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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



David Hockney, "Celia, 21 Nov 2019."  Ink and acrylic on paper, 30 1/4 x 22 5/8".© David Hockney. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt


Traditional representation, especially when its subjects are people, tends to be better box office than abstraction.   So it should come as no surprise that the Morgan Library & Museum was well populated when I recently went there to see "David Hockney: Drawing from Life" (through May 30). If you can deal with the pandemic (which requires reservations at the Morgan) and brave the winter weather, you too may enjoy this lively exhibition featuring more than 100 drawings and prints skillfully depicting the artist's friends and/or business associates, mother and himself over the course of 65 years.


"Good Heavens!" you may say to yourself. "Hasn't Halasz already dealt with David Hockney?"  Indeed, she has—almost exactly three years ago, when she reviewed Hockney's huge retrospective at the Metropolitan on February 6, 2018.


But that show was organized by Tate Britain, the Centre Pompidou and the Met, and it dealt primarily with the artist's bigger and more ambitious work, especially his paintings.


The current show was organized by London's National Portrait Gallery, in conjunction with the Morgan and the artist himself.  I see it as lighter, wittier, and – dare I say it? -- not as pretentious, 


Drawing (together with its allied art of printmaking) is, after all, a more informal and intimate art form. To me, Hockney is at his best in this mode (which may explain why even when reviewing the Met's show, I led off with an extended discussion of a drawings show that had appeared at Paul Kasmin at the same time).


Moreover, the Morgan, being a library as well as a museum, tends to focus on drawings and prints anyway – though they have been so successful at capturing the essence of many great artists through their prints and drawings that one tends to forget that this is their prime area of specialization.


No Hockney prints-and-drawings show could hope to capture the entirety of this prolific artist's output. This one doesn't try.  But the array of media it incorporates is staggering.


While the largest single number of works is drawings in pencil, the checklist also includes work in collage, etching (with and without aquatint), lithograph, colored pencil, ink, sepia ink, chromogenic print photocollage, charcoal, colored pressed paper pulp, Polaroid and composite Polaroid, crayon, watercolor, ink-jet printed computer drawing, and an image listed as "homemade print."


It is partly due to this heterogeneity of media that the exhibition has such variety  Another factor making for constant change as one moves from image to image  is the evolution in the artist's style over the decades – which, broadly speaking, moves from more mannered to more naturalistic (though with many twists and turns along the way).


Still more central to its variety is the way that the appearance of its subjects changes with the passage of time.


Although the show' begins with work from 1954 (even before the artist came to London to study at the Royal College of Art), and continues up through 2019 (when this show was already in preparation), it concentrates on portraits of five of the artist's favorite subjects – and follows them through the years. 


These portraits begin with 1) his mother, Laura Hockney, passionate vegetarian, fervent Methodist, and dedicated supporter of her gifted son since his childhood. She is seen in about 10 different images. 


The procession continues on through 2) Gregory Evans, friend, former lover and sometime curator, seen more than 30 times and 3); Maurice Payne, master printmaker for everybody from Hockney himself to Jasper Johns to Richard Smith. Payne is represented in about 15 images.


Fourth comes Celia Birtwell, muse, textile designer, and with her former husband, the fashion designer Ossie Clark, the toast of Swinging London in the later '60s and early '70s. Together this talented couple costumed just about all of the trendies of that era, including both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Birtwell appears in this show in about 20 images.


Last but not least, of course, is Hockney – who as he himself points out, is always available to pose. The show begins with a collaged self-portrait on newsprint from the artist's youth, and winds up with tech-happy experiments in iPad plus a 6-minute film. 


Hockney as a subject appears in about two dozen individual pictures, plus the 16 etchings with aquatint which constitute "A Rake's Progress" (1961-63), which (with a title borrowed from William Hogarth) chronicles the artist's first visit to America in 1961.


Laura Hockney died in 1999 at 98, but the other four subjects in this show are still with us.  All turned up at the National Portrait Gallery in London when this show premiered there in February 2020 (shortly before the pandemic hit, and the NPG had to close down).  The four of them posed for a photograph all lined up seated together and a sprightlier collection of oldsters you never saw.


Indeed, one of the many fascinations of this show is seeing how these people aged over the decades.  And maybe it's just because I'm an oldster myself, but I found their elderly faces more richly endowed with character than they had been when these same people were young and comely. 


This is particularly true with Celia Birtwell, who – according to the literature supplied by the Morgan-- is a special favorite of Hockney's, not least because they both come from what in England is known as "the North Country."


He is from Yorkshire, she from a suburb of Manchester.  This is all part of Industrial-Revolution England whose working-class accents were scorned until the 1960s, when  working-class accents became ultra-chic.


Birtwell and Hockney are also said to share the same sense of humor, and it shows in his 2019 portrait of her made in preparation for this show. The image contrasts vividly with Hockney's portraits of Birtwell made when she was younger.—beginning in 1969 and most numerous throughout the 1970s. 


These early portraits show a charming young woman, and they're certainly very nice.  But the sitter's visage in the later sequence in the show – now that she's pushing 80 – show an even more indomitably perky lady, a true survivor.


Nor has her fashion sense deserted her, as witness her trousers, electric blue vest, multicolored blouse and sizzlingly Gallic red beret.


 It seems that when Hockney asked Birtwell to pose for this portrait, she protested that he was going to make her look like "an old lady." To this, he gallantly responded, "Well, you're going to be drawn by a very old man."  And the result shows this comradely relationship -- of two equal spirits blithely bantering with each another.           



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