SAN FRANCISCO — The year is yet young but already it seems unlikely that California will see more significant contemporary exhibitions than Bay Area spectaculars devoted to David Hockney and Jonathan Borofsky. The shows do more than simply survey two leading lights, they illuminate arts character and condition in the mid-'80s.
Way back in 1961, when Hockney was a sprat fresh out of London's Royal College of Art, he made a pilgrimage to New York that inspired a series of etchings titled "A Rake's Progress." Loosely based on the famous suite by William Hogarth, the Hockney variation today seems an amazing prediction of present Neo-Expressionism. It's all there; "dumb" elemental figures, implied narrative and autobiographical line, allusions to past art and tons of nonchalant irony poured like a sauce over apocalyptic moral uneasiness.
The suite is included in "Hockney Paints the Stage," on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to May 26. It is not there to suggest that Hockney bears an ancestral relationship to Borofsky (at Berkeley's University Art Museum to June 16) but that is the effect. It looks like Hockney set the stage for Neo-Expressionism. He eventually chose to decorate that stage while Borofsky chose to act upon it.
Each artist has a very individual style, but consider their shared theatricality. Art has grown ever larger, evermore inclined to include real sound and movement, encompassing the viewer, inviting participation either literally or through the kinds of accessible emotions and sensations familiar to the theater. It is downright Baroque.
Hockney is certainly the most generally popular fine artist working. His work is celebrated by critics who seriously believe he is the greatest figurative painter alive and by smart young things who prize their framed Hockney posters and don't know the names of other artists.
Thus, Hockney's creative activity is more than intrinsically significant, it is a barometer of what people expect from a leading figure. Well, in "Hockney Paints the Stage," organized by the Walker Art Center, Hockney is seen acting as a set and costume designer for productions of established classics of opera and ballet at such rebellious avant-garde outposts as the Metropolitan Opera and the aristocratic opera festival at Glyndebourne.
At SFMMA we see preparatory drawings, models, photographs, videotapes and, most pointedly, scaled-down re-creations of several sets peopled with slotted-together silhouette figures to replace the players. Among other things they show Hockney is adept at a certain kind of planar sculpture.
Are they witty? Did Noel Coward look good in a dressing gown? Hockney's designs for Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" take the idea of Hogarth's cross-hatched engraving and apply the technique to the stage with droll and apt effect.
Are they intelligent? Did Confucius speak wisdom? The design for the the Oriental fable "Le Rossignol" was extrapolated from blue-and-white porcelains the artist saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Are they imaginative? Does LSD give hallucinations? The largest environment on view is a walk-in forest from Ravel's "L'Enfant et les Sortileges." It has a bright red tree in the middle and foliage that turns to blue clouds. There are polka-dot rocks so well behaved you can use them for benches. Some devilish bat-persons are landing on the hill. They may be naughty but they are not evil. You can bring your kids, but you don't have to. The set awakens that tiresome person known as "the child in all of us" and we are charmed.
Charmed, charmed, charmed I am sure.
Visitors to Hockney's engaging show are seen to smile and go "Aw" with such frequency that docents feel constrained to explain that there is a serious side to all this. The artist thought very deeply about all aspects of the productions so that his design for, say, "The Magic Flute" serves Mozart unusually well. As to depth, let us not fail to notice that the design of Poulenc's "Les Mamelles de Tiresias" is full of asides to Cubism and Raoul Dufy. Hockney's revival of Satie's "Parade" respectfully alludes to Picasso's original designs.
Let us not, however, forget that when "Parade" first saw the light in Paris in 1917, the Diaghilev production caused a near riot while Hockney's designs have, by all reports, been embraced like so many cuddly pandas.
With David Hockney we find the modernist avant-garde completely domesticated into the vernacular accents of the culturati . These designs broadcast on the same wavelength as '50s theater posters reproduced in Graphis magazine or PBS television where one would not be surprised to see them on "Great Performances." There "The Rake's Progress" would remind us of Edward Gorey's titles for "Mystery!" The animation for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" would seem slightly more subversive.