RA Magazine Winter 1995 - Issue number 49
His retrospective reveals that drawing to David Hockney is an infinite world to be discovered and enlarged, as Norbert Lynton relates.
[Click here to see a self-portrait of David Hockney on Hockney's website]
Was there art before David Hockney? For most people he has always been around. Was there drawing before David Hockney? In his 1955 Reith lectures Nikolaus Pevsner told us that the English have no drawing tradition, handicapped, he said, by their lack of ‘confidence in the body’. For the same reason there was no English sculptural tradition, but Henry Moore, the great Yorkshireman, was proving that ‘the individual may at any moment widen the possibilities of a country’.
Hockney was then at Bradford School of art – and I was beginning to teach art history at Leeds College of Art (attached to a new group of painting staff, led by the amazing Harry Thubron). Before then it was possible to be a serious enquiring art student at Leeds or Bradford and not to have heard Picasso mentioned. It is difficult to imagine now how sparse and feeble information about modern art was in those days, especially outside London. No significant book, no slides. But also no ambition beyond that of satisfying the London examiners. (Arnold Machin RA failed a whole year of Leeds students in the late 1950s.) Leeds then had not only Thubron and his friends but also the Gregory Fellows – Terry Frost, Hubert Dalwood, Alan Davie – attached to the University but involved in the College and visiting the Bradford art school. The first Hockneys I ever saw were hung together in the 1957 Yorkshire Artists show in Leeds: two abstract paintings done in a light, Rococo version of Davie’s black magic. I liked them better than anything else, and asked who this ‘Hockney’ might be.
In 1959, aged 22, he went to the Royal College of Art and in 1960 began to send work to the annual Young Contemporaries student shows. New art in London then meant the St Ives painters, associated with landscape and atmosphere and thus Englishness (though Hilton and Heron were by then doing more abstract and inventive work), Pasmore and the London Constructivists representing the international movement but softening it into Englishness, and as the latest thing, the large abstracts shown in two Situation exhibitions of 1960 and 1961, insistently unsentimental and unatmospheric, mid-Atlantic in flavour and presented with un-English professional assertiveness. But who in England wanted abstract art?
By 1962 Hockney was famous, the brightest and least resistible painter of a new, young, anti-highbrow, anti-solemn, above all anti-abstract movement. They were a small group of friends: Hockney, Allen Jones, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and then also Patrick Caulfield, with RB Kitaj watching over them. Together they smashed all sorts of conventions, only to find themselves rejoiced in by a large public, young and old and almost classless. There had been nothing like it since Cimabue’s new altar piece was carried in joy and admiration through the streets of Florence. Everyone could talk about this art, and did. The media, hungry for something new and potentially disreputable, leapt on it and on the artists. The first Sunday ‘colour magazine’ (the Sunday Times’s) featured them; Ken Russell made Pop Goes the Easel for television, associating the new art with partying. The name Pop Art helped, even if the links to pop music never really developed.
Remember that Allen Jones was thrown out of the RCA in 1960, and that David Hockney in 1962 was refused his degree by his teachers until the RCA top brass decided they’d better give him the Gold Medal instead, together with the Life Drawing prize. We heard he had dyed his hair blond and bought a gold jacket for the presentation, and loved him for it. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had already bought two of his prints, and Hockney was working on his unquestionable masterpiece, the etching for the Rake’s Progress.
London’s Pop Art was younger and cheekier than the commercially-built Pop movement of New York. It was often funny, as well as clever, articulate, and cunningly wrought from a variety of sources, but little touched by Americana It met with almost none of the resistance that American Pop had from critics looking for sublimities. Hockney stood out: his talent and his lack of pomposity made him particularly accessible. The ‘well-read’ could get into his pictures, with their references to Whitman, Gandhi and Cavafy as well as to Ty-Phoo Tea, and then, bless him, to our very own William Hogarth.
‘Drawing is the discipline that has informed David Hockney’s approach to every medium – including painting,’ Paul Melia’s writes at the start of his catalogue essay. I agree with that but would take it further. ‘Discipline’ gives little hint of what drawing has always been to Hockney, an infinite world to be discovered and enlarged, going outwards and inwards, joining play to self-critical gravity. Pencils, coloured crayons, pencil with water colour, pure Rapidograph lines indebted to Ingres as well as Picasso but also to Flaxman’s Neo-classcial illustrations (which Pevsner thought ‘delicious’), later also charcoal and gouache. Hockney’s adventures were always graphic first, if we include in that, as we should, his etching, his photographs (which he speaks of as a way of drawing) and his recent faxes.
He was always good at drawing. As a student he did unusually good life drawings and street scenes, but soon set those skills aside to do messy little graffiti-like sketches to represent heroes and loves, with naughty words scribbled into them. Then he drew and painted figures from memory, using tricks of style and staging to encapsulate emotions and occasions. He was working from photographs more than from life., but when the Sunday Times sent him to Egypt he found himself drawing directly again, antiquities indoors and out but also, quite brilliantly, street scenes and interior. Drawing now became a form of hands-on experience, the ‘discipline’ thriving on all sorts of liberties. Nothing has to be academically correct or harmonised; vividness counts, and surprise. The best drawings are epigrams, not accounts. That same year, 1963, he visited California and found himself changed by the experience. The benign climate, sexual fun and passion, the crazy scenery Los Angeles offers to the European, al charged his art with new excitements. We see them in the witty selectivity-with-exactness of his drawings of houses, office blocks, palm trees, pool, naked men, done mostly with crayons. He was after style as much as truthfulness. How do you picture water, the myriad tones of windows in an office block, the sensations involved in watching one’ lover take a shower? Out of these last I think, certainly out of love and friendship, came Hockney’s great series of portrait drawings, begun in the late 1960s. in pencil or crayon at first, but then also chastely and splendidly in ink, they are among the finest portraits of modern times. The lines are minimal and impersonal yet catch a face, a pose, at times the setting with what we receive as insightful truth and then enjoy also as exquisite networks of marks. Men, women (Mother, Celia Birtwell repeatedly), famous individuals (Auden, Spender, Man Ray), intimate friends – the activity of drawing itself, the magic and fun involved in turning such elusive subjects into succinct but somehow generous images, is celebrated as much as the sitters.
Today Hockney enjoys working in many ways, led into all sorts of devices by travel and by his intensifying involvement in stage design. Since Picasso’s death in 1973 he has begun a pictorial dialogue with him and with the decorative aspects of Cubism, developing ideas that feed into his panoramic anti-perspectival paintings, full of movement, time and noise. But the more intimate drawings continue too: silent and concentrated. Hockney said long ago that the world goes silent for him when he is drawing. His hearing has been deteriorating, and his art now divides into the silent work and the work against silence. Taken as a whole, his graphic work, prints as well as drawings, photographs as well as faxes, proves his mastery. It also shows that Pop Art was Hockney’s gateway into a limitless artistic terrain in which visual reportage is interlaced with visual poetry. Pop Art allowed him to be not only young and lowbrow but also old as well as new, knowing as well as innocent. Or rather, he made Pop be that way, opening English art to be unexpected beauties and pleasures.
When the Trustees of the Whitechapel Art Gallery appointed me Director in 1969, I resolved that my first exhibition – following those inherited from my predecessor Bryan Robertson - would be a 10-year retrospective of painting, prints and drawings by David Hockney.
Why David Hockney? Quite simple, he was the English artist of my own generation whose work I knew best and a most admired. When I saw a new painting it was sometimes as though he had articulated my observations, visions, even jokes. The combination of seriousness and witty reverence perfectly expressed the mood of the time.
I had bought a drawing of a skeleton from Hockney’s Royal College Diploma show of 1962. Later I bought two paintings. With Paul Cornwall-Jones I had helped publish some of his first etchings. By 1970, at the age of 33, he was well known and had already had about 20 one-man shows in various cities, including New York, Brussels, Milan and Berlin. From the objective point of view there was little need to justify my choice.
From the pragmatic point of view, given the Whitechapel’s fragile budget, there was an added advantage of a Hockney show. The Whitechapel Art Gallery, as a registered charity, was allowed to receive donations. David generously agreed to produce a lithograph in a limited edition of 10, and to donate the proceeds. ‘Pretty Tulips’ sold out during the show making about £6,000 for the gallery. One of the more Utopian trustees felt that we could not accept this money, tainted as it was by ‘commercialism’, but the chairman, Lord Bearsted, was delighted to accept, and the general feeling was that beggars could not be choosers.
The British Council agreed to tour the show to Rotterdam, Hanover and Belgrade. Consequently, they gave us much needed help with the transport of loans from New York and elsewhere. The collectors of Hockney’s work responded magnificently. Kasmin, having obliged by opening up his Hockney archive, then claimed the right to tease me by breaking into the song: ‘I’m dreaming of a White Chapel’ à la Bing Crosby whenever he saw me at a Christmas party.
Richard Hollis, the graphic designer, and I burnt the midnight oil over the catalogue. It was quite an ambitious one by the standards of the time. Despite remaining user-friendly by being less than half an inch thick, it contained about 250 reproductions – mostly small and black and white. For all its imperfections (especially the colour) I still love it. It proved highly popular, selling out and being reprinted again and again. It was quite informative in a rather quirky way. For example, I assumed readers would know who David’s sitters for portraits were, such as Christopher Isherwood and Henry Geldzahler.
In the recorded interview I conducted with David, he was an absolute star and tremendously relaxed. Just before the show opened, I had to break the news to him that the printers had reproduced the image on the cover the wrong way round. He suggested meeting at Fortnum’s. He looked at the inverted image on it, a small detail from the diving board area of ‘A Bigger Splash’. ‘Does it really matter?’ he asked calmly. Luckily, the printers managed to change it round just in time.
For the exhibition itself special movable screens were designed by lan Tilbury. To my own surprise I ended up hanging the paintings quite close to chronological order, thereby telling an interesting story of David’s development. For the prints and drawings I opened up a space used as a storeroom.
The private view was a great event, filling up the whole gallery. Goldie Hawn was there, a reflection of David’s fame in Los Angeles. I overheard Vanessa Redgrave saying, ‘Can anyone get me a glass of champagne?’ – a perfectly reasonable request, I suppose, a the end of the so-called ‘swinging sixties’. A my thoughts quickly turned to Lady Henriques, one of our older trustees who had offered to finance ‘cocoa evenings’ at the Whitechapel, I was happy in realising that the whole occasion had obviously transcended the East End. A t the same time, the newspaper vendor outside the gallery particularly liked David’ s detailed rendering of Christopher Isherwood’s eyebrows. This made me feel that we had a success on our hands of international, metropolitan and local proportions. Sure enough, a large and varied public poured in from the beginning to the end of the show.
[Click here to see a portrait of Kasmin by David Hockney on the website of the British Council]
John Kasmin first met David Hockney in 1960 when he was still a student at the Royal College of Art. ‘He had very little money indeed,’ Kasmin recalls, ‘and was drawing on very rough paper like wrapping paper. His early style, as in the swear-word drawings, had a coarse line, graffiti-like, pretty energetic, done from the imagination. David would bring me a folder of drawings; he was a shy boy with dark crewcut hair, and rather withdrawn.’ Kasmin sold Hockneys through the back room of Marlborough’s gallery.
‘David’s work had a great sense of humour, it wasn’t in any way pompously pseudo-intellectual. David somehow seemed a born irreverent witty artist who had decided he was going to make pictures about the world he was in and his reaction to it. He reacted rather candidly to music and books and movies, to clothes and styles around him. He immediately discovered he ould have a lot of fun with various styles of representation; he decided to have several aspects to his work so he could jump from doing rather sexy or tender pictures that have something to do with his feelings, to a technical side of his work, pictures which are about ways of drawing or playing jokes with Cubism. He might start out with an idea o demonstrating something but then he’d include the learning process while he’s doing it, with all sorts of awkwardness and his own sort of rather Northern punning.’
Contrary to some accounts, Kasmin didn’t leave Marlborough to set up as Hockney’s dealer. ‘David was not the art that I liked most of all. He was the eccentricity of my taste. I wanted to open a gallery for was to show American abstract painting, like Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Jules Olitski. David was very aware of the fact that he was the odd man out in a gallery that was really about colour – field painting. So he says to himself: ‘Let’s do a picture that has got some of Kasmin’s favourite Morris Louis stripes’ and he does ‘Cubistic tree’!
‘I love his drawings... ‘Square Figure Marching’ is one that I own. He’s not trying to be very didactic there, he’s enjoying making the marks and seeing what he can make them imply. Not many other artists drew then, except Bernard Cohen. Robyn Denny did the odd gauche: Dick Smith didn’t do drawings, Frank Stella was only paintings. Drawings were small and portable and could be had for £20.’
Kasmin recalls that Hockney was beginning to draw objects during the 1963 Egyptian visit, and that ‘the Cairo Museum really turned him on’. Likewise, possessions in people’s homes. ‘He was besotted by the stylisation of African art, but he didn’t only draw stylised things. In the ‘70s, as he approached naturalism more and more, he did fewer things that were pure invention. I don’t know what fires him to draw at the moment – I see him now only once or twice a year when he’s en passage through London. In the 1960s and ‘70s we travelled together a lot, we often spent holidays together and I could see more of what he was doing. He didn’t have a programme, he always had his drawing pad and pencils with him, and sitting in a café he might draw you as you were talking to him, or the book you were reading’.
Did Kasmin ever advise Hockney on how to proceed? ‘I’d encourage him. The series of vegetable drawings is very much a joint effort. I’d go and buy things in the market to cook that evening at dinner and suggest that David drew them but he’d have to hurry And there’s the great story of locking him in his hotel room once because we needed some money to got to Las Vegas. I only let him out when he’d posted some drawings under the door. There was a fair amount of gambling in those days. There was an art-world poker game, and my gallery used to play the Rowan Gallery nine-pin bowling. David had his own gold bowl made to measure to his own finger-fit. It was very much gang activity in those days.
‘The two-way effect of David being in my gallery was that the serious art world that liked abstract art looked at his work more because they thought there must be something in it if I like it – they thought I only liked the idea of the Frankenthaler and Gottlieb lot. That meant that David was looked at by more people than he might have been. It also affected David that he was surrounded by these abstract painters. He was obliged to be part of the team that included the Situation boys and doctrinaire people like Ken Noland who used to give me a very hard time for having Hockney. I think it affected Hockney’s sense of standards. He never fell into the Kitaj things of the London School, he was never part of the firm anti-abstract brigade. It made him much more open to the many sides of art.’