“Whoa,” said Jack Larson as we rounded a corner at the County Museum of Art and came face to face with two dachshunds. “This is a very moving show if you know his life.”
The show is “David Hockney Portraits,” a retrospective organized by the National Portrait Gallery in London and just opened at LACMA, and the dogs, Stanley and Boodgie, are Hockney’s as he painted them in the early ’90s. Larson, 73, who played Jimmy Olsen in the old Superman TV series (he and his then–co-star Noel Neill make a cameo appearance in the new movie), but is otherwise a librettist, playwright and producer (with his longtime partner, the late director Jim Bridges), is one of a large circle of friends who’ve made up the majority of Hockney’s models over the years.
Several of those friends are here tonight, at a pre-opening benefit for LACMA’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council, which includes a dinner at Morton’s for those paying $1,200. A number of the finer face-lifts in town are also on display, along with a few art celebrities — Steve Martin, Dennis Hopper, Robert Graham and Anjelica Huston. Larson is pushing the wheelchair of Betty Freeman, whom he introduced to Hockney in the ’60s and who figures in one of Hockney’s iconic L.A. paintings, Beverly Hills Housewife (see page 56). Taking my hand, Freeman explained how Hockney asked to paint her swimming pool, then changed his mind and asked her to pose. The finished painting didn’t interest her, she said, and only after a third call from Hockney’s dealer did she go have a good look at it. Once there, she bought it, and still owns it today — and the painting is on view only here in L.A.
Moving into the back galleries, Freeman paused before a series of drawings with gouache that Hockney made of museum guards at the National Portrait Gallery. Strangers to Hockney are rare in his work; according to the wall text, the artist says he needs to know someone before he can paint them, so he had coffee with each of the guards prior to their sittings. “This for me is David’s real tour de force,” said Freeman. “Every one is a human being, and every one is astonishingly individual. They’re empathy paintings.”
Larson, who has been painted or drawn by Hockney several times, isn’t so sure about his portrait included in the show, one of a series of camera-lucida drawings Hockney made utilizing optics he believes were used by the old masters. Leading me over to it with a loose hold on my arm, the subject complains mildly, “I’m so serious-looking!” And indeed, the Larson looking straight ahead and glum with overlong delicate fingers entwined in front of him as if on a desktop recalls a Richard Nixon not long after his resignation and seems a far cry from this dapper, brightly dressed man. “I was worried about my dogs,” he said. “The sitting took so long.”
Among the most painted or drawn of Hockney’s friends were the late novelist Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy. I spied Bachardy, small and trim and fit as an aging human Jack Russell, and asked him to check out his camera-lucida portrait. Like Larson’s, it’s pencil on gray paper, but Bachardy’s is enlivened by white crayon highlights on his sport jacket and across the top of his close-cropped hair, which focuses the viewer in on his face, especially his eyes. In the catalog notes, Hockney says that when he asked Isherwood and Bachardy to relax, the writer “always looked at Don [while] Don . . . was always looking at me.” Indeed, Bachardy, jaw set and lips pursed downward, is almost glaring straight ahead, as if to say, “See what you can do, big shot.” His assessment tonight: “It’s the best likeness of me.”
Richard Sassin, another one of Bachardy and Hockney and Larson’s colorful friends, wandered up. “Did I interrupt?” he said. “Did you say anything bad?”
“Oh, I hope so!,” Bachardy shot back with a laugh.
Then the two spontaneously turned toward Larson’s portrait.
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“Oh, that’s so him.”
“Oh yes, it’s so like him.”
See Doug Harvey’s review of “David Hockney Portraits” on page 56.