If there’s one overarching sensibility running through this retrospective of David Hockney’s work spanning six decades, it’s not necessarily the artist’s much-touted commitment to the ways of best representing the visible world, or indeed the emphasis that Tate Britain’s show want put – in the fiftieth anniversary year of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain – on the artist’s celebration of gay life and love. These two themes are there, but they contribute to something broader and more expansive – Hockney’s capacity for making paintings and drawings that exude a kind of casual, effortless charm, a charismatic poise that renders everything the painter does winning, welcoming, hospitable, convivial.
This panache winds through all the shifts in style Hockney makes through the decades, from his early years as one of the golden generation of young painters at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, playfully subverting the dreary orthodoxies of postwar British realism as much as an American-imported abstraction; through to the sunlit poolsides of Los Angeles as the sixties got truly swinging, into the relaxed interiors of bourgeois and bohemian friends during the 1970s and on into the vast, exuberant landscapes of California’s mountains and the rolling vales of his native Yorkshire, during the 90s and 00s. The expansive bit is this: life on this earth, Hockney would like to tell us through his painting, is good.
What follows becomes a lifelong struggle between the poles of artifice and sincerity, between the pose of effortlessness and the equally self-conscious commitment to an artistic work ethic
As a retrospective, Tate Britain’s show does a fine job of putting the over-seen, over-reproduced ‘greatest hits’ alongside more rarely seen work. A first room wheels through Hockney’s self-consciously irreverent messing with both illusionism and abstraction, with Play Within a Play (1963) and Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965). In the first Hockney teases the viewer with an image of his friend and art dealer John Kasmin, teetering, arms upstretched, on the edge of shallow stage, squished between what might be an illustrated backcloth and the very real piece of Perspex screwed to the front of the canvas.
Such games were common amongst the painters around the Royal College – similar ‘artistic devices’ occur in the work of Hockney’s contemporaries R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones – and what follows becomes a lifelong struggle between the poles of artifice and sincerity, between the pose of effortlessness and the equally self-conscious commitment to an artistic work ethic. A room of the scratchy, chaotic, cartoonish paintings of his college years, in which Hockney is unashamedly working up expressions of gay love in deliberately amateurish, childlike picturing – such as We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) and the raunchy, funny Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11 (1962) – moves on to the more poised attempts to bring everyday life and an untutored style together, such as Domestic Scene, Los Angeles (1963), in which a man in white socks and a dainty apron washes his partner’s back under the shower. This ends up with the conclusive A Bigger Splash (1967), Hockney’s po-faced dismissal of both the portentousness of geometric abstraction and the gestural heavy-breathing of abstract expressionism.
Hockney’s facility, his ease with changing styles and making them his own is nowhere more evident than in his famous large-scale portraits of couples – Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-1), and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968) among the most prominent. They’re impressive and cold, conversant with the hyperrealism already coursing through painting at the time, adverts for the high-class bohemian lifestyle these couples inhabit. They’re a little too much like adverts, though, stiff, hieratic, disallowing Hockney’s more provisional and intimate use of line and colour.
There’s no suffering, no violence, no injustice, of course. That might be an evasion, or a refuge, or both. Or it could be the wilful assertion that despite these, life is good
From there Hockney takes his most conclusive turn with the paintings of the 80s – high-colour, informal big canvases that borrow, beg and steal from Matisse and Picasso to make for weirdly, joyously distorted interiors full of inverted perspectives and cartoon-outline vegetation, and, the giddying, almost psychedelic Californian landscapes, such as Nichols Canyon (1980).
It’s easy to be cynical about these toy-bright vistas and the unashamed vision of contentment of wealthy lifestyles. It’s perhaps why there’s always a sense of unease, among critics, that Hockney isn’t quite serious or profound enough as an artist. What Hockney chooses to affirm is the comfort of the everyday, the pleasure of friendship, the sense of world one finds oneself in, and the attempt to make some lasting record of these in a made image. Yet while they tend to dwell in these domestic spaces, the temperament of Hockney’s paintings track and draw on his subject matter with uncanny directness – there’s nothing comfortable, for example, about the retinal burn of reds and purples and the crushing, vertiginous perspective of 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998). Show him a living room and he’ll paint comfort. Show him a canyon and he’ll paint awe.
There’s no suffering, no violence, no injustice, of course. That might be an evasion, or a refuge, or both. Or it could be the wilful assertion that despite these, life is good. As to whether painting and drawing from the visual world – that ancient, outmoded artistic habit – can do justice to that affirmation is another matter. Hockney’s forays into photography, first in his Polaroid collages from the 80s, and here in the kaleidoscopic installation of four 9-screen video sequences The Four Seasons (2010-11) – in which he mounted nine differently-angled cameras to the front of a vehicle driving through an English wood, at different seasonal intervals – don’t ever really match their painted companions in subtlety or inventiveness. Still, aged 79, Hockney is happy to keep trying things out, without too much heed of whether they entirely succeed.
Making pictures out of the pleasure of being alive isn’t that fashionable right now. So Hockney’s mercurial, shifting, optimistic passage through half a century might be quite irrelevant, outdated. Or it could be a reminder that some things are still worth celebrating. Either way, you get the feeling that Hockney made up his mind a long time ago.