By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The Rabbit Hole