A telegraph David Hockney sent to a friend in 1964 when he arrived in Los Angeles from his native England states, “Venice California more beautiful than Venice Italy.”
It was the start of a long and ongoing mutual love affair with the city, as art-loving locals proved by showing up in great numbers when the octogenarian artist’s latest exhibition opened at L.A. Louver in early February, filling the gallery and spilling out to a block-long line down the sidewalk. Recently extended to Saturday, March 30, the exhibition is elaborately titled Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing]…Continued.
Hockney is known for bold gestures both in his artwork and in his occasionally controversial public declarations. All those decades ago, he may have been using a bit of artistic license to glory in the freedom he found here after growing up facing the repressions of both class and sexual mores back home. When he effectively came out with a series of highly erotic gay-themed works in 1978, his fellow Brits greeted the moment with a mixture of shock and fascination. As he told me in a 2005 interview before an L.A. Louver show that year, in those early days, “One day a week I used to drive around L.A., go anywhere, find out where I was from the Thomas Guide and then drive back. It was amazing, actually. I’d never felt freer, sexually free, everything.”
Hockney steadily expresses indifference to the prices fetched by certain of his works—famously the recent sale of his 1972 Portrait of the Artist (Pool with Two Figures) for a record $90 million—but he’s widely seen as the most famous, or perhaps sooner, best-loved artist in the world. The current exhibition, featuring mural-scale canvases that are in one case nearly 30 feet wide, has drawn an estimated 7,000 visitors so far. They stand before the almost startlingly three-dimensional Pictured at an Exhibition and Pictured Gathering with Mirror and trade looks of wonder—the works are so connivingly deep and enveloping that there’s a sense of immersion. Though created only after months of arduous labor (and often using photographs that go back many decades, including a deep trove of personal snap shots taken during travel or studio portrait sessions), the works are highly accessible, exploiting the artist’s gift for convincing portraiture and wry humor. A longtime associate’s happily indolent bulldog Wilbur is featured not just in the works but in photos Hockney himself selected to include in the show’s handsome catalog.
According to Peter Goulds, L.A. Louver gallery owner and longtime creative confrere, “The excitement of the show is multifaceted. Every visitor is blown away by the sheer intellectual curiosity of this man, how this stage in his life he’s still pushing new ways of thinking and seeing. And that’s his whole reason for existence, if you will. So that’s the first incredulity—having seen all the shows of his in recent years, to see this entirely new way of thinking, blows people away. Then the second layer is they appreciate the generous spirit that lives somehow in the roots of the work and they somehow see it as though they’ve been given the privilege of visiting a studio.”
Among the enjoyable surprises to be found in the gallery’s second floor is a warm study in charcoal and crayon of star musician Ed Sheeran (who also appears along with his wife in one of the mural-scale works). Though Bruno Mars gets similar treatment in a portrait on a facing wall, Sheeran is not only a fellow Brit, but like Hockney a Yorkshireman who, as the son of an art historian, grew up with a youthful appreciation of the artist.
Adding to the elite roster of Hockney’s musician-admirers is Joni Mitchell, who emerged from her recent health struggle for a daytime visit to the gallery and was photographed by an alert staffer at L.A. Louver holding the master’s hand and looking vibrantly happy to do so.
The revered singer’s arrival was doubly fortunate given that on the show’s opening night, Hockney stayed only a few minutes before retreating elsewhere. Chronic hearing problems have made him a bit of a recluse in recent years, but the city can be grateful that after a couple of spells in mid-career where he resettled in England for a time, Hockney remains a committed Angeleno. The main work of converting a multiplicity of multi-angled photos into these painterly figures and props was largely done in his hilltop studio in town, and that very space is glimpsed in one of the wildly colorful accompanying pieces in the show, The Walk to the Studio.
Having demonstrated his local loyalties, however, Hockney was soon off to Amsterdam, where he shared space with one of his great inspirations, Van Gogh, in an exhibition called The Joy of Nature at the Dutch city’s Van Gogh Museum.
Excitingly for fans of Hockney’s previous masterfully executed landscapes of East Yorkshire in Spring the artist has quickly moved on a new setting, on France’s verdant Normandy region near Pont l’Eveque.
If the scattered figures and stacked paint trolleys of the Something New… series are, in part, homages to Hockey’s adored Bruegel (whom he’s pointedly lauded, alongside Van Gogh, as “a contemporary painter”), he’s bound to be in touch with the Dutch artist’s spirit as he creates the upcoming landscapes. But first, for just a couple more days, we have the masterpieces now available in Venice.
Goulds urges visitors to feast on the larger-format works in which Hockney is “approaching this way of perceiving space to show it with clarity and a real distinct purpose for, as David puts it, the best gallery exhibition he’s ever had.” But he cautions them not to neglect the portraits that were executed in roughly the same time frame—“These very tender, very particular, drawings on canvas.”
Hockney’s adventurous craftsmanship will continue to undergo constant redefinition, Goulds concludes. “In the end, David’s an image maker, of whatever is out there that will enable him to conflate or observe the world in a different way, and make a reflection on that. And he’s going to go down as an explorer.”