New York

David Hockney

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Extending the idea behind his recent large grids of Polaroid SX-70s, David Hockney now uses a small automatic camera to photograph scenes in clusters—often dozens and dozens—of overlapping shots. When he gets his pocket-sized color prints back from the lab he assembles them into large composite pictures which approximately follow some major lines of the original scene. He seems to shoot his swaths of photos quickly and without a definite plan, so the resulting collages are asymmetrical and jagged around the edges, like global maps made according to some odd system. (Composite aerial photographs are assembled in a similar way.) Each individual photograph has its own perspective, but from these little tiles Hockney builds up spatial mosaics of his scenes.

The device is not new; Joyce Neimanas for one has used a similar technique in recent years. But as in his earlier photographs Hockney brings a bursting self-confidence and great technical fluidity to his application of the formal idea. In some pictures he uses the overlapping frames to depict different moments in an event—to show a skater spinning, for example—while in others he presents a far broader sweep of space than a single frame could show. In the first case the results are too often self-consciously arty, pseudo-Cubist echoes that reminded me of the laughable, poignant “art” photos Weegee made at the end of his life. But the pictures in which Hockney uses the composite device to present a panoramic view of a scene are more successful, especially when he works with subjects that are grandiose enough in themselves to withstand the rhetorical elevation that the huge composites (some are 7 or 8 feet long) impose on them. Thus Hockney’s bulging pan shot up the neogothic towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, his fisheye like image of the interior of the Metropolitan Opera House, and his gigantic, Chinese-scroll view of the Grand Canyon all have a romantic majesty about them.

But when Hockney’s subjects don’t match in grandeur the encompassing ambition of his mapping technique the pictures seem overdone. As in his earlier photographs Hockney’s favorite subject here is himself and his own life. At the bottom of most of the pictures he includes his own feet, often clad in his trademarked white bucks and funny-colored socks, to indicate his point of view; in Walking in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple Kyoto #3, he uses alternating shots of his walking feet—one in a red sock, one in a black—to form a patterned border along the bottom edge of the image. But many of the composites are essentially snapshots, recording things like visits with friends or a daytrip (to the rainy ruins of an abandoned English abbey) with his mother. The naiveté implied by the use of this kind of subject is neatly undercut, though, by one composite in particular, of an elaborate luncheon held for Hockney at the British embassy in Tokyo.

Like much of his earlier work these pictures give the sense of leafing through the sketchbooks of a virtuosic, somewhat whimsical young artist, often abroad and ever an innocent. While this show was impressive both for the sheer quantity of work in it and for Hockney’s seemingly effortless command of craft, too many of the pictures here struck me as merely chatty—diaristic rather than personal.

Charles Hagan