Earlier Hockney: Man Ray, 1973

Winter Timber (2009), from David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy. Photo: Jonathan Wilkinson

Seeing (and writing about) the David Hockney show, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy was (and is) hard. In some ways I have a sentimental place for Hockney that dates back to my early days as an art student. His early work, particularly those that showcased his masterful draughtsmanship and his wit, left an impression on me at a time when I was learning my craft. And the work that emerged from his newly-adopted home base in Los Angeles became iconic, with swimming pools and palm trees that were a signatory measure of the English gent living in that strange landscape of American suburban sprawl.

I eventually lost that personal connection with his work, but I did observe his development as he powered through phase after phase, from theater design and decorative inventions to a reconnection with the landscape of his homeland. In addition, his lassoing of new technologies into personal style tools (including Polaroids, the iPhone and now the iPad) is impressive for an artist who has been over 30 for a long time.

There are lines in London for all the current exhibits but none were as long as the line to see the Hockney show. In an exhibit full to the brim in every room with attentive viewers, the general sense I had in listening and watching was that the work was delighting those who stood outside in the cold for over an hour. It is a prodigiously huge body of work and a testament to the ability for artists in their 70s and 80s (and sometimes 90s) to continue to produce new work. But unlike most of the other gallery visitors, my experience was not one of delight. While I am glad I saw the show and did have a few moments with his very unique mastery of pictorial space, I left the exhibit feeling unsettled and unsatisfied.

The drawings, done in charcoal, are exquisite. Like most of the work in the show, these were done in the last few years and are as lush a celebration of nature and tree-ness as I seen. But the glorified sense of color that has always been Hockney’s signature flair was exhausting in room after room of paintings, so these black and white images were a place of rest and quiet for me. I looked for them in every gallery as a touchstone of groundedness before venturing into another deep dive of magentas, brilliant oranges, purples and lime greens. For a longtime colorist like me, this reaction was a surprise. But the use of color felt gratuitous, more like the way color is used for cheery illustrations in a children’s book.

Maybe the best of us can’t really see when our explorations, each of which we value deeply, do not translate into a form that belongs in the harsh, staid and naked setting of an empty gallery. This whole exhibit seems to have done assembled by an artist who has the stature to demand and be given carte blanche to fill an enormous space with anything and everything. Was there a conversation with anyone at any point about the visual disruption of assembling a massive painting from smaller canvases that have each been framed in mahogany wood? This felt like a student grade exhibit decision to my eye.

And then there is the issue of two most glaring editorial mistakes: The first is Hockney’s riff on the Claude Lorrain painting, The Sermon on the Mount, which hangs in the Frick collection in New York. These exercises should never have left the studio.

The second is the iPad drawings, blown up in size, framed and then hung salon style in the Royal Academy’s largest hall.

Here is Laura Cumming‘s take on that body of work from her Guardian review:

With their felt pen squiggles and eerily empty transitions, so reminiscent of Photoshop, they appear inert and dehumanised. The surface of these prints has an easy-clean sheen and at more than a metre high they look like what they are: quick studies of dandelions and leafy lanes voluminously enlarged.

Perhaps the technology has bewitched him with its efficacy and speed; and who would begrudge Hockney this pleasure after a lifetime’s experiments with Polaroid, fax, photocollage, video and all. But perhaps this goes to the central disappointment of A Bigger Picture. One witnesses Hockney’s excitement, verve and energy, wall to wall, floor to ceiling and in room after room without ever feeling it oneself.

The best line I heard while I was in London came from a taxi driver. When I asked her to take me to Whitechapel Gallery she perked up and said, “Oh, I love art! It is so subjective.” It was so immediate and so right on, I was still rather stunned when she dropped me off. I don’t begrudge anyone their joy at experiencing this exhibit. For me it was bigger picture, not a better one.