Monday, January 20, 2014

Art I'm Looking At: David Hockney at the De Young--Bigger is Not Always Better

David Hockney is much talked about and praised in the press. With even a passing interest in art it would be hard not to know of him. I think I first became aware of Hockney in the early 1970s, when I was just a teenager, when his swimming pool paintings were gaining attention in the serious art magazines--magazines I would often see at the home of one of my high school girlfriends.

I liked the pool paintings. Later, I saw and found interesting his composite works made from multiple Polaroid photographs--a seemingly cubist approach to viewing reality, although my understanding is that he was aiming not to present multiple simultaneous views of a scene but rather to overcome the distortions of very wide angle lenses. After a long blank, I remember seeing a series of paintings of the artist's dogs that struck me as badly drawn, garishly colored, and embarrassingly self-indulgent--evoking the same feelings as those self-published novels about the exploits of a coddled pet, of interest only to the writer and the publishing company squeezing money from the obsessed owner. Subsequently, I'd not heard much about Hockney until learning the De Young Museum in San Francisco was doing a substantial show of some very recent work--a show entitled David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition. The title is curious, but now that I've seen the show, it makes some sense (more on that subject below).

Having last thought about Hockney in the context of the dog paintings, it was with some skepticism that I visited the De Young this past weekend. Nevertheless, I determined to go with an open mind. I wanted to see what Mr. Hockney had been up to lately. I was hopeful the show would be of interest.

It was interesting and I'm glad I went, but I found it interesting mostly on an academic level. Say what you will about him, he is nothing if not prolific and you have to admire his energy and willingness to experiment and use new media. Still, I have to say the show left me cold, and I find it difficult to understand why Hockney continues to get the attention he does. Seeing David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition left me disappointed. The contrast with my emotional state after seeing the recent Richard Diebenkorn show at the De Young couldn't have been greater. That show left me energized, inspired, joyful, and greedily wanting to see more. The Hockney show left me mostly puzzled.

In the charcoal portraits that open the show, I saw awkward foreshortening, figures constructed using a vocabulary of crude marks on the paper themselves not especially interesting as details, and clumsy smudging that looked impatiently done. The work had an air of self-indulgence again. The drawings seemed to declare themselves worthy of scrutiny solely by virtue of their being by David Hockney and because of their presentation in a place like the De Young Museum, rather than because of deeply felt commitment, because of passion behind their creation. The introductory blurb describes David Hockney as a superb draughtsman. If by "superb draughtsman" we mean someone to an extraordinary degree capable of translating a view of the world or ideas into images using a precise, economical, and confident line; having a deep understanding of foreshortening and perspective; and capable of convincing modeling through use of light and shadow, then much of Hockney's work suggests rather that he is a crude draughtsman. And why pretend otherwise? We no longer require great artists to be great draughtsman. Fine draughtsmanship is not the only wellspring of worthwhile art. Art can and often does happily emerge from a far less disciplined place. Hockney's strengths lie elsewhere, but he seems to have forgotten himself. The pool paintings of the 1970s were so successful because the subject matter was well-suited to a brash approach to color, bold composition, and minimal use of line--traits that virtually define Hockney's artistic instincts. Hockney has a distinctive set of artistic tools, but all tools have strengths and weaknesses. It's for good reason that we don't hammer nails with screwdrivers.

The many landscapes in the show struck me similarly--as having the look of work done by an earnest, untutored amateur. There is a very large room in the show devoted entirely (and tiresomely) to charcoal landscapes depicting a road through Woldgate Woods, in Yorkshire, at different times of the year, excerpts from a chronicling of the seasonal transformation of the place. Recording seasonal effects is an interesting enough idea, but is it sufficient if the drawings themselves are not especially compelling? Hockney captures in these drawings something of the light and mood of the place, but I was struck by the ugliness of the marks he has made on his paper. At close range, the drawings decompose into fields of dark squiggles, hash marks, and areas of smudging. The drawings quickly become incoherent. They are much more effective if you turn 180 degrees to view the examples hanging on the opposite wall, from a distance of about 30 feet. It's not uncommon for a drawing or a painting to look markedly different when seen from different distances, but a truly fine drawing or painting is very often as interesting viewed from a few inches away as it is from many feet away. The image may disintegrate and become increasingly abstract as we move closer and we're forced to focus on details, but the details themselves are virtually always as compelling in their own way as is the whole, and this, I feel, is where Hockney's work is so disappointing. The individual marks on the surfaces seem to have no life. Thinking just of the Western artistic tradition, the feathered wingtip of an angel by Fra Angelico, a single flower at the foot of one of Botticelli's diaphanously draped women, one square inch of a Van Gogh pen and ink drawing, a single bright highlight in the dress of one of Sargeant's sitters, a feverish brushstroke by a De Kooning or a Karel Appel--any of these can hold our attention for a remarkably long time. At a normal viewing distance, I found the charcoal drawings of Woldgate Woods soulless.

Bigger is not always better.  David Hockney, A Bigger Exhibition is somewhat absurd in its fetishizing of scale and number. A section of the show highlights works Hockney has made by mounting four, six, or as many as 20 or more panels in arrays to create bigger pictures, some paintings, some digital images printed out on large inkjet printers and mounted. I found it hard to see anything much gained by this approach except scale. The titles carefully record the number of panels in each piece as if the number itself is an accomplishment. What is the point here? In other instances, one-sheet drawings created on an iPhone or an iPad have been blown up to a very large scale, notably a number of landscapes done at Yosemite National Park, and here the large scale and the use of the electronic device serve mostly to accentuate the lack of inherent interest in Hockney's "brushstrokes" again. Some of these images are so big that you can't step far enough away to allow distance to fudge things. One wall of the show is covered with video screens presenting slide shows of some of the artist's many other iPhone and iPad drawings. Being more in their native habitat--on computer monitors--these have more punch, more luminescence, and they seemed more successful for it. I'm not a luddite. I use the iPhone in my own artistic work. I'm all for experimentation and exploring new avenues of expression. Still, with art--unless it's conceptual art--it's the destination that counts, not so much how you get there. To assume that the work is inherently worthwhile because it was made using new technology is just another type of fetishism.

Somewhat ironically, a set of six large portraits made using a tablet, stylus, and Adobe Photoshop  in 2008 and 2009 were the most interesting pieces in the show, in my view. Each is a matter-of-fact observation of the sitter in a mostly empty space against a plain, brightly colored background. They owe much to Van Gogh.  The backgrounds are often split in two, a favorite Van Gogh device. In looking at A Bigger Matelot Kevin Druez 2 (2009), for example, I was immediately reminded of the Van Gogh portraits of Dr. Gachet or the postman Joseph Roulin. I'm not sure why these pictures seem so much more interesting than many of the others, but a major factor seems to be that they have been rendered in more detail and with more care than many of the landscapes and other portraits in the show. Here the individual strokes on the paper, although created digitally and printed, are of some interest. The compositions, though simple, seem more considered. The use of color seems more effective.

Other work draws heavily on Picasso--in particular, The Massacre and the Problems of Depiction (2003), essentially a re-working of Picasso's Massacre in Korea (1951), which takes as its subject a massacre of Korean civilians by US forces at No Gun Ri, in July, 1950, although many people in the galleries seemed to think it was derived from Picasso's Guernica (1937). Hockney has appended to the image a second, smaller image below, a crudely rendered photographer behind a tripod with his head under a darkcloth. What are we to make of this? Another group of works in the show was inspired by Claude Lorrain's Sermon on the Mount (c. 1656), culminating in a wall-sized rendering of that painting on multiple panels, which seemed most impressive as further evidence of Hockney's apparent obsession with size for its own sake. Hockney's version is called A Bigger Message (2010).

Two spaces in the show are devoted to Hockney's recent video explorations, which he calls "cubist movies." These I rather liked. Here the use of an array of screens makes sense. Hockney presents simultaneous views of a scene but from slightly different viewpoints. In these cubist movies (as well as the multiple Polaroid pictures of the past) the question of draughtsmanship is no longer an issue. The individual images that combine to create the whole are each created by a camera, whether still or moving. It becomes possible to focus on the concept behind the work without the distraction of questions about the quality of the rendering.

The last sections of the show suddenly veer back to portraits--some paintings, some drawings--and then to Hockney's interest in optical aids to drawing. The portraits generally are in much the same vein as the earlier portraits, but a series entitled 12 Portraits After Ingres in a Uniform Style (2000) is different and perplexing. According to the text in the galleries, Hockney was inspired to create these after seeing a show of the work of Ingres that led to an epiphany: Ingres must have used some kind of optical device to achieve the high quality of the work he's known for. However, it's not clear how these particular Hockney watercolors (in pairs, of guards at the National Gallery in London, all in uniform--an upper panel showing a closely cropped face set above a panel showing a hand in close-up) demonstrate anything much about Ingres. The lack of guidance here was especially frustrating.

These are followed by a wall of about 40 small portraits made using the camera lucida. Across from the camera lucida drawings and the Ingres series is a re-creation of Hockney's "The Great Wall," a large arrangement of reproductions of European art from around the 13th century to the 20th century, ordered chronologically on the horizontal axis and from north to south geographically on the vertical axis, originally assembled in Hockney's studio. The Great Wall, the story goes, was a response to Hockney's Ingres epiphany, the result of an early 1999 visit to the National Gallery in London. He became convinced suddenly by the increasing use of precise realism from around 1430 that artists at that time began to rely on devices such as the camera obscura, the camera lucida, and curved mirrors to achieve a high degree of realism. Hockney used the wall as a tool to investigate the trend and also to illustrate it. He presented his thesis in a 2001 book entitled Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Techniques of the Old Masters, co-authored by a physicist, Charles M. Falco. The book was controversial and generally got skeptical reviews. While artists certainly did use a variety of optical tools (Philip Steadman's Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces (Oxford University Press, 2002) is especially interesting in that regard), that was not news in 2001, and Hockney seems to have let enthusiasm far outrun the evidence.

Looking at the camera lucida drawings is instructive, however. Hockney's draughtsmanship greatly improves here. Still, he is no Ingres, even with the aid of the camera lucida. Essentially, the camera lucida is a prism mounted on a stand that allows the user to look simultaneously at a sheet of paper and a reflected image of a scene on that paper, making it possible to trace the exact contours of the projected image onto the paper. The camera lucida is a finicky device, however, that takes quite a lot of practice to use effectively. The artist's hand always obscures part of the projected image. Contrast is often low, making contours difficult to see. If the camera lucida could suddenly make a master of anyone that used it, most of us would have used it by now. Most of us would still be using it. I suspect that Hockney's draughtsmanship improves in the camera lucida drawings more because it forces concentration than because of any true advantage the device gives. A tool is a tool. An artist is an artist. Hockney's thesis is ultimately unconvincing. It's much easier and more persuasive to think that even if Ingres and others did sometimes use drawing aids, they were masters because of their mastery, not because of miraculous and secret devices.

In Summary, I wonder if it's really necessary to take Hockney's recent work as seriously as some seem to be doing. While the show was worth seeing, I'm glad I saw it free, as the guest of a member. Had I paid the $25 entry fee, I suspect I would have felt cheated. The show closed on January 20, 2014.

[Update--December 2, 2014. I recently found this review of Hockney's book Secret Knowledge on line. Well worth a read.]

1 comment:

  1. Nice information you share here about David Hockney arts & Painting, thanks for sharing this post...

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