Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney

David Hockney who turned 80 on July 9, is being celebrated by major exhibitions traveling the globe. The Tate Modern held its comprehensive exhibit about Hockney’s work from February 9 through May 29th which is now at The Pompidou Center in Paris (June 21-Oct 23) before ending its run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum (November 26- February 25, 2018). It’s the kind of career-spanning retrospective to warm an artist’s heart and please his fans. It is the kind of exhibition that, being held at three of the world’s most prestigious museums, is frankly hard to top or even match.

David Hockney at the Getty Center
London, Paris and New York are not, however, home to Hockney who has lived part-time in Los Angeles for the last 50 years. So the Getty Museum has thrown David Hockney a celebration with two small but well-considered and curated rooms of exhibits, one of self-portraits chosen from Hockney’s own private collection and foundation; the other, a room of photocollages surrounding the Getty owned and rarely exhibited Hockney masterpiece, Pearlblossom Highway, both of which Timothy Potts deemed, “Two of the most important aspects of his work and what he’s achieved.” And The Getty invited Mr. Hockney to attend the opening last week (which he did, looking charmed by the exhibit and exhibiting tremendous grace in the face of all the attention).

Julian Brooks, senior curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum had the enviable task of working with the artist’s archive and the David Hockney Foundation to select the Hockney self-portraits which range from age 17 to age 75 (in 2012), and are done in a wide variety of mediums, from pencil to Ipad, demonstrating Hockney’s incredible creativity, dexterity, and his own self-identity as an early adopter and lifelong learner of new technologies adopted in the service of his art. The portraits, Brooks explained, “were never intended for commercial sale and have instead remained with the artist. We are privileged to be exhibiting these rarely seen, intimate works.”

The 16 featured works begin with a pencil drawing made when Hockney was at Bradford Art School, and is the basis for a lithograph he made soon after, which itself reveals Hockney’s flair for color and texture (and it is worth noting that in this self-portrait Hockney’s hair was still dark black – he was years away from turning it blond). There is a photograph from 1975 that Hockney took while on vacation in France that is just his legs, socks (one bright yellow, one bright red) and shoes jutting out over the water which speaks to how well Hockney, consciously or unconsciously, branded himself – (so much so that we can recognize him just by his socks!). There are charcoal drawings, and oil-painted experiments in Cubism (or in homage to Picasso); a self-portrait made with Xeroxed images; watercolors, and most recently, large format IPad drawings.

Looking at the self-portraits one sees not just the passage of time, but Hockney becoming and being Hockney. Taken together the room shows Hockney “confronting himself as he aged,” Brooks said. At the same demonstrating Hockney’s constant curiosity and appetite for exploring new mediums and his quick intelligence in seizing on the artistic dimension each new medium offers him.

A second gallery features a selection of Hockney’s photocollages from the 1980s. As, Virginia Heckert, department head of the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs, explained, Hockney got his hands on a polaroid SX-70 camera on February 26, 1982, and he began using up his stock of polaroid film, and arranging the white bordered images into a grid. In one of the first images he conveys the porch at his home in a flattened 360 perspective; in another, he charts the trajectory of a dive into his pool, much like Edward Muybridge’s motion studies of a horse running.

Richard Schmidt
David Hockney “Jerry Diving Sunday Feb. 28th 1982”
Composite Polaroid, 10 1/2 X 24 1/2,C David Hockney
With photography, Heckert says, Hockney wasn’t interested in what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment,” For Hockney it was not about seeing a moment and seizing it, it was about exploring the ways in which to see a moment. Hockney was more interested in composing the images and redoing them if necessary to arrive at his desired effect. One of the interesting features of the early Polaroid collages is that every element in the picture remains in focus – obliterating renaissance notions of perspective and offering a modern way of seeing – in which a multiplicity of focus conveys present reality.

97.XM.39
David Hockney,”Pearlblosson Hwy., 11 – 18th of April 1986, #2, April 11-18, 1986, Chromogenic prints mounted on paper honeycomb panel, 181.6 X 271.8 cm (71 1/2 X 107 in), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
C 1986 David Hockney, 97.XM.39
“Pearlblossom Highway” is the most elaborate (and one of the most famous) of Hockney’s photocollages consisting of some 700 photos and it took Hockney nine days to make (the most of any of his photocollages, Heckert said). On assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, Hockney was tasked with retracing Hubert Humbert’s path from Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel “Lolita” and found himself at this desert intersection in California’s Antelope Valley. Hockney’s technique immediately draws you into the photo while presenting every detail, every piece of roadside garbage in hyper-realistic detail. The artwork is quite fragile. It is not glazed over to preserve it and has only been exhibited twice in the past by The Getty. Go see it now before it is archived again!

The self-portraits and the photo-collages are both small tributes but like bites of molecular gastronomy they deliver a ton of the flavor of Mr. Hockney. He has been at home in Los Angeles for some 50 years, and the LA that appears in his work, swimming pools, bright colors, desert landscapes, a land where time and perspective are obliterated, have only become more true over time (or become the identifiers of present day LA).

In organizing this birthday tribute to David Hockney, it must be said, the Getty was not without its own somewhat selfish motives, as Timothy Potts freely admitted. The museum hopes to acquire more Hockneys and strengthen their relationship with the artist as his hometown art institution of choice. Also, as Hockney is a contemporary artist and vastly popular and recognizable one, I imagine that this exhibition will leverage Hockney’s own appeal to the Getty’s benefit with collectors and younger patrons and visitors. The exhibit’s opening celebration was filled with Getty board members, Los Angeles’ roving art cognoscenti, prominent collectors, and a liberal dose of the venerated, as well as a dash of LA’s young(er) and upcoming strivers. Hockney seeming somewhat frail (walking with a cane and inhibited from extensive conversation by his hearing problems0 nonetheless seemed pleased to be there and for this fuss to me made over him.

And in the end, who can blame the Getty for doing so? It made for a lively and well-attended birthday party for one of the greatest living artists LA claims as its own.

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