Hockney Portraits at the MFA
Portrait of the Artist, Giuliano photo.
"Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970-71. Courtesy of the MFA.
"My Parents," 1977. Courtesy of the MFA.
Sons and Lovers
April 21, 2006
David Hockney Portraits
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Organized with the National Portrait Gallery, London
February 26 through May 14
Catalogue: Published by the National Portrait Gallery, London, with essays by the curators, Sarah Howgate and Barbara Stern Shapiro, as well as, Mark Glazebrook, Marco Livingstone and Edmund White, 236 pages.
The very first work that we encounter “Self-portrait with Red Braces” a rough, indeed crude, water color from 2003 is shocking. It reveals the artist leaning forward, gazing at his reflection, head bent, intensely concentrating on his quickly rendered features, brush in hand hovering over the sheet in front of him. There is a splash of black, misplaced, the color of his pullover, just to the right in a background area of blue. By all definitions it is a mistake. We know too well that watercolor is an unyielding medium that records every mark, even the unintended, and allows for no corrections. There is no going back, retracing, or covering up tracks. Perhaps that is a fitting analogy for the exhibition “David Hockney Portraits” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through May 14. For the artist, now in his sixties (Born July 9, 1937 in Bradford, Yorkshire, England) there is no turning back, even here, in the second of two retrospectives mounted by the MFA. The earlier show concentrated on then recent landscapes of the Grand Canyon and his rural Yorkshire surroundings.
The daunting self portrait teeters us forward into a gallery that combines his earnest, inquisitive, early self portraits, as well as, a range of images of his family and parents drawn from all period of his output. The exhibition is organized by topic following a general chronology ending in a gallery of his recent work. The evolution of the installation of 150 works, in a range of media from painting to drawings and collaged photographs, is more thematic- “My Parents,” “Song of Myself,” Friends and Lovers,” “The Lens and Beyond,” and, “21st Century Portraits” – than chronological or a track of technical developments of which there is a great range and diversity but embedded into “topics.”
As we are immersed in such a dense saturation of images of people in his life, from the early 1960s through the present, there is the impulse to intuit and figure out just who is this guy? What makes him tick and rocks his boat? Even now, having viewed the exhibition and read the catalogue he remains an enigma. Although he is an openly gay male he remains oddly closeted. Like Picasso, who he adored, Hockney paints his lovers. Unlike Picasso, however, we do not get many clues and insights into these relationships. There is no real equivalent of Dora Maar as the “Weeping Woman” or the teenage Marie-Therese Walter as a multiple personality, goddess and witch, in “Girl Before the Mirror.” There are glimpses of his male companions as objects of erotic desire, but terribly held back. Although they are there on the walls for all to see, the lovers remain a part of the artist’s private life. In the 60s and 70s, there was a well crafted public persona, the young artist with bleached hair, owl glasses, and striped rugby shirts, almost a parody of the campy tot, the playful poofta, making the scene in Swinging London, hanging with Henry and Andy in the Apple, or lusting over pool boys in La La Land. For all that role playing and gregarious outer demeanor, one senses that it would be very difficult to truly get to know him. The friends and lovers come and go while the only seeming constants in the oeuvre were the many affectionate images of his Mum, and a clearly close relationship with Celia Birtwell, his one great bosoms friend.
There is a dichotomy in the work between instances where he truly probed into the character and psyche of his sitters, and the all too common instances where he just recorded their physical features. The works hold our interest precisely to the degree in which he truly knew and cared about the individual represented. It is significant to note that only on two occasions was he persuaded to paint a portrait on commission.
One of these “paid” works “Portrait of Sir David Webster,” 1971, is daunting and even a bit terrifying. He is depicted sitting parallel to the picture plane seemingly suspended in space as his arms and dark suit obscure the details of the chrome, tube chair which supports him. It is a wonderful dramatic device; to give this man, an administrator in the arts (opera) an otherworldly presence. He stares straight ahead in profile so we (or the artist) are spared riveting and intimidating, eye contact. There is a brutal formality to the pose that implies that the artist was not intimate with and, perhaps, intimidated by the formidable sitter. Among British people there is always the matter of class. Hockney, although a celebrity, is of humble origin, something that one, despite success, is never allowed to forget, while Sir David is of the aristocracy. It may be just one reason why the artist has opted to live primarily in LA or anywhere but the U.K. In the portrait, perhaps to soften the gruff, stiff pose, there is the device, a Hockney favorite, of a vase of tulips on the slick, modernist, glass, coffee table.
Looking hard and thinking about the work it strikes me that the best period belongs to a relatively narrow band of time in the late 1960s and 1970s. There is a clean, clear, slick quality to the work. It is when he was formal and academic in the manner of David and Ingres; the artist at his most classical. It is an utter misnomer to think of him as pop. That notion is about the persona, the pr, the gossip and certainly not about the work itself. Despite all the experimentation, and his theories of the role of the camera lucida in art history, Hockney is actually a rather conservative, even reactionary, artist. Consider, for example, his two exhibitions at the MFA, an institution run by a director, Malcolm Rogers, known for populist (not Pop) taste. He has built a career and reputation on giving the public what he thinks it wants- lots of Monet and Impressionism, Herb Ritts, Karsh, Guitars, Yachts, Gainsborough (good grief)- and now Hockney. Lots of Hockney. Hockney up the wazooo. Why?
Part of the answer to that question emerged during a dialogue several years ago with Michael Conforti, the director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. We were discussing the topic of blockbuster exhibitions when he commented that the time was approaching when the well was running dry in terms of the formula of endless shows of French Impressionist masters (a strong suit at the Clark). He predicted that museums would progress to organizing major shows of 20th century modernist masters. The older generation of museum goers, who grew up on Impressionism and Post Impressionism, has given way to younger visitors who have been taught modernism. It is interesting, for example, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently presented the “Combines” of Robert Rauschenberg. This is certainly a far more edgy, avant-garde topic than yet another show of Hockney. Perhaps it reflects the difference of strategy between a New York vs. Boston museum. It is doubtful that Malcolm would take a chance on Rauschenberg and clearly Hockney is the safer bet.
But not that safe actually. Hockney can be edgy if you look hard enough. But you have to reach beyond the glut of images. Nestled in there amid the flotsam of portraits are some tough and absorbing pictures. Not that many, to be sure, but some gems. Particularly, when he explores the topic of pairs. The source and inspiration appears to be Thomas Gainsborough’s double portrait “Robert Andrews and His Wife,” c. 1748-50. This is one of the greatest 18th century portraits, a genre in which the British excel. It depicts a country gentleman, casually attired, with his shotgun and hound posed with his wife seated on a bench next to their newly harvested field. It is a visual essay on the landed aristocracy and wonderfully psychologically charged. We feel that we really know these people and sense the chemistry of their relationship.
There is a similar tension in several of Hockney’s great pair’s portraits. The exhibition introduces this in the first gallery that stages the theme of family. In “My Parents,” 1977, we view his mother, rather prim and proper, erectly sitting on the left looking out at us with confidence and affection. To the right, separated by a tool cabinet with a mirror and vase of tulips on top, is the artist’s father seated in profile, leaning forward, absorbed in reading an art book. In contrast to the fixed attention and involvement of his mother, dear old dad, seems not to give a fig what is going on. Is this an allegory of the family relationship? Arguably, the masterpiece of the exhibition is an interior view “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy,” 1970-71. The setting is rather complex. His dear friend Celia is standing to the left, full length, in a red caftan like dress, hand on hip, in three quarter profile, behind a shutter next to an open window with a balustrade. He is seated on the other side of the window, barefoot, smoking, with Percy, the enormous white cat, perched on his lap. The picture was intended as a wedding gift. Celia looks at us with warmth and affection while his expression is sullen and suspicious. Perhaps the artist sensed something as the relationship ended not long after the completion of the painting. Here the artist is at his best combining superb formal painting with stunning psychological insight.
There are other remarkable examples of pair pictures that probe with an ice pick into frosty relationships. The painting “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman),” 1968, is hilarious in its insights. He, in a suit, truly “a suit” is show in profile to the left on their modernist patio with sculptures from their collection. He is rigid and tense, staring straight ahead, his hand clenched. She is commanding, dominant, a doyenne, a diva, standing facing full front, in a red dressing gown. Not a fun couple. Just rich. Real rich. Or, “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott,” 1969, which contrasts the mandarin, portly Geldzahler, an influential curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at home commanding the center of a large pink couch, while his lover, is depicted, coming or going, wearing a trench coat. Henry is much at home, ensconced, ignoring his companion who looks at him intently. Here Hockney may have been on to something but the couple remained together a decade after the painting was finished.
The artist appears to have had less luck in his own private life where a number of lovers of greater and lesser duration are depicted. Some of the images are deliciously, embarrassingly erotic. In “Gregory Leaning Nude,” 1975, the artist appears to be lusting, drooling over the soft, effeminate body and its scrumptious, little, flaccid penis. This is an interesting variation on the feminist notion of the “male gaze.” What happens when the “gaze” is focused on the body of another man? The catalogue essays state that the artist “plunged into” the LA, gay, pool culture. This is depicted vividly in “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool,” 1966, with its fixation on the sensual buttocks of his companion, looking oh so pink and inviting, standing in that cool, cool, water. Ah, LA, or, El Lay.
It is ironic that the most intimate and revealing series of images depict his friend Celia. We encounter her in a range of poses and media. But the renderings are always insightful and engaged. The artist appears to be intrigued by her for whatever reason. By contrast, the portrait of his long term lover “Peter Schlesinger with Polaroid Camera,” 1977, is formal and detached. The sitter in a purple suit and bow tie is seated in a chair with a check patterned blanket draped over it. The expression is distant and withdrawn. We get little insight to this man and his relationship to the artist. It is not a particularly warm or friendly painting.
As we progress through the exhibition we encounter the artist’s many experimental phases. He seems constantly to be concerned with inventing different approaches and styles. There are the precise Ingres like pencil drawings or rough, expressionist paintings in the manner of Otto Dix. Most forgettable are ludicrously bad appropriations of his hero, Picasso, and cubism. He even twists about poor Celia. But that flirtation was thankfully brief. Instead his notions of fractured space got played out in the photo collages which he called “joiners.” Here he did some truly memorable and influential work. Arguably, his only real claim to originality.
Finally, what to make of the Portraits of the 21st century? They appear to reflect the status and position of an artist who has little or nothing left to prove. He has the luxury of just pleasing himself and pursuing his own inclinations. Unfortunately, much of this recent work fails to hold our attention. One concludes that the artist is keeping busy. In that regard this is mostly busy work and not really great art. But, allow him that. It is the price of fame.
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