In 2018, David Hockney became the most expensive living painter in the world. His record-breaking canvas, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), is like much of the work on which his hypnotic relationship with the market relies: enormous and rhapsodic with color and glowing with the luminescent languor of such sunny havens as Los Angeles or Saint-Tropez. Over time, the power of these wall-filling works has arguably diminished, in part because they often feel like documents of wealth and glamour. Standing in front of them, one can practically see auction paddles inch into the air.
There’s another Hockney, however, smaller-scale, whose art may be preceded by his fame, but not necessarily by his stacks of cash. Unpretentious, seemingly informal, and endlessly practical, this Hockney is a peripatetic depictor of the intimate, drawing his close circle of friends as though they’re Renaissance patrons. He uses both sides of the pages in his sketchbooks, and has custom pockets installed in his suits so he can take drawing paper with him wherever he goes. The idiosyncrasies of the British artist, 83, feel particularly relevant to our times. In a year when so many have been separated from their studio practices, Hockney is an unlikely, if privileged, paragon of resourcefulness. Able to easily afford the materials, studio space, and assistants necessary to keep making huge, gaudy canvases, he instead has been filling sketchbooks and drawing on his iPad, often working, one wants to imagine in our time of mass isolation, alone.
This quieter Hockney is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, “David Hockney: Drawing From Life.” As the title tells us, the show ostensibly focuses on Hockney’s drawing, yet its liberal interpretation of the practice extends to watercolors, lithographs, Polaroid collages, and other multimedia experiments. Most works are portraits, presented with a loose sense of chronology that clusters around the aging of Hockney’s models: former lover Gregory Evans, printer and collaborator Maurice Payne, famous textile designer Celia Birtwell, the artist’s mother, Laura, and David himself. He approaches the self-portrait with the confidence of a master draftsman and the enthusiastic experimentation of an art student discovering the extent of his talents. In an iPad drawing from 2012, he sits, in his mid-70s, smiling avuncularly at the viewer in a parted bathrobe. In Self-Portrait, Baden-Baden, 10th June 1999, he opens his mouth wide, like a kid making faces in a mirror.
The faux-naivete of some of these pieces reminds me, believe it or not, of the actual naivete of the “bathroom” self-portraits of George W. Bush that surfaced last decade. Both men manipulate a highly controlled public image by forcing us to see them in private moments. And both want to be perceived as students — Bush, because his work is actually student work (plus, he might gain sympathy points he never earned as a reckless commander-in-chief), and Hockney because he experiments with new media so often that he’s always relearning how to draw within another set of possibilities.
Sometimes, this makes his drawings look like pastiche. But what successful pastiche it is! He returns again and again to a fascination with the Cubists. In Self-Portrait, July 1986 he crams his own face into two vertically oriented sheets of paper, as though suggesting that early 20th-century modernism is not the freest and easiest way for David Hockney to be himself. Twin etchings made just after the painter completed Portrait of an Artist show him facing Picasso: In one, Hockney’s a student, studying Pablo’s bust in a museum, while another has Hockney seated naked, like a model, in front of the fully clothed Spanish maestro. It’s the rare sort of artist who dreams of being an apprentice after he’s already become a luminary.
Poignantly, “Drawing From Life” contrasts Hockney’s yearning for new forms with his actual maiden efforts, suggesting a continuum of creation apart from the hierarchy of age or status. The earliest work, self-portraits dating to when Hockney was 17, makes us feel the claustrophobia of his childhood bedroom in the way he crosses his arms on his lap. He had an ingrained understanding of how vulnerability can transport viewers. In the aquatint Myself And My Heroes, from 1961, Hockney places himself next to Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi, writing in minuscule letters next to his own flank: “I am 23 years old and wear glasses.”
Hockney only ever looks in a few directions as an artist: at himself, his milieu, and art and perception. Never at politics. Many of his public stances seem drawn directly from his relationship to his family mores. A wall label informs us that Hockney’s father was an antismoking campaigner, and the son loves to paint himself smoking as an old man. “A GLASS ASHTRAY in case you had forgotten” reads a placard in a 2010-2011 iPad drawing of the receptacle.
If Hockney’s twee contrarianism is seemingly inexhaustible, and inextricable from his artistic drive, it’s in the faces of his sitters where we see time’s irreversible passage. Throughout the five decades in which he depicted them, these models of course became occasions for the artist’s own experimentation, whether this meant tackling the complicated patterns on one of Celia’s dresses or using a camera lucida to chart the exact proportions of Maurice’s face. Yet Hockney pursues a simpler tact in the exhibition’s most recent works, from 2019. Between June and December, the artist summoned three of his sitters, Celia, Maurice, and Gregory, to his multiple homes and studio, where he drew them in sepia-toned ink, dashed with a few bits of color on clothing and furniture. Gregory’s glasses have all the affected shakiness of an iPad drawing, but in general these drawings eschew the expansion of Hockney’s aesthetic toolbox in the interest of commemorating a relationship between artist and model. Hanging over the works is the question of whether Hockney will ever get to draw, or even see, his subjects again. Taken together, the series gives us the sense of a last summit with old friends before the unexpected scourge of COVID-19.
Since then, Hockney has continued to court attention. He made headlines last May by claiming in a letter to The Daily Mail that smokers are less at risk of contracting coronavirus, an assertion that science obviously contradicts. Yet in “Drawing From Life,” we see an artist who keeps trying to communicate with us in spite of success, not because of it, a rebellious youth who may be rich but still gives the impression that he’s hanging onto life by the thread of his supreme talent. “I’m 83 years old and wear glasses,” David Hockney seems to say, and we understand him as a person and a painter, as something much bigger than a superstar. ❖