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Hockney's Cheeky Look at Today's History

February 07, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

David Hockney bustled through galleries putting finishing touches on his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. An early visitor flapped a hand in greeting and the artist sauntered over.

"I've got it all up. Now I have to decide what to take down. Is it too much, do you think?"

The British artist has changed remarkably little since he materialized in Los Angeles back in the '60s. Same shock of blond hair, same owl-round glasses and ironically self-effacing manner supported by a jaw that somehow recalls a crab claw. At some level you don't want to mess with this exceedingly nice man.

"I'm not hearing too well today. My little dog chewed up two of my hearing aids. Here look at this." He pulls a lump of plastic from his pocket that looks like a small nut-meat or possibly a mouse's brain. "Easy to mistake that for a chicken bone."

He's always been remarkably candid, modest and funny. A critic once praised a painting of his in a show of modern portraits in London. The artist squeezed his cheeks together in consternation.

"I saw that show. They hung me next to a Matisse. I said, 'Good heavens. I can't hang next to Maa-teese.' "

Funny, he pulled something out of his pocket that time too. He must like to show people things.

"I like to point things out to people and this makes a good pointer like a schoolmaster's stick. Actually, it's the aerial from a car. Telescopes right down and goes in your pocket."

Usually his socks don't match. A little eccentric and exceedingly quick.

Now Hockney is 50 and the subject of a full-dress retrospective accompanied by a fat catalogue notable for bright and readable essays and excellent and copious color reproductions. After the show closes here April 24, it will take the high road, appearing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Gallery, London. That's pretty good for a kid from Bradford. It's also rather grand for an artist who appeared initially as a minor satirist within the cheeky British Pop art movement making prints in variation of Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress."

Hockney has evolved into an authentic celebrity, admired by kids who know no other artist's name, courted by committees of society folk who want a poster for their benefit concert, memorialized in books and embalmed on film. His sets for operas--like the recent Music Center production of "Tristan und Isolde"--are as eagerly awaited and closely scrutinized as the singing. He has moved from portraits to theater design to photographic collages and prints made with a copying machine, not to mention reams of drawings and traditional graphics whose allusions loop through the history of art from ancient Egypt to Ingres, from Piero della Francesca to Picasso.

His sheer popularity and prolix production have caused observers to worry that he is somehow a lightweight dandy flitting over the surfaces of one enthusiasm after another, frittering away immense talent that rests lopsided on his head like a tipsy crown of golden laurel. He has seemed like some updated film biography of Franz Liszt surrounded by friends begging him to get down to serious composing while he gads about playing flashy concerts for the adoring masses.

Such impressions accumulate viewing an artist's work in bits and pieces over time. Survey exhibitions are about putting it together and sorting it out. They are litmus tests where dense talent glows and tin gods tarnish.

Trooping the 150 or so Hockneys in LACMA's Anderson Gallery is enough to make a believer out of the most fanatical hair-shirt art monk. (Everybody else is already convinced.) This is superb stuff. Yes, it is profoundly entertaining but so were Veronese and Tiepolo, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Yes, it has a light and digestible surface but looking at it is like listening to the Beatles or Randy Newman or Linda Ronstadt and realizing that the amusing surface floats in a concrete musical container the way Hockney's funny water glimmers in Beverly Hills swimming pools.

If Hockney chooses to move from the extraordinary density and empathy of those double portraits beloved of traditional painting fans to the graphic panache of his opera sets, give him a break. Velasquez did not blink to turn from his spectral portraits to designing a festival for the king.

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