The media has become preoccupied with who ‘Britain’s Greatest Living Artist’ is. After Francis Bacon died in 1992, the hollow crown was perched precariously on Lucian Freud’s head until he died in 2011, and this was was then followed by an interregnum, while various art critics bandied around names like Sir Anthony Caro, Sir Howard Hodgkin and Frank Auerbach. The new director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson said that ‘Hockney is without doubt one of Britain’s greatest living artists’. He is certainly one of her most popular, and has entered the realms of a ‘living national treasure’, jostling with Alan Bennett, David Attenborough and The Queen for cosy comfort on the sofa, with a cup of tea and a Bourbon biscuit in front of the three-bar electric fire. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970–71) is not just an iconic image of the 1960s and 70s, it is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it came fifth in a BBC poll to find ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’, as well as being the only twentieth-century image to make the list. Top of the post-card list is Lucian Freud’s Girl with a White Dog, which recently ousted Ophelia by Millais. We can only surmise that the ‘greatest living’ accolade would not amount to a pile of beans in Mr Hockney’s sense of achievements and self-worth, having already turned down a knighthood. He paints ‘what I want, when I want and where I want’, and he maintains that ‘most artists work all the time . . . especially good artists. . . I mean, what else is there to do?’
He is a quietly witty man, with a blunt Yorkshire edge, who has a reputation for being outspoken about art, about sexual politics and about freedom to choose, particularly about his passion for smoking. He also has a great sense of history and place, and is as knowledgeable about art as many critics. He has recently published the modestly-titled A History of Pictures with Martin Gayford, art critic for The Spectator. This exhibition covers the sixty years he has been experimenting, innovating, discovering and practicing his craft in a multitude of mediums that include pure painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and photo-collage, experiments in coloured fax paper, theatre set design and posters, as well as film and books.He is constantly on the move and, as soon as he has embraced and mastered the latest digital technique, he shifts to another, but never losing sight of previous directions. His innovative ‘joiner’ montages from the eighties, such as Pearlblossom Highway 1986, informed the paintings he subsequently made of the Californian landscapes surrounding his Hollywood house. In the 1990s, his abstract works influenced the manner in which he painted the Grand Canyon and, subsequently, the Yorkshire Wolds, where he grew up.These were a large part of the big 2013 show at the Royal Academy, which attracted over 700,000 visitors, underlining his populace appeal. ‘I’m interested in ways of looking,’ he says. ‘Everybody does look, it’s just a matter of how hard they’re willing to look.’ The drive to communicate what he sees has pushed Hockney to explore many different means of image-making, often by utilising new technology and materials.
The exhibition is mainly laid out chronologically, apart from the first gallery, where there is an overview of his work, in the early galleries, one is confronted by some very familiar images, of which even Hockney says, ‘many seem like old friends to me now. We’re looking back over a lifetime, and I hope, like me, people will enjoy seeing how the roots of my new and recent work can be seen in the developments over the years.’ The earliest works include the overt homoerotic Doll Boy, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World and We Two Boys Together Clinging from 1960-01, and Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10PM) W11, with a pair of priapic tubes of toothpaste, from the following year. The oil paints he used then in such paintings as Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape and The Hypnotist are as vibrant today as they were sixty-odd years ago, and when he experimented with acrylics in the mid-1960s, with his views of America from California and Arizona to the Rockies, the colours became richer and deeper. Throughout this period, and into the seventies, he continued to draw and etch, and one skill he has never mislaid, forgotten or compromised, is that of draftsmanship. and the lesson that drawing is a way of looking more intently. He also believed that ‘the joiners were much closer to the way we actually look at things, closer to the truth of experience’.
Paintings of natural environments have formed a significant part of Hockney’s artistic life, from Californian terrains to rural English landscapes, whose scale is awesome. One, Bigger Trees near Warter, measuring 12m long by 4.5m high is not in the exhibition, although some smaller ones of trees and woodland in the Wolds and Hawthorn Blossom near Rudston, measuring 3.6m. and 4.8m. long, are made up of smaller canvases, very much like his earlier joiners. ‘Trees are like faces’, he explains. ‘Everyone is different. Nature doesn’t repeat itself. You have to observe carefully; there is a randomness’. In four serene and beautiful films, made up of nine video cameras attached to the front of a Volvo Estate, which was then driven slowly down a track through Woldgate Woods, the four seasons unfold and reveal themselves on 36 synchronised monitors. He really pushed the boundaries with his iPad drawings, which have an unnatural and unreal quality, which is ‘clever’, but not that appealing, and his 2015 version of The Card Players is a photographic drawing printed on paper, whatever that means, mounted on Dibond, an aluminium composite sheet, with his original acrylic painting hanging on the wall behind the men, alongside Pearlblossom Highway 1986. All very confusing. His paintings of the gardens surrounding his home are simplified down to bold and brash brush-strokes, but they are ultimately impish FUN, which is what Mr Hockney is all about, and always has been about, right from his days at the Royal College, sixty years ago.
Until 29 May 2017