I’ve never been a big fan of Hockney. I admire his eye for colour and his prodigious work rate. And I wish I could paint every day.
So I went along to the retrospective of his work at Tate Britain on the opening day with limited expectations.
I’d read Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian: “Thrills contrast with the shrill“. Searle believes Hockney was only any good really in the 1960s. I can see why he was popular in that period and how he became the poster boy for queer British art – sticking one up to the establishment. The artist equivalent of Joe Orton. But I’ve always been singularly unimpressed.
And his transcendence into something of a national treasure fails to impress me too.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed this retrospective spanning 60 years. I really enjoyed the riot of colours, textures, tones, and the mixture of abstraction and reality.
Some of the canvasses really stood out for me. In room 1, I was most pleasantly surprised by “Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool” painted in 1971. It’s surprisingly abstract and striking.
Room 2 is called “Demonstrations of Versatility” because that’s precisely what it does. I really liked the works in this room – simply because they didn’t look like Hockney’s. Pop art, graffiti, products, phrases. It’s good to see he could carry off these different styles.
The California pictures are striking in scale and the mix of reality and abstraction is good. I do like a swimming pool, and swimmers. They don’t really speak to me but they do have atmosphere and far more depth than their flat painted style implies.
But I also like his office buildings. I hadn’t really associated Hockney with architectural paintings but he’s done some good buildings. I especially liked the supposed office building that is in reality a modernist grid reminiscent of de stijl and Mondrian.
And I was struck by the fact that chairs appear in so many of his paintings. As something of a chair fetishist myself, I’m immediately drawn to anyone else who clearly likes chairs.
His more naturalistic portraits also convey a depth beyond their immediacy. There is something brooding in the stillness and seeming calm. Not quite on the scale of Hopper but in that vein.
Of the later works I do like some of the landscapes. The Yorkshire Wolds paintings from his return to Bridlington in the mid 2000s are impressive in scale and colour.
But his use of technology doesn’t really thrill me. It leaves me rather cold. I know I’m wrong. Most people tell me so. Technology is the way forward. The iPad is the new canvas. The stylus the new brush. Sophisticated software the new palette. But not for me. For me it’s not intuitive to mix colours on a colour picker. It is intuitive to mix on a palette. I get cross, frustrated with technology. It detracts from my creativity, it’s not an outlet for it. The software becomes the driver, not me. I like to wander free, exploring my own path as I go not be forever googling how to do the most basic things, at the behest of whoever wrote the software.
I’ve tried to draw on the iPad. It’s not like I’ve not given it a go. I thought Hockney’s A Bigger Picture Royal Academy show in 2012 might inspire me. But I much preferred the traditional sketches and canvases in that show – the aforementioned Yorkshire Wolds.
So I’m pleased I’m not alone in finding Hockney’s iPad drawings a bit sterile. However Ben Luke in the Evening Standard takes a rather harsh line: “But the drawings, whether of people, views through blinded windows, still lifes or landscapes, are uniformly awful. The texture, colours and tones of the software, even before Hockney begins using them, are abhorrent. When you think that these are his equivalent of the sketchbook in which he made the wonderful drawings earlier in the show, it makes for a depressing close to a show that begins transcendently”
So I’ll be sticking to my pencils and brushes and getting my hands dirty.
That said, it is interesting to see how the iPad drawings build up – something that can’t often be viewed in a painting unless the process has been videoed.
To sum up, my view of Hockney has changed. I thought a perhaps perverse fondness for Bradford and Bridlington were about all we have in common. And swimming pools. But there’s definitely more there than I’d previously thought. He’s gone up in my estimation. And it’s not just the chairs! I don’t love him, but I do like more of his work than I thought hitherto.
So yes, thrills maybe contrast with shrills but just maybe the critics are bellyaching a bit too much about his later works.