David Hockney and the Seasoned Eye (Guest Post By FIT Professor Tom McManus)

When I was younger, I would see older artists looking at paintings, and I always wanted to know what they were thinking. Well now that I can get a senior discount on my commuter train, I would like to share my thoughts as I visited the David Hockney show at the Met.

Initially, I sped through the entire exhibit to pace myself for later. (I tend to spend too much time at the beginning of a show only to tire out in the middle and then rush the end.) Then I went back to the beginning and started over. Now I know how to spend just the right amount of time for each piece.

I immediately went back to a large gallery housing several large portrait paintings that deserved more of my time. An ambitious painting of two of Hockney’s friends, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy caught my eye. Immediately, I knew I could spend some quality time here.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” Acrylic 1968

The first thing I look for in a painting is the surface as it provides the most noticeable difference between a work and its reproduction. Hockney painted this in acrylic which imbued the work with a modernist feel while preserving the colors (unlike the oil paintings in the show). Without impasto, staining, or scumbling the surface was uniformly thin, smooth, and taut like the skin of a snare drum. I felt I could lift a corner and peel the entire painting off in one piece — like taking the label off of a wet beer bottle. Much of the brushwork disappears in blended shapes leaving little of the artist’s mark. Luckily, there is more to painting than just surface, so I moved on to the composition.

Hockney knows all of the tenets of excellent composition, but here he chooses to ignore them. The table in front has its right edge meet the chair in the back of it, forming an angle that flattens out space. Also, the left edge of the table intersects directly with the lower left corner of the painting. The right wall lines up with the chair’s arms. Each figure’s head lines up with the window shutters. All throughout the painting Hockney plays little modernist games where he locks in spacial planes and then releases it at other junctures. This warping of space adds a hint of Cubism to the piece. But there is more to this composition, as I noticed Hockney employed an interesting acrobatic move.

When you look at this painting, it reveals a geometric shape that interacts with the space in front of it. A three-dimensional triangle forms when the right figure looks at the character to the left, who in turn looks at you (the person viewing the painting) as you look back at them. It’s like a pinball machine where the gaze of each participant bounces the ball to another in an endless loop. Many of these paintings utilize this interaction with the observer, overtly engaging people with the work.

Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc, Acrylic 1971

The challenge of painting water offers a recurring motif in Hockney’s oeuvre. Pools and Steps, Le Nid du Duc, has sandals plopped into the center, and unlike the earlier paintings, it demonstrates Hockney’s flair for surface. Noteworthy, the artist stains the water in the swimming pool which contrasts with the opaque surface of the stairs and sky. Knots and the texture of the canvass are exposed as thin paint seeps into the surface, softening the edges. The pool revels in the freedom of staining, combined with the spontaneous and yet controlled overlapping of shapes — it mimics the transparency of water. This painting foreshadows the loosing of his style which reaches a fever pitch in the last galleries of the show.

Robert Rauschenberg said that every time he changed locations it changed his work. Luckily, Hockney once lived in California. What Nice was to Matisse, Los Angeles is to David Hockney. It brought out the Fauvist in him. The surface now breathes with the white of the canvass peaking out with decorative patterns gleaned from nature marching up the canvass vertically. Now there is minimal blending, and the subtle hues and values of his earlier portrait painting indulge in fireworks of color exploding in front of our eyes. The thalos pop with staining which contrast with dense paint layers. The variety of surface textures in addition to “naive” drawing makes this work come alive.

When artists look at paintings, they check out how the canvasses were painted. Hockney gives a lesson in subtle painting technique from a European modernist perspective. Even though he came from Britain, he paints like a Frenchman stranded in Los Angeles.

Tom McManus is an Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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