WAKEFIELD, England — Almost a decade ago, a cuboid modernist structure landed as if from the sky beside a raging weir in the center of an old Victorian mill town in West Yorkshire called Wakefield.
Named after its most famous daughter, a celebrated sculptor called Barbara Hepworth, The Hepworth Wakefield has a fine permanent collection of sculptures and painting (including many sculptures by Hepworth herself), and a rolling program of temporary exhibitions that highlight some of the best in modern and contemporary art.
The latest shows bring together the famous, the almost forgotten, and the emerging. In 1958, a 21-year-old man called David Hockney came to Wakefield to see an exhibition of paintings by a Scotsman called Alan Davie, a man almost 20 years his senior.
Hockney was fresh out of his hometown art college in nearby Bradford, and he would soon be on his way to the Royal College of Art in London, where he would rapidly find recognition and fame, which has not gone away to this day.
Alan Davie and David Hockney: Early Works at the Hepworth sets paintings by that unknown young man called Hockney beside some of those works by Davie that he would have seen then. Adjacent galleries bring us right up to the present. Christina Quarles is a young painter from Los Angeles who saw Hockneys in her hometown at different times in her life, and she is showing a series of paintings of images of bodies, part hand-crafted, part digitally manipulated.
Hockney was desperate to become a modern artist when he left Bradford. That art school had been so old-fashioned in its ways. He had dutifully painted streets of terraced housing in browns and grays. The place itself seemed gray, gray, gray to him. Davie must have looked excitingly new. He was a bit of an action painter in the Pollock vein, wildly improvisatory, muddily shrieky. He was a poet and a jazz musician too. He painted violently, as if he believed himself to be a kind of volcano ready to gush, and then gush some more. He loved symbols too, often ancient ones. That poured an added air of mystery and gravitas into the mix. He’d discovered Walt Whitman as a young man, and so words got added to the paintings too. He loved sleek cars, and gliding. His moustache was thick and tremendous. He was just as handsome as the photographer needed him to be.
Hockney liked all this noise, excitement, and visual provocation because it gave him what surrealism was said to have given to Henri Michaux – according to John Ashbery, who interviewed Michaux in the 1950s. La Grande Permission, that’s what surrealism had given to Michaux, said the Belgian to Ashbery, — which sounds both vital and necessary and pleasingly vague — turning his face away as he spoke in order to avoid staring into too bright an interrogatory light.
And it is La Grande Permission that Davie seems to have gifted to Hockney too, the permission to begin to be himself, which included being extraordinarily courageous and even openly propagandistic about his identity as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Davie and Hockney had a love of poetry in common. Hockney put his passion for poetry to good use in a haunting series of early prints after the poems of Constantine Cavafy. As for Davie, we get to read a snatch of one of his poems in a vitrine. It’s wincingly terrible. And much of Davie’s painting isn’t very good either. He always feels too vehement in a macho sort of way. He doesn’t develop very much. Hockney never really knew what Hockney was going to do next because he was forever discovering different aspects of his own talent. And Hockney has never been macho.
How he begins to represent gay love in these early paintings is interestingly instructive. There are words – including quotations from poems by Whitman. Encounters between two actual humans is always presented a bit more coyly – gawky, rock-like heads nod and knock together.
He dabbles in abstraction for a while, though the shapes are often easily recognizable as phalluses. In “We Two Boys Together Clinging” (1961), words helter-skelter around two gently swaying lollipops. We feel that Hockney is yearning, all the time, to be embodying lived experience, and so it is not at all surprising that the most important work by him in this show is a portrait of his father sitting in the presence of what looks like a heaped-up pyre of abstract motifs — are they cones? — that could be out of Léger or early Picasso. This is clearly a bonfire of the vanities, and its title is “Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices” (1965).
In a separate exhibition, her first international museum show, Christina Quarles’s links with — and striking departures from — Hockney are there for all to see. She saw his “Mullholland Drive: The Road to the Studio” (1980) when young. It transfixed her. A landscape that she thought she knew so well had become a place transfigured by a different sensibility from elsewhere. Later she saw his poolscapes. She admired the tenderness, the longing of Hockney.
But her painted world — for all that it seems to admit and bask in, from time to time, a common Californian light — could not be more different from his. The bodies she paints are a world away from the hedonism of Hockney.
This is not admiration of the flesh in all its easy, seductively youthful beauty. It is an interrogation from within, tortured and jarring in its way, painful, full of maladjustments and self-questionings. It is a painting that has emerged through traditions of painting the pain-wracked body, the self-questing body, the war-scarred body, the body seeking out the truth of its own identity in a world that offers no certitudes.
The images are painted, digitally manipulated, and then painted some more. They are combed over, picked over, picked apart, sought for, probed, fought over. They barely cohere at all. They twist and twist about, seeking completion, points of rest, which they never find. They are forever revolving on a spit.
The close, careful, and subtle observation I found this year is representative of precisely why I continue to gravitate to this fair.
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