So I think David Hockney is obscenely talented and I'm very attracted to the aesthetic quality of his pictures. But I also think there's a good reason why his best known works aren't his portraits, and that is simply that he's always been more interested in the surface vision of what his paintings depict, rather than any emotional connotations behind his forms and subject matter. Essentially, he almost seems to be more of a designer than an "artist."
Okay, that's not completely true. I do think that he was following some sort of vision in his work. But again, it was more aesthetic than emotional. He certainly isn't any sort of tortured artist on the level of Munch or Schiele (which isn't to say that to have emotion you need to be sad and depressed, but Hockney, at least in his portraits, isn't sad or happy or confused or, really, anything). That's why I think he's most closely related to the Cubists -- because when I think of Picasso, I don't think of an outpouring of emotion. I think of someone trying to solve "visual problems" (whatever), employing different modes of depiction to try and get around the painter's basic quandary of point of view. It's an admirable thing to try and do, but the idea that strides and developments "need" to be made in art in order to arrive at some imagined perfect mode of depiction (the entire premise on which the modern history of art is taught, and the premise under which many artists operate(d)) is bunk.
And anyway, I don't think Hockney was really trying to solve anything himself, at least not with the same sense of purpose with which the Cubists were. I only make the connection because his work did have so much to do with the surface, and I think it's a misinterpretation -- even if he's made it himself -- to say that his portraits were attempts at getting at the psychological character of his subjects.
This was how LACMA framed the portrait exhibit, and I just have to wonder why because it's such an obvious (and in my mind wrong) interpretation. I mean, over different periods of time, Hockney would decide to apply the same style to every sitter who visited his studio for a portrait, and nearly every face in the entire exhibit (there are a couple of notable exceptions, and the above is a subtle example) has the exact same expression -- not exactly differentiating between psychological states. The most metaphorical Hockney really got with regard to emotional/mental states was when he showed a couple in a living room, one man with his overcoat on as if he was about to leave -- alluding (of course) that he's about to leave the relationship. Hockney himself said "that was all" he intended to show in the painting.
So, really, thinking that there is some more subtle psychological thing going on in these pictures is a mistake. And I almost think I know it for a fact because I know one of the people in his portraits -- Lawrence Weschler, a New Yorker writer who's written extensively about Hockney and whose class I took at NYU. Now the pictures Hockney made of Weschler -- not to mention the fact that Weschler's expression is pretty much the same as the expressions of all the other portraits he's grouped with -- show him as this brooding intellectual type, and I never once thought of him that way. The guy is nice, goofy, enthusiastic and not a little awkward. Very smart, yes -- but is that really what we care about if we're trying to get at the core of someone's essence? Lemme put it this way -- Hockney's portraits told me nothing about Weschler.
It does bring up the question of what the purpose of portraiture is if not to tell us something about the sitter. This is definitely something worth thinking about, and I think there could be some really interesting answers. But I don't actually think Hockney's considered it much, being that he claims that his works are "all about the face." ??? I donno, I sorta feel like one of us is taking crazy pills here...
Since the artist and I differ so widely on what we think the purpose of the painterly project was, all I did (and should) appreciate the paintings for was their overall aesthetic quality and style. And this is really no small thing, considering that Hockney is a master of style and paint and canvas. One of the best things about the exhibit was that it gave a chance to see Hockney's unbelievable versatility. He moved so seamlessly among a borrowing of different genres -- from impressionist to cubist to surrealist -- emulating specific artists yet creating, at least in his most mature works, his own very distinct style at the same time.
And yet the pieces that show off that style best are his landscapes, like the iconic Mulholland Drive, Pearlblossom Hwy. and other landscapey works. Which brings me back to the point I started with.
But regardless, the show is worth seeing, no question, and many of the pieces are fantastic. They would be better served by letting them speak for themselves.