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.
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.
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.]