Hockney retrospective opens at Tate Britain
On Monday morning the David Hockney retrospective opened at Tate Britain for invited members of the press. It says something about this artist’s longevity and wide, cross-cultural appeal that the assembled crowd covered the gamut from renowned TV art critics to fashion commentators such as international Vogue editor Suzy Menkes (who was seen exiting via the gift shop, a large bag of Hockney memorabilia over her arm), as well as assorted oddballs like me.
The exhibition itself, starting with Hockney’s earliest experimental artworks, progresses through the most clearly biographical period of his early life in California, to preliminary landscape works, polaroid collages, drawings and Camera Lucida experiments to his more recent trials with video, iPhone and iPad painting, thereby covering some sixty years of the artist’s life.
On making my own exit, I was asked by a film crew to give a summary on camera of what had brought me to the exhibition and my personal highlights: aside from expressing the sheer joy of seeing such a display of vibrant colour on a drab Monday morning, I also mentioned Mr Hockney’s status as a fashion icon (still surprising to some), and the fact that he had lived and worked through such key moments in history, especially as a gay man.
This latter point feels particularly relevant at a time when both Britain and America are preoccupied with a sense of profound change, bringing with it concern about the implications for all minorities, particularly in the States where the hard-won equal status of gay people is being brought into question, only weeks after the changeover in president.
It was therefore especially moving to see Hockney’s record of his own transition from the drab grey of post-war Britain to the sunshine and (comparative) liberalism of 60’s California, as documented in the gleaming skin of his lover, caught in poolside sunlight or indeed in portraits of his friends.
In the second room, where Hockney’s early experiments with the form of painting are most evident, hangs the painting titled We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961), created at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. In this work Hockney creates a kind of collage of early queer culture using a combination of Walt Whitman’s poetry (the title comes from Leaves of Grass), together with an in-joke from then popular culture involving Cliff Richard (whom the youthful artist had a crush on at the time) and a misreading of a headline about two boys found clinging to a cliff.
In Room 3 a vast portrait of the British writer and fellow ex-pat Christopher Isherwood with his life partner, the portraitist Don Bachardy, dominates, even in a room full of ‘paintings with people in’. A video commentary by Bachardy himself, explains the context of this work (painted in 1968), commemorating as it does, the then virtually unknown phenomenon of a successful gay couple in the public eye (Isherwood and Bachardy had already been together 10 or 15 years by then, explains Bachardy in the clip). There was the notion that Hockney was documenting not just his own milieu but also a crucial transition in society, boldly presenting the lived experience of gay men as the subject of art, probably for the first time. Bachardy also suggests that his relationship with Isherwood may have inspired Hockney to find his own partner – personal and sexual revolution in action.
The biographical portraits also reveal glimpses of Hockney as a personal style icon, from his iconic bleached hair, big glasses and bold striped Rugby shirt to the reflected louche glamour of friends Ossie Clarke and Celia Birtwell. In one of the Polaroid compositions, titled Grand Canyon with Foot (1982), the said foot happens to be Hockney’s and he happens to be sporting a colourful multi-textured shoe, featuring a fringed kiltie, as recently popularized by Prada.
Constant experimentation with technique is what makes Hockney’s work feel so satisfying and so relevant: from painting and drawing, to Polaroid collages, Camera Lucida experiments and, particularly since his return to his native Yorkshire, exploration of natural forms and landscapes through such varied techniques as video, iPhone/ iPad paintings and photo printing. This is an artist who refuses to stand still but who isn’t being innovative for the sake of it, neither has he retreated into willful obscurity, thereby admitting that his message is no longer relevant. Recorded in person on the audio guide, Hockney’s voice is strident, rarely asking questions. In one example he argues that while photographs of sunrise may be clichéd, in nature this is never the case – the phenomenon of sunrise remains surprising and transformative. I like to think that Mr Hockney greets each day with a similar sense of gratitude and curiosity about what the day might bring.
Hockney – 60 Years of Work, 9 February-29 May 2017 Tate Britain