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ART REVIEWS : Lessons From a Pair of Masters: Hockney, Bluhm

March 30, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

David Hockney is such an agreeable, beloved and adept artist it is easy to slip into the error of finding him less than serious, a kind of virtuoso dandy.

His first local solo gallery exhibition in five years includes two dozen paintings, drawings, prints and gouaches. It finds him seemingly up to his old trick of paying homage to classic modern styles, kidding a little, while quietly probing for fresh and personal meaning. In this case, the language is largely abstract.

The work clearly reflects the same slightly funky visual concerns that inspired his recent set for Strauss's opera "Die Frau ohne Schatten."

The general style of this new batch of work is based on that weird late Cubist phase of Picasso, when he used Swiss-cheese-shaped fragments and salted it all with a little Surrealism. Strange receding planes with rows of pegs look like De Chirico. Clunky wave shapes echo the Futurists. Brushy paint handling tips its hat to German Expressionism.

But the resulting images don't look like any of their sources. In a couple of drawings they look like Hockney thinking about Saul Steinberg and wondering what Steinberg would come up with if he thought about Hans Arp. In short, Hockney is making art the way all the best L.A. art has been made, blending many existing sources to unique result.

But there's a different twist to this work. All the references to other art somehow function as a distancing mechanism. It's as if the artist somehow doesn't want to cop to what he's feeling.

Titles reveal him trying hard to be his usual casual, smart, witty self. "The Fifth Very New Painting" shows off his superb color sense in a palette of green, lavender and ocher. "The Ninth Very New Painting" includes visible shapes such as a red rear-end and a kid-like drawing of the Eiffel Tower. But the work, like most of the others, comes across as a spooky night scene where everything is on the precipice of chaos.

This art expresses immense nostalgia for the vanished glory days of early modernism. It tries hard to keep its mind on that but can't quite shut out a real world that's falling apart around it.

* L.A. Louver Gallery, 77 Market St., Venice; through April 23, (310) 822-4955. *

Anyone who despairs of the possibility of seeing good painting these days should go straightaway to a museum-quality exhibition by Norman Bluhm.

Bluhm, rarely seen on the West Coast, is a member of that lost second generation of New York Abstract Expressionists that nonetheless eventually managed to produce such fine talents as Alfred Leslie and Grace Hartigan.

The artist, now in his mid-70s, performs with the wisdom of his years, the physical energy of a man of 30 and the imaginative abandon of an infant Bacchus.

About 20 big compositions attain sizes as large as 8-by-20 feet. All play off a recipe of Rorschach-blot symmetry suggesting everything from stacks of luscious spraddled pink nudes to Tarot cards mirroring one another in a kind of send-up of symbolism. You can see Bluhm thinking of Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha with one half of his brain while the other contemplates Gargantua, Paul Bunyan, Willem de Kooning and Delacroix's "The Death of Sardanapalus."

He announces he's into decadence with titles like "Turkish Harem" or "Oriental Madonna." Plummy color schemes involve blacks, blues and lavenders. His great accomplishment, however, is the way he lays into the prissy over-refinement that makes the 19th-Century forerunners of this art look so neurotically exhausted. Bluhm's pictures say phooey to all that investing sybaritic exoticism with all the juice it deserves. The paintings ooze like big wet kisses and overripe persimmons. The show is hugely entertaining and ferociously sensual.

* ACE Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., through May 31, closed Mondays, (213) 935-4411.

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