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“David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” sure is aptly named.
The comprehensive survey of the artist’s recent work currently on view through January 20, 2014, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco includes nearly 400 (!) works from what the de Young curators describe as “one of the most prolific periods of the artist’s career.”
This ginormous show is on view amidst 18,000 square feet of gallery space spread out over two floors, making this the largest exhibit ever for the de Young, whose origins date to 1895.
While certain works have been shown internationally, this exhibit, designed exclusively for the de Young, is not scheduled to travel elsewhere. Of special interest to the student of Hockney are nearly 20 sketchbooks, all but one of which appear on digital displays that show each page of every sketchbook. There are also nearly 150 iPhone and iPad “drawings.”
Many of the works are so recent, that if they were not digital, you’d half expect them to still be smudge-able. To wit, nearly 80 works of those display were created in 2013 alone, including 25 charcoal landscapes from just this past spring, titled The Arrival of Spring in 2013, all on public display for the first time.
To focus my attention on what Hockney’s been up to the last 10 plus years that the show covers, I couldn’t help but wish for some “just say no” editing and discipline on the part of the show’s organizer Richard Benefield, deputy director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (of which the de Young is but one part) and Gregory Evans, the curator from Hockney’s studio.
But then again, I also came away with a big “wow” as to how prolific Hockney is, even and especially at this stage of his long life, and the grandeur of his obsessions.
Hockney is, after all, now more than three-quarters of a century years old, wears two hearing aids, and survived a 2012 stroke.
I’ve always liked seeing how great older artists, shift and adapt their work in the twilight of their years. It can be a kind of distillation of what you loved about their work in the first place. Monet painted into his eighties, Chagall and Picasso into their nineties. When he was about Hockney’s age, Matisse rediscovered paper cutouts and took on the paintings and stained-glass windows of the Chapel of the Rosary in Venice, which he would consider his masterpiece.
I recall reading that in his infirmity, Richard Diebenkorn, another artist closely identified with California, downscaled the size of his works, enabling him to play out his obsessions in small drawings, prints, and collages on paper while seated or prone, rather than in large-scale oil painting. (Several of Diebenkorn’s nearly as colorful works are on view in one of the upper rooms adjacent to the sprawling Hockney show. They make for a compelling contrast.)
But Hockney still shuttles himself, and apparently whatever and whomever allows him to be so prolific, among his multiple homes in Southern California and England, the vistas and personae of which are well represented here.
Hockney has not limited the scope or scale of his work, and in fact has multiplied the media through which he pursues the themes about which he is passionate. He has embraced here more than a dozen different media including watercolor (in his first meaningful engagement with it), acrylic, crayon, oil, ink, pencil, colored pencil, charcoal, gouache, pastel, digital video, Polaroid and other forms of photography and iPad “drawing.”
The painted portraits and their palettes are classic Hockney, with most of the sitters culled from his immediate circle of friends, family and art-world associates. One quarter of the works in the show are portraits, including 18 completed within four months of the exhibit opening. About a third of the works are vibrantly rendered landscapes.
Hockney’s iPad works and his videos feel like a fresher and more exciting a link to Hockney’s groundbreaking 20th-century oeuvre than other pieces in this show.
According to an interview published in The New York Times last month, Hockney recently discovered the “playback” function in the Brushes application, which is how he draws on the iPad. “It amazed me,” he is quoted as saying. “I had never seen myself drawing before.”
Amazed also is the gaggle of gallery-goers who stand in open-mouthed awe as the process of Hockney drawing is laid bare, one finger-swipe-cum-brush-stroke at a time, across seven 55-inch flat-screen TVs. Previously shown in several other international exhibits but never quite on this scale, the playful and beautiful gee-whiz animation of his iPad pieces make for a showstopper at the de Young.
Equally transfixing are the videos, which were produced using as many as 18 separate digital cameras that were mounted on a grid to record the action simultaneously from varied viewpoints. The results are large scale, multiple-screen videos with as many as 18 points of view, sometimes seamlessly synchronized and other times deliberately asynchronized. In the case of “The Jugglers” series of a several videos produced mostly in June of 2012 with silly, bright parades of hipster hula-hoopers and jugglers, the results are both mesmerizing and fun.
This video technique is also used in Still from Woldgate Woods, November 26, 2010, which is not in fact still photography but rather a quiet and lush video landscape of a wintry scene in the British country side. Here, I watched the wind tickling the leaves of a snow-laden forest. It instantly brought to my mind, in an éclat of wonder, the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty;” “Glory be to God for dappled things…”
It’s been more than four decades since Hockney, like many mid- and late-20th-century artists, first picked up the gantlet that Picasso first threw down: how to display multiple perspectives in one work of art? Earlier in his career, Hockney played that out mostly in prints, paintings and Polaroids. These recent videos show he has not demurred in the face of that challenge; Hockney refers to these works as “Cubist movies.”
The videos are simultaneously so like and so unlike Hockey. The medium and the subject matter feel new, but even it’s easy to connect these recent videos with his iconic 1960s California swimming pools and the pixelated staccato of his Polaroid series.
Indeed, what works about the exhibit, enormous as it is, is that the Hockney’s essence and his obsessions permeate every piece. It’s a not-to-be missed hurrah for Hockney – and hopefully not his very last.