Magazine article The Spectator

Retreat into a Private World

Magazine article The Spectator

Retreat into a Private World

Article excerpt

Now Francis Bacon is dead, David Hockney is Britain's most celebrated artist. Unlike Bacon, he is a distinctly nonmetropolitan figure. He lives in Los Angeles, and the easiest way to see his more recent work is to go to Salts Mills in Bradford, which contains a kind of shrine to him. A new exhibition, David Hockney: You Make the Picture has just opened at Manchester City Art Galleries, but won't be coming to London. It demonstrates something which has, in fact, been evident for a long time: that Hockney has become what Gertrude Stein called a `village explainer'. She applied the phrase to Ezra Pound, and added witheringly, `All right if you are a village. If not, not.'

Hockney's obsession is the way in which space and form can be represented in two dimensions, and the alternatives to the traditional one-point perspective system which Western art inherited from the Renaissance and more or less abandoned with the appearance of Cubism. The impact of Cubism, and of Picasso's work in particular, has been a constant theme in Hockney's art since the late 1970s. Hockney has pursued these explorations in a wide variety of media -- through the photographic 'joiners' made of numerous snapshot photographs joined together, and more recently in prints - some made on an office copier, others sent via the fax, others still with an ink-jet printer - as well as in paintings, gouaches and various more traditional print-making techniques.

It is customary to praise Hockney's 'inventiveness' in using this battery of methods, and to note the trouble he has gone to in order to master their various special characteristics. In fact, this is much truer of the marginal ways of making images than it is of the ones one might think of as central. Hockney understands very well what a fax machine does to the images he puts through it. He seems to have a much less firm grasp of how to use paint on canvas.

The group of `Very New Paintings' which form the core of the show are crudely handled, and often crude in colour as well. These characteristics, too, can perhaps be traced to Hockney's admiration for Picasso, since they are typical of much of Picasso's late work. However, Picasso's paintings of the 1960s and 1970s have a raw vitality which is missing here. Hockney, such an adept draughtsman when working on a smaller scale, here lets the lines go slack and tries to compensate with a multitude of fussy textures which seem to owe more to Picasso's large linocuts than they do to the paintings of the same period.

The discourse Hockney conducts about perspective, both in the work itself and more or less ad nauseam in every public pronouncement he makes (the exhibition is filled with the sound of his voice, droning on in a television interview with Melvyn Bragg - two blunt Northerners, each longwindedly trying to be blunter and more Northern than the other), has tended to distract attention from the actual subject matter of his newer work. Here his evolution has been in some respects surprising. After the 'joiners', which are usually about travel, come a series of interiors of his studios in London and in the Hollywood Hills, then another series inspired by the waves breaking on the beach in front of his new house in Malibu, and finally the `Very New Paintings', which are really surrealistic beachscapes. …

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