Hockney Night

Larissa Harris on David Hockney


Left: MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and David Hockney in front of Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970–71. Right: Boston Symphony Orchestra Director James Levine with David Hockney and brother Tom Levine.

“This is going to be one of those cozy Boston events,” said my friend as she steered us into the Museum of Fine Arts parking lot. We maneuvered past crowds of fragile, pink-cheeked men and ladies in mink moving towards the gala for “David Hockney Portraits,” a show co-organized by the MFA and London’s National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Caught incongruously in a group photo with other “sitters” flown in for the occasion (apparently at the artist’s expense) was Chloe McHugh, teenage daughter of California-based photographer Jim McHugh—otherwise the average age was sixty-something. While the show itself felt peculiarly alive (like all collections of portraits), those subjects who were actually in attendance—as easily distinguishable from the Boston crowd as peacocks from penguins—became hyperreal versions of themselves. As the real-life, laughing group portrait (in which the adorable artist of the moment sat between the wild-haired James Levine of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his brother Tom) broke up, another friend in a gorgeous plaid shirt, cummerbund, cravat, and white sneakers told us that Hockney had painted him five times, “and none are in the show! Isn’t that total crap, to use the technical term?”

There’s not much to say about portraiture, possibly because portraits say so much. My companion and I most enjoyed the drawings that married virtuosity with plain old glamour, especially the delicious Celia in a Black Slip Reclining, Paris. Dec. 1973 (Elizabeth Peyton, eat your heart out!), while a photocollage of friends and Mum playing Scrabble tiled one homely moment on another, revealing something living in each individual. Of everyone, perhaps Henry Geldzahler’s presence/absence was felt most strongly, from his direct stare, glasses glinting, out of the painting in 1969’s Henry Geldzahler and Howard Scott to a 1994 pencil sketch showing him on his deathbed. Sarah Howgate, contemporary curator at the National Portrait Gallery and cocurator of the show with the MFA’s Barbara Shapiro, told us that Geldzahler had had no mirrors in his house but lived “surrounded by portraits of himself by the artists he loved.”

Left: David Hockney with exhibition curator Barbara Shapiro and Malcolm Rogers. Right: Arthur Lambert, Charlie Scheips, and David Hockney pose before their respective portraits.

While taking on a buffet that featured—in a nod to the artist’s homeland—an upmarket version of Yorkshire pudding, we heard a somewhat incongruous performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Boston and had a conversation with Lawrence Weschler. “I could be walking around listening to my own thoughts,” he mused: He’s sat for (and written much on) Hockney but also happened to have recorded the MFA’s audio tour. I took the opportunity to tell him I love and habitually reread Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, his 1982 biography of Robert Irwin. “Funny you should say that, because every time I write something on David, Bob Irwin calls and says, ‘I read the whole thing, it’s really bothering me, I disagree profoundly with everything,’” replied Weschler. “And when I write on Bob, David calls and says exactly the same thing.”