New York

David Hockney

Sonnabend Gallery

A side effect of photography’s early exclusion from the family of the visual arts has been the scarcity of painters and printmakers who have practiced photography diligently, and of photographers who have worked in the more esteemed media. While it has been fairly common for painters to try sculpture or printmaking seriously, reluctance to cross media has amounted almost to an orthodoxy among photographers. The major photographers who have moved out of the camera’s domain, Cartier-Bresson, for instance, or Brassai, have done so either late in their careers or when they were not producing their best photographs.

Artists such as Man Ray or Charles Sheeler, who ecumenically conceived of the camera as simply one more tool with which their interests might be given shape are rare, and many subsequent photographers have looked askance at these workers. David Hockney seems to want to regard photography as liberally as Man Ray or Sheeler did—he emphatically titles his current show “Twenty Photographic Pictures” so that we should not assume that their being photographs places them in a separate category from the major part of his work. He also reveals that he uses his camera desultorily, or at least overconfidently. His photographs themselves confess this, as he does in a recent New York Times interview in which he suggests photography is “overrated” and that it is a much easier medium for him than drawing or painting is.

I do not doubt that the camera is a lenient master to Hockney, not least because he refuses to give it the discipline or thought that generate his best work. The concerns that characterize his paintings and drawings do extend into his photographs but he considers these mere notes and sketches for the handcrafted works. This is surprising because the friends and lovers, the flora of Los Angeles and southern France, the luxurious homes and gardens that appear in the work for which Hockney is famous are material eminently accessible to photography. One might suppose that the intimacy, quietude and solitary wit with which Hockney disposes these subjects in his main work would be overwhelmed by the camera’s indifferent and analytical plethora of facts, but I think such qualities can be sustained in photographs.

When Hockney is able to sustain them it is usually at the cost of the richer and more dramatic aspects of his material, for in order to keep the intimacy and relaxedness that are essential to his art, he regularly photographs fragments. These are innocuous enough because of the clean geometry and harmonious color that their isolation from context creates. When Hockney steps back to shoot a whole interior he has trouble differentiating the details of the room. Such pictures suffer from the lack of these details (though if placed carefully, the camera is more than adept at clarify.; ing them) since they are essential to extending a powerful interest throughout a photographic frame.

I say Hockney has trouble, but this may all be an intuitive choice on his part. In his drawings Hockney is able to emphasize or subdue the aspects of a single face through the exquisitely graduated pencil colors with which he is so skilled. This depth of subtlety is simply not available to a photographer, or if it is, he must manage it via the cruder mechanisms of placing a subject in the foreground or background, or in stark sunlight or deep shadow. In short, I sense that the camera must seem unwieldy to Hockney, and that he tries to overcome its arbitrariness by cutting away at his material.

Hockney occasionally takes advantage of photography to work with subjects which, while they are continuous with his major work in general terms, are especially dependent on the camera’s specificity of description. The pink hose in one of these owes the gleaming rubbery reflection that curls along it to photography alone. Rendered in Hockney’s regular pencil style, it might have been hard to distinguish from a snake or a rope, and it would probably have missed the wit that comes from a kind of internal juxtaposition between its fat, functional pliancy and its pink ostentation. Yet the large yucca plant in this picture lacks the vapory, pauvred green it would very likely have in a Hockney drawing. Such play with color makes Hockney’s drawn plants at once exotic, banal, ridiculous and gorgeous, but the yucca in the photograph is too blatant to balance these varied qualities.

Only one picture in the current show really succeeds photographically as well as by the standards of Hockney’s best work, a simple frame of a red and a blue patio chair against a stucco wall. Here the chairs’ deco curves proclaim their exuberance in every detail, while their flagrant mismatch bespeaks their absurdity; the picture’s dissonance comes close to Walker Evans’ architectural ironies.

It seems to me that Hockney has failed to consider strenuously enough the specific differences between photography and his standard media. He struggles against the camera’s idiosyncrasies, trying to get something too close to his drawings. Yet I suspect that, if he could accept the machine on its own terms, he might accomplish photographs that continue his general purpose while describing a kind of nuance that is hard to reach by hand.

Leo Rubinfien