On July 9, iconic pop artist David Hockney turned 80, and the Getty is celebrating with a pair of mini shows that offer a revealing look at the man and his milieu. The first includes 16 self-portraits from the 1950s through 2012, created for Hockney's personal consumption and rarely exhibited. The second is a similarly granular look at Hockney’s world through his photo composites from the 1980s, and includes one of his most famous works, Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986, #2.
“You stand in the middle of the room and it’s like seeing his life and career laid out,” says co-curator Julian Brooks, who organized the self-portraits; Virginia Heckert assembled the photo show, which opened July 18, running simultaneously through Nov. 26. “You literally see him going from an art student at the age of 17, going through his 30s, and we really start seeing a lot of self-portraits. The iPad [portraits] are him aged 75. I imagine when he steps into the room, it will be like seeing his life flash before him.”
Attending art school wasn’t the usual thing to do for a boy from working-class Bradford, England. But at the age of 16, Hockney knew he wanted to be an artist. The earliest self-portrait is a lithograph featuring him seated with a pudding-bowl haircut, black bangs and circular glasses, staring directly at the viewer. A telling detail is the way his arms are defensively folded in front of him, perhaps an expression of self-consciousness.
A 1970 chromogenic print taken in Karlsbad, Germany, shows him in front of a mirror, nattily dressed in a white suit and tie, blond hair and glasses, looking cool and confident, every inch the pop artist du jour. Another photo, taken five years later, shows only his feet in the foreground and the lake at Gerardmer, France, sprawling into the distance. We know it's Hockney by his famously mismatched socks and shoelaces. Over six weeks in 1983, he painted 35 self-portraits. “I just noticed that every time I looked, there was something different, and you drew it differently,” he observes in the Getty’s notes for the show.
Over the decades, Hockney has split his time between Los Angeles and England’s East Yorkshire, both providing colorful backdrops to his oeuvre. The constant is an impish playfulness and an eager embrace of new media. Not just watercolor, oil, acrylic, charcoal and the like, but fax machines and Xerox copiers, four of which he installed in his studio when the technology became available, producing what he called handmade prints.
A 2012 self-portrait shows him at age 75, cigarette in mouth, watery blue eyes peering over the top of his spectacles. “So much variety is possible,” he said of the iPad on which he created the image. “Here you can paint anything on anything. You can put a bright blue on top of an intense yellow. The iPad is like an endless sheet of paper. You can adjust scale forever.”
In the early 1980s, the camera became his primary tool of expression, though some would argue he was never a photographer. “The interest in the camera was two-fold. One, he’s always interested in gadgetry, small cameras, portable things he can put in his pocket,” says Peter Goulds of L.A. Louver, the Venice-based gallery that has represented Hockney since the late 1970s. “He began to see the camera as a journal, which is why the early photography is all about his travels, his friends, accounting for relationships. And that became [a way] which compositions could be joined together to create different kinds of attitudes, pictorial space. With each new layer of advancing technology, be it the Xerox machine, the fax machine, it’s all about image-making.”
Frustrated with the camera’s limited ability to catch only a single static moment, Hockney adopted the Polaroid SX-70 in order to capture his subject in pieces, presenting varying views and moments more reflective of the way we view the world. Composites such as Nicholas Wilder Studying Picasso. Los Angeles 24th March 1982 feature numerous images coming together in a mosaic of the seated artist, perusing a book on Picasso. Completed one month later, Still Life Blue Guitar 4th April 1982 draws even stronger parallels between the composites from this period and cubist concepts developed by Picasso and Braque 70 years earlier.
“He became interested through cubism and simultaneity and how images can be depicted, and how different facets of a person’s appearance can reveal more about their internal selves,” says Goulds, who characterizes most of the composites in the show as a lead-up to Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986, #2, Hockney's masterpiece depicting a desert crossroads.
The Getty offers a unique opportunity to experience this work, which is rarely exhibited on account of its fragility. “It’s stable, but it’s not something that we lend. This is No. 2, the actual photo composite, not Pearblossom #1, which we lend. It’s a single sheet and it’s much more stable,” says Brooks of a work constituting more than 100 drugstore prints.
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Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986, #1 is currently part of the massive Hockney retrospective at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Also included are five of the artist's most recent works, which indicate a new direction based on a 1920 essay called "Reverse Perspective," by Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky. “It reinforces the idea that real space is expressed by reversing the perspective,” Goulds explains of the concept. “Instead of the vanishing point in the distance, the vanishing point is behind the viewer, not in front of the viewer. So you’re not isolated but embraced by the picture.”
A stroke in 2012 forced Hockney to quit drinking, narrowing his vices to a mean smoking habit and marijuana after hours while watching Netflix. His work, however, continues unabated.
“His health is excellent,” says Goulds, a close friend for 40 years. “We’ve just opened the most definitive exhibition David has ever had at the Pompidou. A show like this would herald, in some fashion, the end, but it in fact heralds a new beginning. So on his 80th birthday, we’re excited to see the new David Hockney emerging.”
"Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney," the Getty, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood; through Nov. 26. getty.edu.