Tate Britain’s new David Hockney exhibition examines a body of work that spans around 60 years. It’s the first major retrospective in decades. Jill Glenn went along.
There is, indicated art critic Charlotte Mullins on Radio 4’s Front Row, an odd sense in which David Hockney has been under the radar recently. Of course, there have been substantial shows (two at the Royal Academy in the last five years, for example); of course, he is acknowledged as a national treasure – indeed, he’s arguably the most popular, the most famous artist of our times – but he hasn’t perhaps been taken as seriously as artists like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
Chris Stephens, who has co-curated the Tate’s homage to Hockney along with Andrew Wilson, is on the same wavelength. Hockney’s fame and popularity are, he says, often seen as a kind of weakness. As they approached this exhibition of his work, therefore, the curators were looking to assert that yes, it’s beautiful, and yes, it’s affirmative and yes, it’s brightly coloured, and it is popular – but also that there is running through it a very serious question about what it is to make art, what it is to make pictures, and how we, as viewers, intepret those pictures.
This massive show, twelve rooms in all, takes you on a rollercoaster ride through over 60 years of astonishing explorations in art – and it’s a real visual pleasure. Dozens of public and private lenders have agreed to part with their Hockneys for the duration of the show (which will go from Tate Britain to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). The earliest piece is a graphite drawing, a self-portrait dating from 1954; the most recent are two works painted specifically with this exhibition in mind, not long after Hockney returned to his Los Angeles home, following several (highly productive) years of exile back in Yorkshire. He’s worked very closely with the curatorial team to show the arc of his creative practice.
The show, apart from the opening room, is chronological. It takes classic early Hockney, including the LA works made in the 1960s and the double portraits of the 1970s, and puts them into sequence with the output that emerged in the ’80s and ’90s and on to the present day, with the recent Yorkshire years featuring prominently. It was, says Chris Stephens, surprisingly easy to find the consistent thread, despite Hockney being an artist who has repeatedly embraced new directions that have provoked amazement in critics and lifelong aficionados alike. Here we can look back and understand how all those threads are woven together. What the viewer sees now is how Hockney became the artist he was always going to become.
Running through his art – and thus through this exhibition – is Hockney’s interrogation of how we see the world. He constantly examines the practice of making pictures. How, he is asking, might the artist try to capture the world as it is experienced in time and space and movement; how might that be conveyed through something that is flat and static?
By the end it’s evident that his approach is broad and generous; Chris Stephens calls it ‘humanist’. It’s all about the individual spatial and emotional experience, and so the viewer becomes the centre of the universe he creates. It’s a clever trick if you can pull it off.
Again and again Hockney challenges the protocols. By making us conscious of the suspension of disbelief that we engage in when we look at a painting – the things that are clearly false that we read as real – he invites us to buy into the process. He repeatedly makes paintings about paintings, about art, about art history and convention.
The first room shows a set of works from different periods that highlight this concern. In Play Within a Play, we see his friend and art dealer, Kasmin, pressing his hands against glass in a space that clearly isn’t deep enough to contain him and the chair beside him. It appears perspectivally accurate – but you can see that it’s impossible. You start to question: what here is illusion, what here is real?
The show is heavily weighted towards the earlier works, and they are, suggests Mullins ‘stupendous’. They’re also brave: some of the radical early pieces still have the power to shock. Hockney came out in the early ’60s, and took seriously a suggestion from friend and fellow artist Ron Kitaj that he should paint his own life, paint what he loved. And what he loved were young men. Given that the decriminalisation of homosexuality was still in the future, this was as startling as it was honest.
As he plays with conventions throughout every style and genre, Hockney aims to undermine the conventions of one-point perspective, seeking always to show the world dynamically, through multiple viewpoints. Often, looking into his work you see how perspective can be so wrong yet create something that looks real. Or ‘real’.
Room 4 brings us to the Hockney that even those who don’t know his work will recognise: the iconic images of Los Angeles – the modernist lines of office blocks, the pattern of water in swimming pools… geometric shapes, hard edges, open spaces lovingly and meticulously pinned down in paintings that strike as both abstract and non-abstract. What you see here, what appreciators saw at the time, wouldn’t lead you to expect what you get in Room 5: ‘Towards Naturalism’. This area is largely dominated by those double portraits, and boy, do they have impact. Here, as ever, Hockney plays with space. In fact, the space at the heart of the pictures is what you notice first: the space between people, mostly shown at angles to each other. The observers and the observed. The complexity of relationships; the tension of intimacy. Even when the subjects are side by side (such as the portrait of Christopher Isherwood and his boyfriend Don Bachardy), they’re looking in different directions. It’s a fascinating world view.
Hockney’s photographic collages, made mostly in the early 1980s are brightly beguiling (and to think I nearly skipped Room 7, ‘A Bigger Photography’, in my eagerness to get to ‘The Wolds’ in Room 10). Hockney’s frustration with the single-point perspective of photography led him first to polaroid and then to 35mm film, which he used to build up multifaceted images. It’s a fascinating way of decoding and recoding the world. The end results convince us that we’re looking at one thing, when really we’re seeing another. And, just to make sure we aren’t too taken in, he forces us into acknowledgment that it’s all fake: in My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, 1982, for example, the toes of his own shoes poke into the bottom of the picture.
What’s particularly impressive is how he takes technology that we all have at our disposal and makes it his own. It’s all about the artistic sensibilities. It’s well-known that he embraced the potential of the iPhone and the iPad, and in the final room a set of screens show several of his iPad drawings building up, thumbstroke by thumbstroke. Never will you be more fully inside an artist’s head than here.
By constant re-examination of the process, Hockney has produced a body of work that stands the test of time both en masse, and picture-by-picture. It’s a great achievement. This has already become the fastest selling show in Tate history – and is likely to be the most popular art exhibition of the year. The curators’ underlying intention – to rehabilitate Hockney as a serious artist, if you like – has, I’d venture, been largely successful.
David Hockney continues at Tate Britain until 29 May • www.tate.org.uk