David Hockney’s Life in Painting: Spare, Exuberant, Full

David Hockney’s Life in Painting: Spare, Exuberant, Full


The earliest paintings indicate Mr. Hockney’s attention to Abstract Expressionism and Bacon’s figurative scrums and his penchant for scatterings of numbers, texts and product labels that presage Pop Art. They culminate in “The Third Love Painting” (1960) in which a large phallus-figure topped with black hairs contains a small block of hand-lettered text: the closing lines of a poem by Walt Whitman about his happiness while lying beside his sleeping lover, “under the same cover in the cool night.”

Homoeroticism turns sardonically explicit in “Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11,” from 1962, in which two podlike creatures pleasure each other, their genitals depicted as red boxes labeled Colgate. And it emerges from the bedroom in the Baconesque “The Cha-Cha That Was Danced in the Early Hours of 24th March,” from 1961. Here a blurred figure in a white suit wearing heels and carrying a handbag dances before abstract blocks of red and blue. His name, Peter, is indicated, as is the artist’s reaction: “I love every movement.”

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In the 1960s, male desire and explicit homoeroticism began to appear in Mr. Hockney’s pictures, such as “Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11,” from 1962.

Credit
Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo, Norway

The next group of paintings — 10 from 1962 to 1965 — are a tour de force of artistic growth, spurred in part by travel, to Italy and New York and, in early 1964, to Los Angeles, about which he had fantasized for some time, inspired by both its sunny clime and the beefcake magazines published there. Evidence is the charmingly innocent “Domestic Scene, Los Angeles” of 1963, which shows a man wearing only socks and an apron washing the back of a man taking a shower, in the company of a comfy chintz-covered armchair. (The figures come from magazines like Young Physique.)

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“Domestic Scene, Los Angeles,” 1963.

Credit
Private collection, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In these paintings, Mr. Hockney’s awkward figurative style fleshes out toward naturalism, impudently balancing between art and illustration. His scatterings of disparate props become more emphatic, as do expanses of raw canvas. These efforts may be the last, ironically cheerful gasp of the postwar period’s often lugubrious Existential figuration — at its best in Jean Dubuffet’s work, which Mr. Hockney admired.

Art becomes a character in its own right in two paintings that pair a man in contemporary dress with an exotically accoutered Egyptian statue. Aspects of Color Field abstraction show up as bright bands indicating rainbows, suns and mountains. Different modes of representation combine. In “California Art Collector,” a matron, rendered in modern grisaille, occupies an armchair beneath a lean-to that echoes the manger in Piero Della Francesca’s “Nativity” in the National Gallery in London.

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“California Art Collector” (1964), from “David Hockney,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Credit
Collection of Giancarlo Giammetti, New York

The still spaces and figures of Piero’s art help Mr. Hockney achieve a unified naturalism, based on the observation of actual people, places and things. (In “The Room, Tarzana,” a quietly desirous image from 1967, the artist’s lover lies face down on a bed, naked below the waist.) The stage is set with clean-edged forms, suffusions of blue and nearly single-point perspectives that glorify the skies, swimming pools, architecture and lawns of Los Angeles. Abstraction lurks, especially in “A Bigger Splash” and “A Lawn Being Sprinkled.”



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