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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.


View from Keswick, in the Lake District

My time in the UK was split between the timelessly serene Lake District (and former haunt of Wordsworth and Coleridge) and the frenetic expanse that is London. It is the perpetual longing for the both/and that I have come to know as elemental, similar to the paradox captured so poetically in that famous line from D. W. Winnicott: It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.

Lots of plays, lots of art, lots of time with friends. I’ll offer up a few highlights over the next few days. When it comes to special exhibitions currently on view in London, this is a singular moment in time in that the three biggest shows with the longest lines are all by artists in their final years: Lucian Freud was 88 when he passed away last year, Yayoi Kusama is 82, and David Hockney is 74. All of them are almost dizzingly prolific and tirelessly exploratory. No laurel resting, no slowing down. Very inspiring.

I’ll start at the top. My favorite of the three was Kusama’s show at the Tate Modern. I’ll talk about the other two in future posts.

Kusama has a memorable back story. From a review in the Guardian by Tim Adams:

All art is attention-seeking, but few artists have ever taken their demands to be noticed to the extremes of Yayoi Kusama. Now 82, and resident by choice for the past 35 years in a psychiatric care home in her native Tokyo, Kusama is currently seeing all her wishes come true. Not only has she been granted this obsessive-compulsive 14-room retrospective by the Tate, one of her career-defining Infinity Net paintings sold for $5.1m in 2008, a record for a living female artist.

Success did not come easily. Born in patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan of the late 1920s, even the idea of becoming an artist, as a woman, must have taken a supreme effort of will. To become an artist quite as liberated from convention as Kusama must have felt a lot like the insanity she has always feared – and to some extent nurtured – in herself…

She seems to have been drawn to surrealism, but given it a less playful, more psychologically unbalanced field, an edge perhaps explained by the fact that at the same age as she was seeing her visions, she was forced by her mother to spy on her father in bed with his string of mistresses and geishas. She developed a loathing of phallic images, and an overwhelming fascination with voyeurism.

Her response to these disturbing, formative forces seems twofold: she sought a kind of self-obliteration, covering herself and everything around her with her trademark polka dots – there is, among many other spotted surfaces, a fabulously spacey suburban living room here in which the edges of objects, sofas and tables are blurred by primary-coloured circular stickers, picked out in a psychedelic light. Elsewhere, mirrored “infinity rooms” take these points of colour into more dimensions than the eye can easily cope with. Almost nothing has been immune from Kusama’s dottiness: horses and cats, buses and houses, trees and fields and rivers, she has camouflaged them all. Damien Hirst’s outsourced efforts look decidedly spotty by comparison.

The range in this body of work is extraordinary. One room is full of her early paintings—obsessionally patterned and subtle in the absence of saturated color—and are reminiscent of early aboriginal paintings that use dots to reference the mystical landscape of central Australia. She moves from paintings of minimal tonality to obsessive phallic sculptures, also understated chromatically, to color used in an almost fetishist manner. Colored dotting soon becomes her signatory style but it does not come across as cheesy or inauthentic. Kusama’s work feels like it came from “complete necessity” (to quote my favorite line from Roberta Smith*). I loved every moment of the show.

Not without irony, Damien Hirst‘s Tate Modern show opens soon. A master of marketing and self promotion, his work almost never passes the coming from necessity test. Sure, that’s not the only measure for engaging and compelling art. But it has come to be an issue of increasing importance to me.

A room full of exquisitely subtle Kusama early paintings

A closer view of the painting surface

Phallicizing every object

Wild phallic landscapes as well

Infinity Mirrored Room. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

* Roberta Smith’s plea for what she longs to see and feel in contemporary art exhibitions is outlined here.