Mr. Nice Eye; David Hockney's amiable personality coexists with a highly developed sense of visual sophistication
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 March 2009)

Charm has always been a vital but slightly disturbing component in the drawings and paintings of David Hockney, the 71-year-old Yorkshireman-turned-Californian who has held a prominent place in international art since he began exhibiting about five decades ago. In the art world of the 21st century, the charm that has always radiated from his work--beautiful young faces, affectionate portraits of loving friends, captivating paintings of expensive Los Angeles mansions -- makes Hockney an unusual figure.

At the higher levels, where paintings are shown by the best museums and attract millions of dollars at auction, art takes itself seriously and speaks of itself in stern, demanding tones. Successful artists learn that they are expected to project a moody intransigence. They are not here to please, as artists once were expected to do. Their supporters believe that art of real substance should be transgressive, radical, challenging. The average art review, even if favour-able to the artist in question, tends to sound vaguely like a treatise on a thorny, largely unintelligible subject.

But no one can take that approach to the discussion of Hockney, despite his vast success. In career terms, he's peculiarly, perhaps at times dangerously, amiable. Lawrence Weschler, in his new book, True to Life: Twenty- Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (University of California Press), notes that his appeal rests on the sunny benevolence of his subject matter and the always endearing charm of the way he renders it.

Apparently Hockney has long since become reconciled to this fact. When Weschler raises the problem of charm, Hockney accepts that charm is indeed part of his work, even his most experimental works, such as large cubism-echoing collages of assembled photographs. Hockney can't help it. "That's just my personality. I can't not do it that way."

He's not lived an altogether easy life. As a gay man he lost many friends to AIDS. But, as he says, he avoids despair. He summarizes his view of humanity with phrases like, "I think that ultimately we do have goodness in us."

In the 1980s, when he designed the sets for a production of Maurice Ravel's opera The Child and the Spells, based on a story by Colette, the optimism of that sentimental fairy tale touched him. "I totally responded to that story. And what was it saying? That kindness is our only hope." He did all he could to bring it to life because he believed in it. "And if I do believe that, that's what I should express." He imagines humanity eventually achieving a higher level of awareness and believes art will play an important role in that process.

Weschler presents Hockney as a cerebral artist, well read and intellectually ambitious, who believes it's his duty to struggle with questions of representation and perception. For a couple of decades, Hockney has argued against what he calls "the tyrannical hegemony of traditional one-point perspective." He considers the effect of most photography a lie because it limits perspective. True vision, seen through two human eyes, is far more subtle and complex than anything a simple photograph can show. A human looks simultaneously at several aspects of an individual or a scene; a photograph shows one.

Photography, Hockney says, is fine for anyone willing to look at reality "from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops, for a split second, but that's not what life is like."

As Hockney sees it, the cubism of Picasso, Braque and their colleagues opened the way to a much wider experience of the visual world: "It's about the kind of perception a human being can have in the midst of living."

Weschler, the chronicler of Hockney's career in True to Life, must be among the most versatile of the world's serious journalists. A New Yorker writer for 20 years, he's now director of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. Over the years he's written books on political exiles from various dictatorships, on the Solidarity movement in Poland and on torture in Brazil and Uruguay. He's devoted books to performance art and to the peculiar charms of a small, little-known museum.

This month also brings, as a companion to the Hockney book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin (University of California Press), an updated version of a book Weschler brought out in 1982. It reflects his long-term engagement with the work of an artist who stands in total opposition to Hockney. They both have close connections to California, but they approach art and their lives differently.

The two book titles make that point, the one on Hockney straightforward, the one on Irwin mysterious. Hockney loves publicity, Irwin tends to avoid it. Hockney's art appears endlessly on posters and postcards; Irwin's, rarely photographed, can't be adequately reproduced because it often consists of nothing but an arrangement of light. Hockney deals mainly in two-dimensional images on canvas or cardboard; Irwin uses shadows and environments. Whenever Weschler writes of Irwin, Hockney protests; when Weschler writes of Hockney, Irwin frowns. Yet they seem to respect each other, at a distance.

The two artists agree on at least one point: cubism as the key movement of the last century. But while Hockney sees cubism as a way of opening art to multiple points of view that create richer versions of reality, Irwin believes cubism implies a necessary flattening and narrowing of art's content. For Irwin, the art of today fulfills itself best when it demonstrates ways of perceiving. Weschler, following Irwin, describes cubism as the culmination of a 500-yearlong process in the development of art's main subject. Art was about Christ, then about kings, then about burghers, then about a burgher's maid, then about her red shawl, then about the colour red and finally about the process of seeing the colour red.

Taken together, Weschler's two books amount to an engaging argument about visual culture and its possibilities. They shift the reader several levels above the peevish bickering that often deadens cultural discussion and remind us that contemporary art, on some of its best days, draws us into the midst of debates that are wonderfully creative and crucially important while nevertheless unresolvable -- and also, like a Hockney drawing, deeply and seriously charming.

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