“David Hockney: Drawing from Life” at the Morgan Library (New York)


Every once in a while, a major artist emerges who represents more than his colleagues do the spirit of the time. David Hockney, the British artist now in his eighties, has captured the contemporary Zeitgeist by means of an unusually accurate formalism. The show includes figurative portraits that are remarkable for their faithful realism. Hockney is represented by one hundred works on paper–drawings of five people: himself; his mother: Celia Birtwhistle, a female friend and muse; his long-term close friend, colleague, and curator Gregory Evans; and the master printer Maurice Payne. Hockney’s realism is marvelously precise, perhaps slightly conflicted between the exuberant mores of the Sixties, when the young artist was coming of age, and the more sober perceptions of a current more conservative time and a greater age in years. As the major self-portrait announces, up high on a wall in the Morgan Library separating the two rooms containing the drawings, Hockney is now, 83 years old, an elderly man with white hair, glasses, and red braces. But in the portrait we see the persistence of both his technical acumen and his ongoing interest in the mysteries of personality and character. At once an accurate rendering and a spirited reputation of the artist late in his life, the painting shows Hockney is still a painter of means and inspiration.

From the beginning, Hockney has been self-observant. The earliest self-portraits begin in 1954, when the artist had entered into his later teens. The colorful painting includes a mop of brown hair, glasses, a bright blue sport coat, a yellow tie with a checked shirt, and a long red scarf. The outlook of the very young Hockney’s face is inquisitive and sensitive and confident. In a way, he is announcing his determination to follow his chosen vocation. Hockney’s ambition is made even more clear in the etching The Student, done in 1973, shows a young artist with long hair, a banded  hat, and glasses; he carries a large board–a support for his drawings?–as he stares fixedly at the sculpture of the head of a young Picasso. The latter’s gaze is even and intense, a sign of his extraordinary gifts. Hockney was a dutiful student and several times painted his friends in the horizontally striped long-sleeved shirt Picasso favored. Together, the two works give some sense of Hockney’s youthful drive; even while young, he was aiming for extraordinary accomplishments. The two pieces also point out Hockney’s lack of interest in a conceptually oriented art–he was a champion of technique, and not a promoter of ideas.

Hockney’s mother was a major, enabling influence in his life. His portraits of her are done with affection and the technical precision we come to expect early on in connection with his line. In one colored-pencil work done in 1972, we see an aging woman in a black dress embellished with white polka dots.sitting in an armchair highlighted with lines of jade blue. Her sharp features are accentuated by her brilliant blues eyes and short hair. Hockney’s mother always supported her son’s art aspirations and was a consistently willing sitter for him. There is a kind of near-photographic realism here–we remember the Polaroid camera portraits put together piece by piece later on by Hockney–that is made more human by the tacit affection with which the artist renders the portrait. A later drawing, Mother, Bradford, Feb. 19, 1979 (1979), shows how his mother has swiftly aged–she was born in 1900. Drawn with sepia ink, the mother looks back, sadly and with vulnerability, at her audience. She wears a dark hat and an overcoat, the latter minimally rendered, as she sits in an armchair, whose left half we see. There is a detachment and pathos to the portrait here that doesn’t quite match the rest of his more exuberant art; it is a deeply moving drawing.

In the early part of Hocney’s life, in Paris in the mid-70s, he began a relationship with Gregory Evans, who has remained a close friend and sitter for several decades. In Gregory (1979), we see a youngish man in a light jacket, only partially rendered, with blue stripes around the garment’s wrist and down his shoulder and arm. Done in colored pencil, the drawing accurately conveys the figure’s meditative mood. He stares out into space with his gray-blue eyes, a curling lock of hair resting on his forehead. His reddish lips are prominent, while his left arm rises up to support his face with his hand. The different hues of the pencil make this close portrait particularly attractive and underscore the remarkable achievement of Hockney’s technical ability. Gregory, Los Angeles, March 31st, 1982 (1982), a composite portrait made up of 16 partial image of Hockney’s lover, shows a side view of the person, with tousled brown hair and a light blue sweater. He rests facing us sideways on a high-backed tan armchair. Even though this is a photograph, a relatively distant medium, Hockney’s affection for Evans comes through. There is some doubling of imagery in the photos, but this gives the image a surreal and cubist effect. It becomes clear on seeing this show that Hockney’s use of intimacy and friendship in regard to his friends intensifies both the technique and the emotion of his work. In España (Spain) (2004), Gregory Evans has become a middle-aged man, with a reserved demeanor and slightly receding hairline. He looks off to the side and wears a gray suitcoat and a light blue shirt. Again, like so much of Hockney’s work, the drawing is one of extreme accuracy and tacit affection.

Celia Birtwell, the textile and fashion designer, has been a close friend, a confidante, and collaborative sitter since the 1960s. As good friends, press notes indicate that they share a northern background and a similar sense of humor. In 1970, Hockney produced Celia, a full-length portrait done in pencil and colored crayon. The sitter’s subtly curling brown hair frames inquisitive light gray eyes. Birtwell holds up her right arm, extending the figures of her hand in an affecting gesture. The rest of her body is lightly sketched in except for the black-and-white striped chair she sits on. In Celia (Carennac) August 1971 (1971), Hockey’s colored-pencil drawing results in a riot of colors: a housedress, over a thin white blouse, of red, blue, and white flowers, and a tan face with eyes framed by blue eyeliner, along with the young woman’s light brown hair. She sits on a chair of horizontal green wooden slats, looking at the viewer with both slight amusement and a bemused detachment. It is a portrait that is both a close psychological reading as well as an affectionate presentation of a talented young woman. Celia, a lithograph from 1973, shows her with her hair up, siting in a chair. This is an image done only with blsck line on tan paper. She wears a long dress that extends beyond her elbows and reaches her shoes, while cutting a V-sjhaped opening down the middle to her waist. The drawing feels slightly antiquated, as if its origins began in 19th-century France.

Hockney’s friendship with printmaker Maurice Payne also began in the 1960s, when they worked together on a suite of graphic work illustrating the poems of Cavafy in 1967, After the 1970s, there was a hiatus, but Payne started up a print studio in 1998, and the two men began to work together again. In the lithograph Maurice with Flowers (1976), the printmakers sits, his gaze off to the side. His sharply outlined head includes heavy black eyebrows and a full head of tightly curled black hair. Payne wears a checked shirt and rests his left arm on a table supporting a large vase filled with flowers and fronds. The meticulousness of the lithograph is unusually fine. Payne’s distant gaze, and the manner in which he hold himself, gve off a high, noble energy. On a major level, the images celebrates a life in art. The etching Maurice (1998) shows him in a dark jacket, white shirt, and checked pants. His hair is thinning, but his expression in young. Behind him is a U-shaped, cross-shaped wallpaper framing a window filled with light. Payne is known to have encouraged Hockney to experiment; in the case of this work, a wire brush was used to achieve texture. But Hockney’s ferocious line is as always dominant. Hockney uses pencil and a camera lucida in Maurice. 11th September (1999) to describe, in the most accurate, exquisite fashion, the sitter, who crosses his arms and looks directly at the viewer. The camera lucida, an optical device using a prism or a mirror in which rays of light are thrown onto a piece of paper to create an image, was used regularly by Hockney. The result is a likeness of breathtaking precision.

What can we summarize about “David Hockney: Drawing from Life”? The first thing to say is that the organization of the show was extremely clever, being devoted to close studies of people who have meant a lot to Hockney. The five sitters in the show enable the artist to portray different temperaments with the exacting precision he has become recognized for. The other eminent attribute that comes immediately into mind when looking at Hockney’s drawings is the extraordinary skill with which he invests his work, which is driven, though, not by coldness or detachment but by the affection that goes along with intimacy and friendship. We must remember that at this time, a show of figurative work carries (unnecessarily) a conservative outlook. Yet Hockney is so good an artist, his figurative bent becomes a celebration of tradition rather than a point of view marked by stylistic rigidity–this from an artist whose nation is better known for its writing than for its art! The apotheosis of the artist into more than a minor deity in contemporary art is built on the recognition of him as a draftsman of very great achievement.

But Hockney is more than a technical genius. In the Sixties, he captured the spirit of “swinging London,” whose pop culture he managed to affectionately describe even as he invested pleasure with an historically based depth. The same thing happens with the swimming pool paintings he did while living in Los Angeles; they describe a pleasurable, even a hedonistic, lifestyle, but the technical effects of the art are so certain, and the colors so beautifully handled, we forget the extravagance of the image and admire it for its attractiveness alone. In this show of drawings, color doesn’t have all that much of a chance to have an effect on people, but what when it does, it becomes clear that Hockney’s linear advances are equaled by his inspired use of hue (this is seen in the colored pencil drawings in the show). We can only admire, and admire again, the long achievement of an artist for whom the past is not a wall, but a door opening into extraordinary accomplishments that needn’t be dismissed as lost to time. Now that so much writing tends to address the avant-garde, or what is somewhat inaccurately called the avant-garde (how can something be called challenging and new if there is a readymade space, audience, and critical response for work that is supposed to be defiant?), we must look with considerable respect towards an artist whose works advances the representation manner in ways that keep tradition alive.

In the long run, in light of future art historical writing, our stylistic determinations of the effectiveness of representation over abstraction, or the other way around, won’t matter in light of the individual achievement of the artist himself. Hockney is a major artist–we have known that for a long time. The reasons why he is so very good need to be examined and historically contextualized, but the quality of his art is that it was known from the start to be outstanding. In this show, he manages to link people important in his life to his ability to render, fastidiously, their likenesses for posterity. We can assume that his wonderful line is animated by a deep affection for family, lovers, and friends. It is so rare now to find an artist working figuratively who transcends the weight of the past! The technical ability of the artist surely must push his insight into a place of permanency, but that is not all of its achievement. Humanism, a word not much in use now, must be employed to properly describe Hockney’s inspired melding of his affection for the past and his gifted wish to connect with the emotional importance of people, places, art. This show demonstrates that Hockney is in conversation with time and its visual achievements. By working within a long tradition, he has learned to make that tradition new. He is elderly now, but his legacy grows more and more timeless, in light of his ongoing efforts to present a new look based on historical precedents. Thus, the past comes to look more and more like the future, both of which Hockney handles beautifully.