Illustration by Martin Rowson
Sacred Cows

David Hockney: An oyster without grit

How to account for the famous painter’s popularity?

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

David Hockney is now 83 years old and has been famous for fully 60 of those years. Since he appeared in the “Young Contemporaries” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961,while still a student at the Royal College of Art, celebrity and accolades are pretty much all he’s known. That exhibition launched the careers of other student artists too, such as Allen Jones and RB Kitaj, but it catapulted Hockney’s the highest.

The show brought him a dealer — another 1960s bright young thing, John Kasmin — and shortly afterwards a new appearance when the suddenly flush Bradford boy visited America and dyed his hair blond after seeing a Clairol advertisement. On his return he was photographed by Antony Armstrong-Jones for the new Sunday Times magazine and his signature look became even better known than his paintings. So quickly did he become embedded in the scene that by 1972 he appeared on Desert Island Discs.

Age seems not to have staled his renown, but instead boosted it. In 2017, his retrospective at Tate Britain became the gallery’s most popular ever show for a living artist when it attracted 478,082 visitors. But that number — more than 4,300 visitors a day — is paltry compared to the 600,989 paying customers (7,512 a day) who descended on the Royal Academy of Arts for his “A Bigger Picture” exhibition in 2012.

In the past few years he has held major shows at the Met in New York, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Getty in Los Angeles, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and at galleries in China, Denmark, Japan, Australia and Italy. From the beginning of 2020 there have been 11 different Hockney shows, and that is under the shadow of a global pandemic. Ubiquity usually leads to ennui, but not in his case.

The pictures have been pouring out of him: his house, trees, pond, stream and views. The trouble is they are not art, just illustrations

Britons are not known for taking contemporary artists to their hearts, so how to account for his popularity? The look is part of it and the Alan Bennett Yorkshire inflection that has survived living in California for a large chunk of his adult life.

More pertinently though, nothing in his art frightens the horses — he has never strayed into abstraction, conceptual or performance art, while his technological experiments with Polaroids and faxes were quirky but quaint. His pictures have always been comprehensible, even decorous. And decorous is just a bit boring. Intentionally or inadvertently, Hockney has never disconcerted his public — there is simply not enough grit in his oyster.

The edgiest he has been is in his images of his gay milieu, notably the 13 etchings for Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy he made in 1966, a year before the legalisation of homosexuality. Even these, however, have a sense of decorum, their eroticism outweighed by his exquisite draughtsmanship — always the strongest element of his art.

At the very outset of his career, in 1961, Roger de Grey, Hockney’s senior tutor at the RCA, recognised the essential gentility of his gay art: on seeing Hockney’s first major work, We Two Boys Together Clinging, he commented drily, “Well I hope they don’t get any closer than that.”

It is unsurprising then that there is a benignity to his portraits, his pictures of LA swimming pools and the Grand Canyon, of his pet dachshunds (the actor Dennis Hopper was not a fan after one of them defecated in the middle of his floor and Hockney blithely dismissed his rage, telling him “It’ll be dry in the morning, Luv, and you can just pick it up”), and his opera-set designs. These are all safe, conventional, themes: if Waitrose sold art…

The big upswing in his popularity coincided with his adoption of the most respectable and British genres of them all, landscape painting. When in the 1990s he started to return to Yorkshire to visit his elderly mother, he made the Wolds near Bridlington his own.

Like Normandy, it is attractive countryside without being spectacular, and Hockney turned out image after perfectly agreeable image of its changing seasons. Blossom proliferated, rain had a turn, greening fields and burgeoning hedgerows too. It was all very nice, very colourful, very affirming but also very artistically unremarkable.

This was disguised by Hockney going big, as epitomised by his Bigger Trees near Warter, 2007, a 12 metre-wide 50-canvas compilation of a roadside stand of trees. It impressed by its scale — but only by its scale. Had it been painted on a canvas just a metre wide it would hardly have drawn a glance.

They’d look good in a book, on a tea towel, mug or other gallery gift-shop bric-a-brac, but on the gallery wall they lack surface texture, light and shade, and, above all, interest

The same issue arises with “The Arrival of Spring, Normandy 2020”, the new RA exhibition of the art he has made at his recently acquired French home. The pictures have been pouring out of him — of the house, its trees, pond, stream and views — and they are all very bright and breezy. The trouble is, they are not art, just illustrations.

They’d look good in a book, on a tea towel, mug or other gallery gift-shop bric-a-brac, but on the gallery wall they lack surface texture, light and shade, and, above all, interest. There’s not a show-stopper among them, nothing for the ages; a quick pop of the synapses and they disappear from memory. The crowds will gather, nevertheless.

Optimistic art has its place (Anita Brookner once perceptively likened Hockney to the early 20th-century French colourist Raoul Dufy) but too much of it palls. Howard Hodgkin, for example, a contemporary and friend of Hockney, was another painter who used colour to express emotion, but there is a sense of profundity and psychological depth to his pictures. And that’s before you get to the likes of Bacon and Freud.

Not that this appears to bother his admirers. If the fact that he draws tirelessly on an iPad is a sign of his techno-curiosity and his commitment to finding new ways of mark-making, it should also be noted that an iPad is better suited to internet scrolling than drawing: the resulting images are frequently clumsy, garish, unresolved, and with a naivety that is due more to the deficiencies of the medium than the intention of the artist.

Hockney, though, holds the title for the world’s most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction — Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) of 1972 which made just over $90 million in 2018 — so criticism doesn’t simply wash off, it rarely even arrives.

The warm reception to his suite of jolly but maladroit 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life in 2016 illustrated that. The stark disparity in quality between them and his early portraits was barely even mentioned. These may have been images of people, but they weren’t, as the best portraits are, records of a subtle interaction between sitter and artist.

Cézanne once said of Monet that “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!” and Hockney has an eye too, it is just that the optic nerves don’t always seem fully connected to a deeper consciousness.

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