A continuous yes

Christopher Isherwood, detail from Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Most painters who try to do what a beloved, earlier painter did end up as imitators. Others, like David Hockney, begin where an earlier painter, or set of painters, left off and find a new, idiosyncratic path. Hockney’s a cheerful, sincere post-modernist, borrowing as a tribute to his passion for earlier painters and always using their influence to find himself. They include Matisse, above all, but also Picasso, the Impressionists and post Impressionists, Chardin, Vermeer, Freud, Balthus, and, a recent surprise for me, Piero della Francesca. It isn’t as if this was a secret, since he puts his admiration for the Renaissance painter in plain sight, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to his work to notice it until now. An afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a week ago elevated my admiration for Hockney dramatically. Until last Saturday I had no idea how powerful his best early work is, and how wonderfully strange his paintings can seem even when he’s devoted to nothing more than honestly celebrating domesticity, bourgeois happiness and the simple pleasure of human relationships—in other words, the placid order of civilized life.

Having never seen his paintings other than in reproductions, I started paying serious attention to Hockney only around the turn of the century, when I first saw his Polaroids at Retrospektive Photoworks in L.A. during its run there. I immediately loved them, many assembled from dozens of Instagram-square Polaroids. Until then I’d been appreciating him in a sidelong way, fond of his color and the Southern Californian light that transfigured his work when he moved to the U.S. Hockney’s paintings are so intensely illuminated, it makes you realize that Venice Beach is nearly a thousand miles closer to the equator than Venice, Italy and the light of the Midi has nothing on the light that inspired Diebenkorn. To walk out of LAX for the first time into that brilliance must have been like stepping out onto another planet, compared to the Northern glow of Hockney’s native England.

The Metropolitan show highlights the radical simplicity of the earliest famous work that followed Hockney’s migration to the U.S. In each individual painting, he restricts himself dramatically, stripping away detail, narrowing his palette, designing his pictures in order to achieve one or two things. In his early paintings after the move to California—A Bigger Splash, Mt. Fuji and Flowers, Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Luc—he leaves out far more than he includes, until the image verges on minimalist abstraction. Yet the color is full of feeling, a continuous yes to the world around him. Each painting has an immediate impact, and you feel as if your eye is darting around a realm in which every detail works together within a perfectly organized whole, a world where everything is almost equally interesting and every effect seems painstakingly earned. In painting after painting, it’s as if he’s trying once again to make visible the buzz of that intense Southern California light, the translucent color of the Pacific coast. You can see in this show how Hockney brought the memory of that brilliant light back to England with him to use in the double portraits he did there, when he depicted rooms and figures that seem lit from within even back in his Northern native land.

The three central galleries of the Met’s retrospective are the best reason to see the show: one devoted to the most famous early California paintings, followed by a comprehensive look at the nearly life-sized double portraits, and the third showing his masterful line drawings and a slightly disappointing glance at his photo collage work. It’s a real weakness of the show that none of the greatest of these collages are included. Perhaps they are saving the best of them for a retrospective devoted to nothing else. It would be worth it.

The most revealing and powerful gallery in the show, though, is the one devoted to his double portraits. I’d seen all of them in reproductions, in books or on the Web, but it didn’t prepare me for how these large paintings concentrated his imagination and enabled him to break through into a vision of three-dimensional space that feels different, for me, from the work of most other painters. The volume of space in these paintings is tactile and weirdly visceral. It’s an effect heightened by the fact that much of what he does ought to flatten an image: minimalizing shadow and rendering what he sees with large areas of uniform color. This format absorbed him from 1968-1971—the paintings look as if they required extensive labor and feel as if they played a role in his career similar to the large Cubist-influenced paintings Matisse did after returning from Morocco. The account of how Hockney painted Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy provided by the Tate gives an indication of how immersed he became in each of these double portraits, working on this one over several years, painting from life and from photographs: “Hockney painted Ossie Clark’s head as many as twelve times before he was satisfied.”

In this series of paintings, Hockney found a way to pay homage to Vermeer, Chardin, and Piero, while discovering a new and exhilarating way to use light and color to make you feel as if you are inhabiting a peculiar space that seems to open up and envelope you. What was most striking about finally seeing the actual work was how magnetic these canvases are: from a few feet away his rooms fill your entire visual field, in a coherent, tangible world where every surface is smoother, simpler, and stranger than your own. Hockney doesn’t let you forget you’re looking at a painted surface and yet the images are alive and three-dimensional. You feel as if you can step into them. As a result you remember the paintings themselves as being much larger than they actually are. Hockney achieves all of this while making his image work as a flat pattern of crisply defined areas of carefully modulated and often complex but nearly uniform color (you can’t see the subtlety of the color in photographs of the work), arranging his forms with the precision of geometrical abstraction. The most commanding paintings in the show are three of these interiors: Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Again and again, his simplified forms create a crackling tension with the way the entire image pulls you into its illusion of depth. This paradoxical effect is most striking in the portrait of Isherwood in his slacks and white dress shirt, where his form alone has been radically simplified and cleaned of most irrelevant detail and yet the legs and even the features of his face project out toward you in almost starting relief. Hockney’s space is real while everything in it seems just slightly unreal. The room is filled with these seemingly dreamt-up people and objects, each self-contained and complete, assembled randomly with all the others, and yet everything is unified by the same brilliant, nearly shadowless light.

Seeing for the first time how Hockney included a small reproduction of Piero’s Baptism of Christ in the portrait of his parents helped me make sense of the entire series. There’s nothing remotely religious about Hockney’s work—except maybe in the sense that Matisse meant when he told his friend, the nun, that his career had been a lifelong pursuit aligned with her own devotion. Yet the double portraits seem to call back to the Renaissance painter’s light, and the precision of his dreams. The two painters have much in common: the use of architecture to organize an image geometrically; an intensity of light that nearly swallows every shadow it casts; the awkward and slightly stylized rendering of human forms that look both flat and three-dimensional. Like Piero’s paintings, these portraits radiate the mystery that emerges when an artist pushes himself to do multiple things at once and somehow makes it all work —in Piero’s case, to convey the truth of both geometry and the actual look of everyday life, while hinting at what’s beyond or behind the visible world. In his choice of subject, Hockney does reach back to the genre scenes of Vermeer and Chardin, but he takes the everyday and gives it the eerie, intensely pleasurable oddness reminiscent of Piero’s Nativity and Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. Everything feels both monumental and delightfully weightless.

The eerie quality of these effects are perfectly balanced by the warmth of the light and the subtle use of color, so that you feel as if you’re seeing a beloved world refracted through the artist’s particular eyes, a world he belongs in, even though for the viewer it feels slightly alien, distorted by Hockney’s idiosyncratic way of rendering what he sees. He said he struggled with these paintings and the work shows. They are his most accomplished paintings, an epic achievement.

As successful as he can be when he cuts loose in his later work, disavowing lens-based painting as he describes in Hand Eye Heart, I miss the tighter restrictions he set for himself earlier on, the sense that he needed to reduce the range of color in order to infuse the most feeling into the ones he chose. The need to be naturalistically true to what he was seeing in the double portraits, at least in part, makes the subtle way he manipulates color in these paintings even more powerful and beautiful than the strident hue in much of his later work. This is most evident in the painting of Peter Schlesinger, wearing his sport coat, gazing down into the swimming pool at a bather underwater, with the backdrop of a generic Los Angeles canyon, familiar to anyone who has ever driven through the Hollywood Hills or Topanga. The color is everywhere a little more intense and vibrant than it would be if you were actually standing poolside, but only a little. He did what Fairfield Porter advised, to be true to the way things look, but to “make everything more beautiful . . . a painting should contain a mystery, but not for mystery’s sake: a mystery that is essential to reality.”

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