LONDON — It’s not a teen idol at the door after all. It’s David Hockney! Cheer on for dear old Hockney then! He may be the best there is now that all the others have gone.
Yes, there’s always an excitable, people-crushy, ear-jangling Hockney buzz at any big Hockney press view, and there have been countless such occasions in the past because Hockney and his auction-house-rotating universe of Hockneys, the large, the medium and the small — new Hockneys, old Hockneys, rediscovered Hockneys, never-before-seen-by-the-wider-world Hockneys — just never seem to stop coming.
Can we ever get too much of this cocky, ferociously ambitious boy from Bradford? Or is this doggedly tireless, stone-deaf, defiantly chain-smoking maker who is now thundering through his ninth decade, ever self-renewing?
The wall text as you walk into David Hockney: Drawing From Life at the National Portrait Gallery tells the story with customary warmth and hyperbolic lavishness: unique vision…master draughtsman…dear and intimate circle of friends…generously sharing. And there’s a particularly interesting request too: Please alert a member of staff if you do not wish to be photographed. So the sight of our mouth-agape presence here, ogling all these Hockneys, is to be part of the worldwide instagramming of it all!
Sober up a little, boy. Why exactly are we here today? It’s all about drawing, life-drawing: the history of Hockney and his lifelong life-drawing itch, pursued now over seven decades. What it all means. What drawings he made exactly, and of whom. And giving us answers to such as the following: does this obsessive drawing habit make him a brush-, pen-, and pencil-wielding traditionalist, or a technologically innovative experimentalist? So it’s yet another Hockney retrospective, with Hockney in a starring role as his own archivist and self-presenter, digging out for us the things that we (and he) may have missed.
Hockney begins by staring at himself, a very serious, owl-eyed, teenage boy in spectacles. In 1954 he makes a collage of himself on newsprint. He’s definitely not blonde. Not yet. He’s sober and intent. In another, he tweaks at his tie. An uncentered tie smacks of unruliness. He scrutinizes himself with such ferocity, such sober purpose. What is this image he is trying to bring to ground? Who exactly is this boy/man in the fabrication? Although the collage of 1954 feels a bit like a careful academic exercise, the colors are already promising — or threatening — to blaze out of control, to shape and define the emotional temperature of the whole.
Then comes a room all about Mum, his beloved Mum. Mum was a lifelong subject. He made her and remade her from first to last. In a grid of polaroid prints from 1982, set in a rainy graveyard just beyond the ruins of Bolton Abbey, the wonky patchwork-fissuring of the images, and their context, speak of her widowhood and of her own decline.
Nothing ever stays still with Hockney. There are loose drawings à la Matisse and casual throwaways made for a specific occasion which someone failed to get rid of — Hockney in private and Hockney in public. The mix includes a menu card and a postcard to his old friend Maurice Payne, the master printer.
Then we have rooms dedicated to specific friends and collaborators, muse Celia Birtwell (once glamorously married to Ossie Clark), Gregory Evans, and Maurice. Hockney pursues the same friends as sitters doggedly, year after year, finding and re-finding them, as they change from the very epitome of the beautiful Renaissance boy with tumbling ringlets to something older, shorter cropped, more hard-weathered, more hard-bitten altogether. Sober-suited maturity gets us all in the end. He catches them in lithograph or crayon or pencil. He does them painstakingly academically, or more freely, or à la Picasso, or in the manner of Ingres.
And, finally, the last room leads us back to Hockney himself, much more recently, together with a clutch of drawings made in 2019 of the people we have just seen represented in their individual galleries. Hockney doesn’t go in for much gimmickry when it comes to poses. Some of these late drawings of himself are rather poor and under-energized. Did he get bored by what he saw? He often shows his sitters full on, face forward, in a chair, almost slotted in. Sometimes they sleep. Sometimes they lounge. But he doesn’t pull stunts like Freud.
Generally speaking, Hockney ranges from excellent to not so very good at all. Some of the most winning and vibrantly immediate images of recent years have been his iPad drawings. An entire, low-lit gallery is dedicated to these works, in all their fairly speedy comings and goings. They do blaze out. Such eerie greens! With the iPad, the whole making process is not so tiresomely painstaking. You lay down, and then you overlay. You erase without muck and mess. You don’t have to wait. You don’t have to change one brush for another, and the colors often have a strangely unreal zing about them, a kind of candy-colored dream-coat quality.
Speaking of quality, if the quality of Hockney’s work can vary quite shockingly, all this is quite reassuring for those who come here as practitioners themselves, wanting to be a bit of a Hockney themselves, and wondering how to conjure into being this combination of talent (including a talent for sheer hard work), pushiness, self-confidence, chutzpah.
And yearning perhaps to be able to command this level of attention, year on year, for 60-odd years now. How did he do it? He did it, in part, because he kept on doing it, and what happens is that, as with all things done by the human hand, you create good things and bad things and great things over such an enormous span of time, and Hockney now is relaxed enough to see himself — and to let us see him — off the boil. You do what you can. He does what he does. What else is there? The key is: don’t stop until the darkness descends.
Even smoking hasn’t killed him yet. He loves it too much.
David Hockney: Drawing From Life continues at the National Portrait Gallery (St Martin’s Place, London) through June 28. The exhibition is curated by Sarah Howgate.
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