“I’ve never seen 50 years of my work put together before actually,” David Hockney confided at the press conference (listen to audio clips, at right) that launched a retrospective exhibit of his portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts last week. Looking around, he even impressed himself. “I haven’t been wasting my time,” he joked.
At 68, the prolific English artist and long-time Los Angeles resident is one of the grand old men of the international art scene. The more than 150 paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints that the museum (along with London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) put together for “David Hockney Portraits” are as bright and vivid as Hockney’s beloved Southern California. This is a charming, crowd-pleasing blockbuster show. Sourpuss hipsters may enjoy it anyway.
Hockney was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1937 to an anti-smoking, conscientious-objector accountant’s clerk father and vegetarian, teetotaling, devout-Methodist mother. While studying at Bradford School of Art in 1955, he painted Portrait of My Father. Kenneth Hockney appears as a prim, green-faced gentleman in a jacket and tie. “He set up the canvas and his chair and a mirror so he could watch what I was doing,” Hockney recalled. “And then he’d say, ‘Are you sure that’s the right color?’ And I’d tell him that’s what you’ve got to do these days.” When the painting sold at a local art show two years later, it was Hockney’s first step toward becoming a professional artist.
He went on to the Royal College of Art in London, where he fashioned a witty amalgam of abstract painting and cartooning inspired by Jean Dubuffet. He sold a pair of prints to New York’s Museum of Modern Art before he graduated in 1962; soon he was labeled a British Pop artist, and his career blasted off.
“I’ve never thought of myself totally as a portraitist,” Hockney told the assembled press. True. His work is built around traditional subjects — portraits, landscapes, still lifes — but these conventional images are Trojan horses through which he smuggles in formal shenanigans. His main game has been toying with the difference between how we experience the world and the artifice we use to reproduce it in paintings and photographs. Another painting of his dad, Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965), and Self-Portrait with Blue Guitar (1977) stand in here for a whole body of absent work that jammed realism, Pointillism, Cubism, and dabs of Abstract Expressionism together like one of those old Saul Steinberg family-portrait cartoons in which mother, father, sister, and brother were each sketched in a different style. Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966) stands in for Hockney’s famous body of swimming-pool paintings, each one a new essay on how to depict water’s dancing surface.