The David Hockney exhibition at the Tate Britain has been the fastest selling showcase in the Gallery’s history and displays over 250 works from his long, and diverse, artistic career.
Featuring 12 rooms, some possessing a higher degree of sensation than others, the retrospective is a celebration of his ability to innovate, challenge and subvert; the exhibition an expression of the constant probing and re-working of appearances and perspective that Hockney has become revered for.
The collection is weighted more toward his earlier works in the 60s and 70s which are not only testimonies to his prowess, but in the second and third rooms specifically, poignant expressions created in a very different world, not that long ago. However, the Tate takes us right up to the modern day with the collection ending with a number of digital works, using iPads and film, which although feel slightly anti-climactic artistically, demonstrate the willingness Hockney has shown throughout his career to reflect and refigure artistic trends and which will however, inspire many in the digital age.
Hockney’s work in the second room, titled ‘Demonstrations of Versatility’ which also named a collection of four Picasso-inspired works exhibited in 1962, came before the Sexual Offences Act, in 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts in private. The room, which has a relatively sombre palette and is dispensed with multiple, contrasting but ultimately coherent styles, acts as a display of Hockney’s bravery and reveal his commitment to propagandise his then ‘unlawful’ sexuality. Take, for example, Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) which he made in 1962, where he depicts ’69ing’ and plays with the ‘low culture’ of Pop Art, including the titles of both ‘Colgate’ and ‘Vaseline’. Such overt audacity is contrasted with more allusive, abstract-expressionistic artwork, Shame (1960) an example of Hockney working to allude to, but not literally depicting his coming out. In the third room Hockney works to domesticize homosexuality: he puts androgynous figures in home environments, effortlessly and creatively normalising male love. One work, The Hypnotist (1963) cleverly shows two formless figures staring at each-other, a whitened silhouette creeping out of one – a reference appearing to touch on what goes unseen in the domestic sphere: of secrets that are eventually going to ‘come out’, allowed to be let out.
The depth of the collection is seen with his vastly different, and perhaps more well-known works which hang in a larger room, necessary for the scale of his portraits. The portraits need no description, they are so well-known, excellent and so iconic. He plays with shape and appearance, his presentations of Hollywood not making logical visual sense, but artistically superb. However many times someone might have seen a Hockney, seeing them up close allows one to really appreciate the detail. The water throughout his ‘swimming pool’ collection is so considered, and strangely uncanny: both real and clearly artistically
subverting this. The valleys that form the background to a striking work: Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971), reveal a subtle attention toward facsimile, but is other-worldly at the same time, flecked with bold colour. He reflects, in these works and throughout this artistic period, palettes used in the foreground and which colour focal points with his backdrops, Contre-Jour in the French Style (1974) a fine example which would never reproduce quite so astoundingly as the real-thing. The unreality of the works suggest his awe of Hollywood as a tropical, luscious utopia. Later works, hung in contrast to each-other reflect this also. Simple, honest, but still limply-formed, un-Naturalist drawings of Yorkshire are both opposed spatially and artistically with his more allusive, brashly coloured drawings of Hollywood.
As the exhibition’s nears the end, more modern-artistic trends come to the surface, cleverly intermixed with very early works. 1954 self-portrait, and a collection of drawings immediately follow the famed portraits, and these show a talented Hockney: his talent present from a very early age. Drawing forms such a part of his artistry and it is nice to see these drawn-back works. A room is dedicated to photography. These multi-photograph/multi-perspective pictures go toward cubism and question vision. Perhaps most famous is the road, Pearblossom Highway 11-8th April #1 (1986) which is actually built up of many small photos, which plausibly cannot make such a coherent ‘real’ scene, but Hockney does it. “Cameras after-all cannot see space, but surfaces”. Personally, not a favourite collection of works, but what he aims for artistically is justified and well carried out. Having been culturally satisfied, now with a slight sore back due to the scale of the exhibition, and nearing the end, one might be tempted to hurry along through the later rooms. The use of film says something about perspective and temporality, but I’m not sure what it really is, and feels an attempt at a crescendo, but isn’t. His productions on iPads act as digital sketchbooks, but never like a sketchbook, but are interesting nonetheless.
The exhibition showcases one of the most popular British artists of ‘our time’ and truly cements his name in the canon, and rightfully so. Maybe the exhibition could be scaled-down but, in the name of retrospective, is understandable. It is well worth a visit, but don’t rush the earlier rooms in the hope of a big ending.