What is the value of community? For David Hockney, one of Britain’s most prominent living painters, the circle of friends, fellow artists, and employees joyfully and intimately rendered in his current Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) exhibition, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life reveal the invigorating and inspirational power of camaraderie. While portraiture has historically been a tool for the elite to showcase their wealth and status, this egalitarian collection portrays individuals from all walks of life, including the artist’s dentist and housekeeper. Also, as none of these portraits are commissions, Hockney here is instead driven by the desire to honor and celebrate the people in his life. Much like a mosaic or network of unique yet interconnected cells, these exuberant, vibrantly-hued acrylic paintings all combine to form a harmonious and cohesive body of work.
Moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Hockney soon developed his signature brand of Pop art, painting the sun-drenched city as a cotton-candy colored dreamland complete with glamorous mid-century modern homes, shimmering swimming pools, and slender, swaying palm trees. Two decades later, Hockney completely reinvented himself with a series of fragmented photo-collages he dubbed “joiners.” Perhaps best exemplified by the iconic deserted highway image, Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986, #2, these grid-like photo medleys rely on Polaroid and 35mm snapshots featuring a variety of perspectives and light conditions. Inspired by the mechanics of perception and Cubism, Hockey engaged the eye with his disruption of the viewer’s smooth, unified field of vision. More recently, the artist has begun blending the beauty of nature and technology with his vivid and impressionistic iPad paintings.
Although the public typically associates Hockney with his idyllic and picturesque landscapes, the artist also has a long, rich history of constructing fascinating portraiture, including a lithograph self-portrait he made as a teenager in 1954, oil paintings of friends in the 1980s, and laser printer portraits in the 1990s.
These latest LACMA portraits not only offer a rare peek into this legendary artist’s social circle, but also represent a full circle moment for Hockney, as this year marks the 30th anniversary of his very first retrospective at the museum. With its warm and inviting vermillion-colored walls and profusion of portraits wrapping around the gallery space, this LACMA exhibition feels like a family room. Somehow cozy despite its voluminous size and ample light pouring in through the glass ceiling, this space gives the impression of affection, friendship, and intimacy.
As it turns out, all of this companionship and kindness present in these portraits was not without necessity as Hockney painted this series following a minor stroke in 2012 and then the tragic death of an assistant a year later. In the spring of 2013, one of his aides, Dominic Elliott ingested drain cleaner after an evening of drinking and drugs at Hockney’s Yorkshire home and studio. Hockney was asleep at the time. While both he and another assistant, Jean Pierre Goncalves De Lima (J-P) were cleared of any wrongdoing, Hockney painted J-P in a moment of grief and despair inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man at Eternity’s Gate (1890). As LACMA displays this collection in chronological order, this first portrait acts as a starting point, allowing the viewer to trace Hockney’s improving mood and health over the course of the series.
Over the next three years, Hockney invited a wide variety of trusted friends and confidants to sit for him at his Hollywood Hills studio, including gallery owner Larry Gagosian, art book publisher Benedikt Taschen, and famed Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, and LACMA senior curator Stephanie Barron. Other highlights include studio assistant Jonathan Mills, dentist Merle Glick, housekeeper Doris Velasco, Hockney’s sister, Margaret, and eleven-year-old Rufus Hale. As the son of artists Tacita Dean and Matthew Hale, he was with his mother as she stopped by one day to discuss a movie she is making about the artist. Hockney asked if he could paint Rufus. The portrait turned to look just like him, but with one glaring modification. Instead of including the young man’s natural brown eyes, Hockney gave the figure his own piercing blue ones, implying that he saw a bit of himself in the boy.
Indeed, sitting for Hockney is an intensely personal process. The artist usually kept his studio silent as he worked. He also required each of his subjects to commit to three days or a “20-hour exposure.” They all sat in the same yellow armchair in front of the same rotating green and blue backdrops. The carpet also often switched between these cheerful green and blue hues, therefore recalling Mark Rothko’s famed color field paintings. Additionally, all of the canvases seen here are exactly the same size (48 × 36 inches). Although Hockney’s portraits in this collection do feature a rigid structure, each portrait is individual, unique, and gets to the heart of the artist-subject relationship.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, Hockney also included one still-life in this collection, a simple and elegant assortment of fruit and vegetables on a blue bench. Paying homage to the famed produce paintings of Paul Cézanne and Gustave Caillebotte, this charming image was initially intended to be a portrait of Ayn Grinstein, daughter of Gemini G.E.L. director, Stanley Grinstein. However, Ayn had to reschedule her appointment with Hockney that day as she was attending her father’s funeral. Although this poignant and touching scene differs from the others in this exhibition in composition and subject matter, it perfectly illustrates the show’s central themes ― the resiliency of the human spirit and the importance of personal connection in times of need.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.