to create a tighter view of the artist.   We’ll soon know whether “A Bigger Exhibition” makes new Hockney fans or looses all but the most stalwart of existing fans.

David Hockney, Lucien Freud. 1999 Pencil on grey paper using Camera Lucida, 22 1/4 x 15"

David Hockney, Lucien Freud. 1999
Pencil on grey paper using camera lucida,
22 1/4 x 15″

The Rabbit Hole

David Hockney
Intelligent Life—“Brushes With Hockney”
Video: Hockney sketchbooks
Hockney’s multi-camera landscape video

Lucien Freud, David Hockney, 2002
Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 1/4″

5 Responses to “The Road Through Woldgate Woods: David Hockney at The deYoung”

  1. Thanks for this very interesting post. I have never been a fan of Hockney, but with your critique of the work I will work harder to take in what he has to say to us. I look forward to the show and to my reactions, with your words whispering in my ear.

  2. Appreciate how you look at an artist’s work. You “get” Hockney in ways I hadn’t considered. I look forward to his show which sounds exhilarating & exhausting. As always, love hearing what you have to say.

  3. After several trips through the Hockney exhibit, a few things stand out:

    1. What does it take to get people to look more deeply at art? This exhibition is one answer. Look at all the hooks he sets to snag our attention – multiple video screens slightly out of sync, giant canvases forcing your head back, prints from iPad, layered images created from Photoshop. (As if the colors and decorative detail, or watercolors or oils, were not enough!) This is a good thing. The effect on the viewer is powerful, and not religious. It’s like cycling. It doesn’t matter what gets you interested in it – the gear or exercise or solitude or a clean environment – just as long as you ride.

    2. He is obsessive about his formal concerns. Line, composition, color, multiple perspectives. He can’t help himself. While there is an overload of images at the exhibition, it must be just a fraction of what goes on in his head, that he works out in advance before he creates another work in record time. The problem for us viewers is consumption. The portions and the courses are too much. But this is Hockney’s approach to cooking. We can always choose another restaurant.

    3. For my taste, I loved the iPad, iPhone and Photoshop images. I love to imagine (not being an artist) the artist’s process. How did he do that, with a free app on a consumer device? It’s like the poetry of Billy Collins, so seemingly simple.

    Yesterday, I met a man at the exhibition who comes from Yorkshire now living in California. “Would you recognize this setting as Yorkshire?” I asked him, expecting him to say “No way! Have you ever BEEN to England?” But, he was completely comfortable with what Hockney had done. “Oh yes, it’s just as beautiful as he paints it. And he’s not even painting the pretty part of Yorkshire – North Yorkshire.”

    I don’t expect that I’ll ever say that Hockney is my favorite contemporary artist. But he has reminded me of the pleasures of seeing the everyday with my imagination’s eye, not my analytic one.

    • Really appreciate these detailed and well-thought out responses to the show. Your analogy to cooking and restaurants particularly apt and I am left wondering whether “A Bigger Exhibition” is the unending tasting menu (10 courses when 5 would have done nicely)… Sometimes I’d just like the chef to serve a hefty dose of meat and mashed potatoes.

      The inimitable Robert Hughes said of Hockney in his 1990 collection Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists:

      Hockney is that rarity, a painter of strong talent and indefatigable industry (genius being, however, too strong a word) who has never struck the wearisome pose of il maestro and has been grounded, throughout his career, in the bedrock of Yorkshire common sense… To think of Hockney is to think of pictorial skill and a total indifference (in the work, at least) to the dark side of human experience. Does the latter make him a less serious painter? Of course not; no more than it trivialized the work of that still unfairly underrated artist Raoul Dufy. At root, he is popular because his work offers a window through which one’s eye moves without strain or fuss into a wholly consistent world.

  4. I saw the Hockney show yesterday. I am still not a fan, but maybe a half fan. I admire his vision, prodigious production of art and his creativity. I think his paintings look amateurish and I did not like the straight out of the tube colors. I think the size of the paintings makes them seem “important”. How would they strike you if they were 20″x16″? I did like the Yosemite paintings for the imaginative vision and the use of the iPad, but the execution still didn’t speak to me for the most part. The videos were wonderful and amazing. The 4 seasons were truly inspired. The portraits were interesting, but didn’t carry much depth of emotion, with the one exception, the painting of his mother. The Museum guards were the best of the lot. Stylistically, his portraits reminded me of Alice Neal, but without any of the feeling. I didn’t find myself feeling curious about his people. I really don’t think his rendering is exceptional. Exceptional is Rembrandt, Durer, Da Vinci, Kathe Kollwitz from the past and Steven Assael, Juliette Aristides and Hung Liu from today, but that said, I wish I had half the discipline, imagination and drive that he has. I didn’t leave the museum with my endorphins singing, but I was glad to see the show. I was left with a question in my mind, what don’t I get?

    Susan Bostrom-Wong

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