New York

David Hockney, Two Boys Aged 23 or 24, 1966, etching and aquatint on paper, 13 7⁄8 × 8 7⁄8".

David Hockney, Two Boys Aged 23 or 24, 1966, etching and aquatint on paper, 13 7⁄8 × 8 7⁄8".

David Hockney and James Scott

In 1966, only four years out of the Royal College of Art in London, David Hockney was already a star. James Scott, a contemporary of Hockney’s, had received acclaim for short films he’d made with actors such as Drewe Henley and Anthony Hopkins. Scott wanted to make a documentary, something with an artist, so he asked Hockney, who agreed. Scott’s twenty-seven-minute film, Love’s Presentation, 1966, was the centerpiece of this exhibition at the Anita Rogers Gallery; the show also featured Hockney’s “Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C. P. Cavafy,” 1966, the etchings at the core of Scott’s film.

In the film’s opening sequence, Hockney is shown front, back, and in profile: a mug shot in motion. In a voice-over, an unknown man reads a text by the critic Jasia Reichardt: “Talented painter, superb draftsman, astringent humorist, and entertaining raconteur, as much space in the press has been devoted to his clothes, hair, habits and accent as to his work.” Reichardt defines Hockney’s practice as “grasping in pictorial terms the essence of the grotesque in contemporary life.” The British Council apparently couldn’t handle Scott’s vision of contemporary (i.e., homosexual) life, and asked him to remove the footage of Hockney wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the number 69 and the work’s final section, in which the artist reads three Cavafy poems over shots of his etchings. Anita Rogers could handle it, and offered the original, uncensored version.

The exhibition presented some other recordings of Hockney reading the Cavafy poems, which Scott only recently discovered. While looking at Beautiful and White Flowers, an etching that depicts two men—one wears a tie and stands behind an odalisque épais in repose on a couch—I could hear Hockney reciting Cavafy’s words in a deadpan Bradford English accent: “We are two very poor boys reduced to cheap places of entertainment. I tell you openly—we cannot go around with you.” The Cavafy translation Hockney used is unknown, but he apparently stole the volume from a public library. Voiced by the painter, Cavafy’s words became a cloud in the gallery. The etchings, all of men and usually two at a time—either in bed naked or under a patterned duvet, or in the streets, possibly cruising—are clearly about the vicissitudes of gay existence.

Hockney began work on “Illustrations” in early 1966, making drawings while he was in Beirut. (Hockney felt that Lebanon’s capital was the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East, as Alexandria in Egypt had been for Cavafy.) As Hockney says in Scott’s movie, “Two or three were drawn directly from life onto the plate.” Hockney slowly explains the mechanics of etching while wearing his 69 jersey and a pair of camouflage pants “from the Jack Frost surplus store in Santa Monica,” he tells us. “People who etch a lot, I suppose, have lots of equipment, and things that look complicated.” His speaking voice tends toward the vaguely mournful.

The effect of hearing Hockney describe the physical act of the etching process (acid-wash fumes are bad!) helped create a different sense of the everyday, making these works quietly radical. Two men together become a fact as immovable as a line of india ink. “I’ve drawn them, I think, in an ordinary way,” he says of the series. “Ordinary, realistic drawing, which is what I wanted, I think; in a way, that’s what the poems demand.”