LONDON — Since the passing of Lucian Freud, David Hockney has come to be regarded as the UK’s greatest living painter, his name a byword for extraordinary draftsmanship and an altogether less “passionate” style of painting. The queues snaking around the block for his retrospective at the Tate demonstrate the compelling popularity of his bright colors, the aesthetic pleasantness of his vibrant landscapes spanning his near-60-year career, and his capturing of glamorous sex and sun in the 1960s. Hockney is comparatively dispassionate, however, because his method of working is instructively informed by inquisitive intellectual and technical explorations. Tate Britain curators Chris Stephens, Andrew Wilson, and Helen Little make this clear by their choice to arrange this chronological survey around Hockney’s technical interests, theming each segment in the context of, say, abstraction, naturalism, and optical theories regarding cameras. The chronological method of display overall, however, reinforces what has been cited by many a critic and will be obvious to any visitor: Although the technical interest is in play throughout his career, the visual quality of his work undeniably suffers and declines following his 1960s peak.
Rooms One through Five cover early works of the 1960s, demonstrating Hockney’s prodigious inventiveness in his youth combined with his absolutely breathtaking draftsmanship skills. The period is compartmentalized into technical explorations thus: “Play within a Play” shows his investigations into the conventions of perspective (his reimagining of Hogarth’s famous perspectival oddity in “Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge” of 1975 is a cocky artist’s in-joke); “Demonstrations of Versatility” covers his work at the Royal College of Art, in which Hockney selects or discards different styles, treating painting as an intellectual exercise. (He noted, “I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso.”) “Paintings with People In” addresses his years after the royal College of Art, visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 1964, pointing out his interest in the painting plane as a stage combined with interplay between modes of abstraction vs. representation: 1963’s “The Hypnotist” quite literally turns the picture plane into a theatre stage, across which two players traverse.
If all this sounds terribly detached and unemotional, that’s because Hockney’s technical skill is quite clearly completely effortless and natural — almost unbelievably so. His confidence of line and economy of modeling means that painting, for him, presents no struggle whatsoever, hence the room for complete focus on its means to explore intellectual ideas. Such formidable talent is evident in some iconic portraits, lending that distinctive 1960s coolness: “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970–71); “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)” (1968). The famous LA paintings, including “A Bigger Splash” (1967) and “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” (1972), strip all modeling down to its bare minimum, using precision of line, color choice, and composition that make it all look so still, easy, and unforced. These are presented again in terms of artistic theory — we are invited to observe their use of pictorial framing, and, yes, you probably never noticed that the sensational “A Bigger Splash” has an enormous expanse of unpainted canvas left as a framing device — but their visual punch nonetheless goes straight to the gut.
It’s all too easy. Thus, one can’t help but feel that the output following this initial starburst tends toward the sloppy. When you’ve encapsulated the 1960s in a singularly iconic body of work, though, why should you bother? This was my repeated thought throughout the subsequent works. Hockney’s landscapes are increasingly abstract from the naturalistic, using freer, more expressive strokes that sometimes don’t actually cover the bare canvas. His colors similarly depart from naturalism in their loudness: all purples, yellows, and greens straight from the tube, applied to all landscapes, whether supposedly LA or East Yorkshire: They could theoretically depict anywhere. Indeed, his recent works of large scale and outdoor depictions of trees tend toward the outright naïve; gone is the precision of hand, that economy replaced with — I hate to say it — what looks an awful lot like laziness. When the final rooms bring the advent of Hockney’s digital paintings, conducted on an iPad, one wonders how much of it is for the technical interest in the “next step” in making art, and how much for the convenience of no longer bothering with the messiness of paint. Perhaps I’m being harsh to an increasingly frail artist who has already more than proven himself, but from a coldly art-historical perspective, given that the iPad lends itself particularly to the naïve tendencies in Hockney’s drawing skills, the case for it here as a method of advancing the means of making art is not exactly convincing.
The show’s curation at times feels forgiving toward this decline, in evidence from the first when it chooses to bend the rules of its own chronological method; the exhibition’s mantra is to show how the “roots of each new direction lay in the work that came before,” and it uses Room One to juxtapose works from the 1960s, 1970s, and one from 2014 to reinforce this cyclical idea, justifying the progression into computer generated images. Thus the brilliant “Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool” (1971) — gorgeously economic in its geometrical treatment of a plan view of a pool, just two blocks of color with a red circle — sits with 2014’s “4 Blue Stools,” a “photographic drawing” splicing together drawing and digital photos of sitters, with the Tate arguing for its technical concerns with pictorial plane and perspective. The brilliance of Hockney’s early paintings, regardless, still acts as a yardstick that his forays into fiddling with digital manipulation never come close to surpassing.
Similarly, describing Hockney’s experiments with multiscreen video works — shown here in a film recorded by nine cameras of a Yorkshire road over four seasons — as “a cubist film, showing different aspects of the same scene as perceived by a moving observer,” uses backward-facing art-historical terms to describe something we expect to be forward-looking, straining to justify the artist’s ongoing relevance in a contemporary art world which, it must be said, is already leaps ahead of him in its use of cutting-edge technology.
Despite its best efforts to justify the relevance of his digital experiments, the arc of Hockney’s career remains clear, well presented, and with precision focus on his varying intellectual ideas of pictorial representation. The sheer skill of draftsmanship similarly shines through in intervals as a key element underpinning his freedom to paint naïvely if he desired; as late as the iPad paintings are charcoal pieces observing his native Yorkshire, proof that he can draw if he wants to (though frequently he doesn’t: In his recent show of 80 portraits painted in recent years at the Royal Academy, the work was embarrassing in its wanton laziness). The epic heights he reached in the 1960s, however, are so magnificent that they have apparently given him a free pass ever since.
David Hockney continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, Westminster, London) through May 29.