Portraiture throughout history tends to be the product of a transaction between an artist and a wealthy patron, resulting mainly in works of approximation tempered with flattery. In current times, artist David Hockney has made portraiture a substantial part of his oeuvre through seven decades.
What sets him apart is the fact that his portraits are uncommissioned and usually of people he knows, freeing him from the rules of commerce and obsequy and allowing him to paint precisely what he sees.
Over the years Hockney has employed a wide variety of formats in capturing the likenesses of friends and acquaintances, including photography, collage, oil, watercolor, Polaroids, graphite, crayon, camera lumina and, in the case of his current show, acrylic.
“What do people truly look like?” Hockney asks L.A. Weekly at the opening of his new show, "82 Portraits and 1 Still-life" at LACMA through July 29. “I think I have to know a person quite well to know what they look like, really.”
The figures in the show are precisely that, people he knows quite well. The lineup crosses class, race and culture, ranging from starchitect Frank Gehry to studio assistant Jonathan Mills and encompassing the likes of Barry Humphries, known internationally as Dame Edna; dentist Merle Glick; artist John Baldessari; and housekeeper Doris Velasco. There's also a bench full of fruit.
That last one is the still-life of the title, painted on account of Ayn Grinstein having to reschedule around the death of her father, Stanley Grinstein, director of the legendary artists space Gemini G.E.L., frequented by people like Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and many others.
Hockney painted the still-life and rescheduled Grinstein for three days after her father’s funeral. “It was a bit sad. He was quite old, but it’s always sad when that happens,” says Hockney, a longtime friend of the family.
“David called me the day before my father’s funeral. He did it knowing he wanted it to be about mourning,” says Grinstein, who buried her father on Friday and was in Hockney’s chair on Monday. Nevertheless, she remembers feeling relaxed throughout the session. “I didn’t feel self-conscious, as I needed to get out of myself anyway. I didn’t feel I looked that sad. But he knew what he was going for before I got there.”
Hockney’s longtime Venice-based dealer, Peter Goulds, founding director of L.A. Louver, has sat for the artist numerous times in the past, and for this show did so for three days around New Year’s 2014. Also included are portraits of his wife, Liz, and their son, Oliver. “He paints very intensely. While painting there’s no conversation,” Goulds recalls of the session. “I was surprised, frankly, how relaxed I felt I looked. I think the only concern I had while he was working was am I in the right position, was I giving him back what he was needing.”
LACMA curator Stephanie Barron had known Hockney for 30 years when, back in 2013, she bumped into him at the museum’s "Calder and Abstraction" exhibition. He asked her to sit for him and told her it would require a three-day commitment. She arrived the morning of Jan. 7, 2014, wearing red because, having seen some of the portraits, she noticed bold colors stood out more.
“It’s an intimidating silence,” she recalls of the experience. “There’s nothing to relieve it because you’re aware of his intense concentration.”
It was only during breaks, as they chatted over coffee and cigarettes, that she got to see progress on her likeness. “I look intensely at them. Everybody notices that,” Hockney sighs. “For a lot of people it was the only time they’d sat. I suppose it’s an odd thing to do, to look at somebody very intensely and try to do something with them, but I think everybody enjoyed the experience.”
There are underlying elements that connect the portraits. Aside from perspective and a blue and green background of varying shades, the one binding element is Hockney himself. He has lost most of his hearing and has trouble communicating at social events, but the portraits allowed him to spend extended one-on-one time with friends, family and acquaintances.
The past five years haven’t been easy on the artist. After he suffered a stroke in 2012, tragedy struck in spring of 2013 when an assistant, Dominic Elliott, drank drain cleaner after a night of partying and copious drug-taking at Hockney’s Bridlington, East Yorkshire, home and studio. An inquest cleared Hockney’s other assistant, Jean Pierre Goncalves De Lima (J-P), as well as Hockney, who was sleeping down the hall at the time of the incident.
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The episode had a powerful impact on the artist and his assistant, both of whom decided to return to Hockney’s Hollywood Hills studio for a change of scenery. Catching J-P in a compelling moment of grief, head in hands, Hockney painted the first portrait, basing it loosely on Vincent Van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man at Eternity’s Gate. It varies in style from the paintings that follow in several ways, notably the pose and the presence of a carpet on the floor, but in a quick progression of cleaner brushstrokes and higher saturation, the look of the piece is established.
“So that’s a starting point and it’s probably how J-P felt after the exhaustion of all that went on emotionally with the loss of Dominic. He was sitting there reflecting and struck that pose that was akin to the Van Gogh portrait,” Goulds says.
It could be said that, after losing someone close to him, Hockney took stock of the people in his life, finding redemption in his art as well as a way to enjoy his friends and relatives one-on-one. “I’d been doing seven years of landscape painting,” Hockney recalls. “Then I came back and I just wanted to do something else. So portraits were rather a good thing to do. I like painting portraits. I like drawing people.”
"82 Portraits and 1 Still-life" at LACMA, April 15-July 29; lacma.org.