David Hockney at Eighty: Everything Old Is New Again

Edward Rubin
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David Hockney, ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967), acrylic on canvas. David Hockney Collection, Tate, London

For a number of decades both the name and work of English-born, Californian by adoption, David Hockney, has been quietly flying under the art world’s radar, breaking all attendance records, despite a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012 which included a gallery of works he had composed on an iPad. More than likely, the gently reserved Hockney was outshouted by the manufactured spectacles of circus artists’ billionaire Damian Hirst and half billionaire Jeff Koons, unarguably the two richest artists on the planet.

But that was yesterday. Today, and well into the next year the world is being treated to a cornucopia of Hockney exhibitions, each giving evidence of the artist’s humanity, and the singular importance of the human touch. The largest and most comprehensive being the artist’s autobiographically clad retrospective which originated – again breaking all attendance records – at the Tate Britain earlier this year. Currently drawing crowds at the Pompidou (it closes October 23), the retrospective will end its travels at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (November 21 – February 25, 2018).

Right: David Hockney, Self-portrait (1954), collage on journal paper. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.

While the critical consensus on Hockney has long been that his early 60s-80s work good: later works, bad, judging from the hosannas his retrospective has been eliciting in both London and Paris, from the general art loving population, as well a number of previously nay-saying art critics, it appears that many a mind is being reminded, and reconfigured – which is the job of a retrospective – as to Hockney’s worth. With six decades of eye-popping art, in a plethora of styles and mediums, many not seen in decades, if at all, like his explicitly ribald homoerotic paintings from Hockney’s wildly gay-tinged art student days, it couldn’t be otherwise.

The exhibition begins with an early Self-Portrait (1954), one of many self-portraits that the artist created in his mid teens. Along the way, following the trajectory of Hockney’s life through his vivid paintings, photographs, photo collages, drawings, pastels, iPad, IPod and videos, the viewer gets to experience the world as seen through the artist’s eyes. Portraits of his friends, family, lovers, studio assistants, even his masseur are paraded before us. We are also taken by Hockney’s work to the great outdoors, the many places that he visited, like the Grand Canyon, the studios where he worked, and the homes where he lived. Special attention is paid to his lushly painted, Santa Monica, California gardens, where he now lives.

Left: Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1988), oil on canvas. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

Over the years I met Hockney, here and there. The last time was at his 2006 exhibition at the National Gallery in London. At the time he was, I do believe, more than half deaf. Still he did answer questions put to him. A million journalists fought to take his picture. No doubt, it will be the same when his exhibition opens at the Met. I did manage to get a number of good photos (pre digital) but not without a couple of push comes to shoves. They are buried somewhere in my photo collection.

Many years earlier in Paris I was offered one of his works on paper from his pool series and other works on paper of Henry Moore’s (1898-1986) London Wartime Tunnel series. All were prices at around $3,000. Unfortunately, I could not afford them. And I wanted both. I still think of this great loss decades later. It is one of my ‘fish that got away’ stories. However, all was not lost; I did acquire a small and lovely work by Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) Lover of Apollinaire (1880-1918). Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) bought Marie’s first painting.

Right: Large Interior, Los Angeles (1988), oil, ink, paper on canvas. © David Hockney Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This said, putting Hockney’s countless wonder-filled works aside for a nanosecond, for the baby boomers, and those older, it is the artist’s iconic pool paintings, among them A Bigger Splash, (1967) which translated the atmosphere of American life into works with saturated Californian light and brought the artist to international fame, and as some claim, put Los Angeles on the map, will to be getting the most attention. For later generations, those brought into the Hockney fold by his experimental cubistic Polaroid photo collages, Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986 #1 (Left, Getty Museum Collection), the largest, most painterly, and deemed by the artist himself, as the best of the lot, will be at the top of their “must see’ list. As for the so-called millennials, and those still teething, everything old will be joyously new.

By Edward Rubin, Contributing Editor

Additional Hockney Exhibitions Currently On View:

82 Portraits and 1 Still Life: Ca’ Pesaro (Gallery of Modern Art) in Venice (June 24-October 22, 2017), Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (November 10, 2017- February 25, 2018), Los Angles County Museum in the spring of 2018.

Happy Birthday Mr. Hockney: Self Portraits and Photographs at Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Self-Portraits’ opened on June 27, 2017. Photographs opened on July 18, 2017. Both exhibitions will be open until November 26, 2017.


  1. Nancy Kempf

    Thanks, Eddy! Wonderful review.

  2. Anne Siegel

    An excellent assessment of this artist’s work, written by someone who makes magic with a pen (OK, a laptop). The fact that the writer met the artist a couple of times gives a richer impression to the reader than one would find elsewhere. A great read by a gifted writer! So sad I personally won’t be able to see this show, but the writer provides such a vivid description it’s almost as if I HAD seen it.

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