DAVID HOCKNEY: A Return to Painting

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With a zest and a passion and a confidence I haven't witnessed in the nearly two and a half decades that I've been dropping over to visit with him, David Hockney has returned to the wide empty canvas and the oil-laden brush.

Granted, there have been moments, intermittent phases, over those twenty-five years when Hockney did dabble in oils (for decades before that his preferred and preeminent medium). There were, for example, the regular suites of portraits of his friends, including those lovingly rendered pet dachshunds; there were the cubist experiments such as the Visit with Christopher and Don (1984), and the operatic still-life flower portraits; there were occasional vantages on his homelife and the immediate surround, and several epic stabs at the Grand Canyon, and that thrilling (if somewhat short-lived) survey of some of the more intimate sweeps of the East Yorkshire of his youth.

But other passions always seemed to draw him away from such bourgeoning reinvolvements with oil paint-toward the operatic stage, for example, or photocollage, or various photocopying technologies, or watercolor, or Chinese scrolls, or late Picasso, or high Rembrandt, and then, especially over the past several years, toward inspired speculative scholarship, pure and simple: that elaborately compounding (and compoundingly controversial) theory of his about the Old Masters and their lenses.

Throughout those years Hockney would insist that all the other work was just as valid and just as privileged as oil painting, that he really didn't give greater priority in terms of significance to any of the various media he was deploying in what he saw as a consistent path of inquiry and exploration. And yet, as he concluded each fresh frenzy of alternative creation, he would seem to sigh with an exhalation that became almost a refrain: "Oh, dear," he would tell me once again, gazing upon a Cézanne or some other masterwork along some museum walk. "Oh dear, I truly must get back to painting."

But now he has-almost with a vengeance-regularly, over the past few years, e-mailing his friends ever-vaster JPEG caches of fresh work: dozens, scores, and presently hundreds of enthrallingly vivid plein air landscapes, once again of the East Yorkshire vistas of his youth, pictures that taken together may someday, say fifty years from now (if there is a fifty years from now), command the same sort of scholarly interest and besotted devotion that van Gogh's similarly concentrated renditions of the paysages around Aries do today.

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, on the train up from London to visit Hockney at what have now truly become his principal digs in Bridlington, I'd been riffling through a file of recent Hockneyana when I came upon Ken Johnson's March 17, 2006, New York Times review of the Hockney Portraits retrospective at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, parts of which, clearly, he'd liked a whole lot and other parts of which he'd apparently liked a whole lot less. Johnson began:

Around 1966, when Pop, Minimalism and Color Field painting were the preferred options for a serious artist, the British painter and Los Angeles resident David Hockney embarked on a daring exploration of what was then thought irretrievably retrograde: realist painting. Over the next decade, he created full-figure portraits of people, alone or in couples, that were as intimate as they were monumental and as poetically thrilling as they were visually lucid. The best of them can still be counted among the most memorable artworks of the postmodernist era.

Johnson noted how, "In the yo's, Mr. Hockney's realism intensified, but it never looked overworked, and though he used photographs as references, it did not turn into Photorealism. Nor did it ever appear stuffy or old-fashioned. Looking at the paintings of this period . . . you get the exhilarating feeling of an artist on a roll who can do no wrong." And he continued:

Then, sometime after 1977, Mr. …