There’s something quintessentially Angeleno about David Hockney. In spite of the fact that he was born, raised and received his art training in England and spends only a fraction of his globetrotting year in his adopted hometown, his hypersaturated palette, crackpot scholarship and unapologetic hedonism are somehow able to encapsulate L.A. more succinctly than any number of homegrown painters are. One key facet of this serendipitous mesh is a climate that encourages endless socializing. In London or New York, artists can blame the weather for their antisocial binges of studio sequestering. In L.A., where it is beautiful all the time, you have to entertain.
Hockney is a master entertainer, and “David Hockney Portraits” — organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with (and currently on view at) LACMA — stands as testimony to the artist’s stubbornly idiosyncratic formalism as a tool in a kind of social sculpture. There’s been a lot of buzz over the past few years about recategorizing salons, tea parties, drinking beer with friends, and eating Thai food as art forms in and of themselves — a sort of collaborative poststudio new-media performance subgenre.
While these sometimes ostentatious public demonstrations have undoubtedly done much to publicize the ongoing negotiation of the boundary between life and art as played out in the cutting-edge social laboratories that are museums and nonprofit spaces, “David Hockney Portraits” rather forcibly suggests that not only has this idea been in play among artists for much longer than the baby-shower-as-Gesamtkunstwerk crowd would like to believe, but that in de-emphasizing material craft in favor of more easily “read” appropriations of quotidian lifestyles, they may well have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
Wandering through “Portraits” is like going to a truly fabulous party — a sun-dappled, sangria-pickled, Malibu sock hop/slumber party chock-full of interesting, colorfully dressed and beautifully rendered (cough-cough rich white) people. It’s not that there are no shadows — Hockney’s deathbed sketches of withered Metropolitan gadfly Henry Geldzahler are heart-rending — but they are there to make the sensualities and grotesqueries of the visual world that much more dazzling.
Hockney is a dilettante, in the finest sense of the word. His curiosity drives him to shuffle through an encyclopedic diversity of two-dimensional media — from oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings and graphite, ink and color-pencil drawings, through etchings and lithography, to photocollage and tapestry — and an equally varied array of stylistic phases: the primitivist cartoon surrealism of his early ’60s work, the extended homages to Picasso and Matisse, his experiments with the camera lucida illustrating his controversial thesis about old masters cheating with mirrors. As in any game of chance, some hands are better than others.
Hockney is a great draftsman but only a good painter. When he sticks to his exquisite line — in the still avant-garde graphic design of his 1961 Rake’s Progress etchings (allegorizing the artist’s first visit to the U.S.), the crisp early-’70s ink drawings of friends and family, and his amazing sketchbooks from the turn of the millennium — he’s in the zone. His actual paintings are more of a gamble. There’s an unfeigned awkwardness about Hockney’s surfaces and chroma schemes that often overwhelms their graphic charm. His paintings from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s relied on Pop-influenced idioms to put quotation marks around their flat, blank peculiarity and sometimes slapdash execution, effectively turning weaknesses into strengths.
This is seen in its most virtuosic form in the remarkable 1968 double portrait of L.A. art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman in their sculpture garden (American Collectors). Hockney appears to have paid more attention to depicting the texture of the poolside paving than to either of the ostensible principals. Poor Marcia looks 30 years older than in the source photographs (conveniently vitrined nearby), and Fred appears to have his hand clenched so tight it’s oozing blood. There’s a harsh and unrelenting appraisal taking form that is almost sociopathically aggressive, though not finally judgmental. As with his doppelgänger Andy Warhol, a thorough but affectless interrogation of humanity almost inevitably comes across as misanthropic. But if that were the whole story, wouldn’t it be easier to just turn away?
Warhol was able to overcome his own shortcomings as a painter by redefining the entire medium, then abandoning it. For graphomaniac Hockney, abdication was not an option, and, perversely, as he bravely jettisoned his conceptual props to take on more photographically representational figurative painting, the work suffered. After the renowned Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-71), his oils appear to be treading water. Garishly supersaturated phthalo-green and ultramarine-blue water, clogging every available nook and cranny.
Thankfully, Hockney’s draftsmanship has never faltered, and when he manages to use paint as a drawing medium — in his multipaneled watercolor portraits of 2002 or the slightly earlier suite of hybrid pencil and gouache pictures of guards from the National Gallery in London, for example — the results are as masterful and sensitive as his finest drawings or most intricately choreographed photocollages.
Although Hockney’s paint technique is overshadowed by his drawing chops, all issues of craft are ultimately subsumed in their role as documentation of his social aesthetics. One of his greatest strengths as an artist has been his stubborn refusal to abandon techniques, visual styles and subject matters deemed passé by art critics and other legitimate art-world authorities. People like to look at people, and they like to look at pictures of people. In “Portraits,” David Hockney comes across as profoundly and restlessly curious about humanity as he is about exploring new media.
As you move through the crowd, new faces emerge as others slip away. Some characters make a dozen appearances across the decades, while others appear once. Some are celebrities; some anonymous blurs. What remains constant is the artist’s will to engage the world fully through his craft — to employ his hand and eye in forging a record of having passed through this life. The portraits themselves maintain a position of powerful ambiguity, as handsome, often brilliant individual artworks — but perhaps more importantly as the leavings of a life lived as art. Without the quotation marks.
DAVID HOCKNEY PORTRAITS | LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through September