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Welcome to our new weekly book review column! Every Wednesday, look forward to checking out a new book that we’re reading at Hyperallergic, whether it’s a book about art, an art book, or something totally random. The column kicks off below with a book that’s an intimate look into an artistic life.
Lawrence Weschler, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney, 2008 (University of California Press)
Reading Lawrence Weschler’s nigh-legendary book on Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, inspired me to next grab the New Yorker writer’s other artist-focused book, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations With David Hockney. As entertaining as they are challenging, the two books are hard to categorize as biographies, though they concern individuals and their oeuvres. Weschler’s works are more like conversations: anecdotal histories formed less by research than by hanging out with an artist, watching exhibitions open and major works develop, witnessing a lifelong artistic practice. Here, Weschler is more reporter than art historian, using personal sensibilities and aesthetic data banks, not to mention an effortlessly clear writing style, to paint his own portrait of the subjects in question, in this case, artist David Hockney.
In fact, portraiture becomes one of the outstanding themes in True to Life, beginning with discussions of Hockney’s early 1960s height-of-Pop California paintings that depicted various friends and art world-ers in the British artist’s sunny adopted home. But the narrative moves on from painting as Weschler quickly encounters the conflict that occupies the rest of the book: the problem of the camera, and the camera versus the painting.
Early on in his artistic practice, Hockney used photographic collages as raw material for paintings, piecing together the figures of his friends from multiple shots (see Hockney’s 1972 snapshot of Peter Schlesinger, and the resultant “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” from that same year). The jolt of these innovative photo collages is that beyond being visually interesting, they represent a new way of looking and representing, or rather, an old way renewed. For someone who uses cameras so often, Hockney certainly dislikes what they do to viewers’ eyes. Hockney, through Weschler, poses the idea that the tyranny of a camera’s normal one-point perspective, the straight-on snapshot gaze, has destroyed our ability to see the world outside of a rectangular frame, an ability left largely untouched before the age of mechanical reproduction.
Through media, like photographs and television (which Hockney similarly decries), experiencing the visual world has become a process of exclusion rather than inclusion. Free vision is part and parcel with individual agency, but our modern media limit vision to a tightly prescribed space. True to Life is the story of Hockney breaking away from that tyranny, fighting to make his collages and paintings more like Real Looking. To that end, Hockney breaks up his photos, jumbling single shots into grids, and gradually amorphous blobs that recreate not just the picture of sight, but the act of looking.
Throughout the immensely fun book, Hockney plays lovable British curmudgeon to Weschler’s journalistic straight man, implacably going after his artistic goals and not caring who he upsets. When the narrative turns to Hockney’s dogged pursuit of an art historical theory that artistic use of camera obscuras to trace images went mainstream as early as the 1300s, the artist becomes a revisionist hero. The drama heightens, but what happens with Hockney’s historical pursuits is best left to a reading of the book.
Composed largely of already published writing collected from various art magazine and catalogues, it’s disappointing that Weschler doesn’t take much time to look back on his own learning process or personal history with Hockney, the context of the writer’s experience with the artist. Still, glances this intimate into a body and a body of work are invaluable and entertaining contributions to the art world at large.
Weschler’s True to Life is available on Amazon.