London

David Hockney

Knoedler

David Hockney’s social life seems rather like that of a talk-show host. Events, however trivial, are recorded and used as fuel for the continuation of a semipublic career. Read a book and he’ll photograph you. Relax in a chair and he’ll draw you. For goodness’ sake don’t undress; then he’ll make one sketch of you and another of your discarded clothes. How banal it all is. And with Hockney’s collusion, the media make it both banal and pretentious. My own hunch is that this has led to an acceptance of sheer lack of finish in his work; maybe it’s the vaunted homage to Picasso or the elevation of drawing per se, or one too many interviews, but what used to be eclecticism now looks like vacillation. Projects most distant from his running autobiography—stage designs, illustration—are turning out better than the rest. Graham Greene used the term “entertainments” to describe works of his that weren’t to be taken too seriously; if Hockney borrowed the same idea, just which would the entertainments be?

His portraits made up of gridded Polaroids are often funny and beautiful. The formal portrait is deflated by the technique itself. Stephen Spender resembles a senile giant with an uncontrollable nose, a half-kindly, half-glowering figure. Vera Russell reveals a split personality, demure but dominant. Laterial spread gives Paul Kasmin a third eye and a quite revolutionary pair of spectacles, while Paul Cornwallis-Jones’ head looks like an inflating blimp with the features of Bob Hope. Vulnerability tends to be indulged, and strong feeling may be accentuated; it’s just that there’s a shortage of strong feeling. The single portraits, with Hockney never far away, are a record of people posing rather than a comment on it. It’s so hard to place Hockney himself that there is a tendency to give up trying.

Of the double and multiple portraits Steve Cohen: Ian: Gary: Lindsay: Doug: Anthony and Ken is complex, varied, and as unified in color as a mosaic. In Gary and Doug and Paul Kasmin and Jasper Conran Hockney’s own paintings, included as backcloths, remove the pairs of boys from reality and time. Best compared to late 19th-century portraiture, with its unabashed playacting, these are records of friendship between young men which are neither sexualized nor soppy. And that is achieving something nearly impossible. George Lawson and Wayne Sleep is a picture so loaded and intense that it makes the rest look insipid. Barely acknowledging each other, they pose tipsily, Sleep standing shirtless, Lawson sitting, overdressed, his monocle hanging unused. It is a difficult moment. A remark has been heard, missed, or misheard; some explanation must follow. In this split second the situation has gotten out of control, and anything could happen. Rooting work in the mundane can pay off after all; no gesture is really banal. The covert flamboyance of accepted masochism; the need to irritate one’s partner; an almost obsessive desire to careen wildly between fixed, extreme emotions; almost regularly, deliberately setting up scenarios, yet doing it unconsciously—all these responses are wound into a relationship with a serpentine visual corollary, so different in tone, depth, and quality from the other work here that it seems a small masterpiece, fascinating and not a little unpleasant.

Yet all this may be killing time. Hockney, so his commentators never tire of reminding us, is into Cubism. It’s tempting to reply that in that case he’s misunderstood it completely. There are signs—in Nathan Swimming—that Hockney is trying to think his way out. It’s obvious that at present he is a far better photographer than a painter; unfortunately his painting is in a jam and no amount of photography can help.

Stuart Morgan