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ART REVIEW

Two Sides of Hockney Blend Languages of Art

February 16, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

The large retrospective exhibition of 172 drawings by British-born, L.A.-based artist David Hockney cleaves almost perfectly in two. As it happens, the casual, unplanned division turns out to be revealing.

Each section spans about 20 years. The show, which opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, begins with precocious student work from 1954. It splits during an extended mid-1970s foray into naturalistic drawing and ends with a group of straightforward portraits of friends and family, mostly in black crayon, from 1994.

These three episodes show how a conventional, even conservative strain of academic rendering, usually of the human figure, has been a habitual anchor for Hockney's art. It's as if the artist is a kind of prodigal son who goes off in various exploratory directions only to make an inevitable return to his ancestral home.

As is so often the case in such sprawling retrospectives as this, the very earliest work in the show is of unusual interest. Less often seen than the sunny, classic images of the 1960s, on which Hockney rightly made his reputation, it also reveals the curious foundations on which the later work was built.

The earliest are academic ink sketches of seated female nudes, drawn when the 17-year-old artist was a student at the Bradford School of Art in his hometown in northern England. Whether in figural compositions or in perspective landscapes, the naturalism of the drawing style is fixed to an architectonic scaffolding, which locates illusionistic objects in an organized space while also situating the drawing on the blank field of paper. Tradition-minded, the school and its orthodox methods are apparent in Hockney's dull yet skillful renderings.

An academic approach continued when Hockney entered London's Royal College of Art in 1959, as seen in several more sophisticated drawings of human skeletons. But it didn't last long. Soon, in the show's first compelling group of drawings, he was trying something else.

A 1961 self-portrait in blue and black ink is rendered with a quick, sketchy line and rapid, gestural scribbles. The architectonic scaffolding of earlier days remains, now as a simple pair of horizontal and vertical lines suggesting a background window.

Yet the self-portrait doesn't seem to convey the Expressionist verve typically associated with the style then being embraced in avant-garde circles. The drawing seems more descriptive than emotive.

Descriptiveness is further enhanced by the inclusion of Hockney's first name, carefully lettered into the middle of the drawing, and by the prominent placement of the number 48--a coded reference to his initials. (The code, in which each letter of the alphabet was given a corresponding number, meant that "48" would equal "DH.") In rejecting an art of self-expressiveness while embracing various sign languages, Hockney began to create his first mature work.

The process was an unusual one. Having been grounded from the start in the most conventional language of art, he didn't attempt to invent a new style. Instead, he began to combine established modes in new ways. It didn't matter whether they were traditional or newly orthodox artistic languages; Hockney fused them in his work.

"Bank Building, Los Angeles" (1967) is a wonderful example. Its subject is as conventional as a traditional British artist could be expected to execute: an architectural landscape witnessed in an exotic locale, like a tourist sketch of Venice or a North African casbah. The palm trees carefully lined up across the bottom say, for Hockney, "foreign, not native."

Still, a plethora of up-to-the-moment styles of contemporary art happily coexist.

The bright blue sky is rendered in gestural marks of crayon, which quietly register the awesome void at the heart of Abstract Expressionist rhetoric. The flat, gridded, rectangular facade of the bank building is a study in Minimalist geometry, while the depiction of the centrality of commerce to American life is Pop in bearing. The white paper left visible across the top declares truth to materials and the flatness of the picture plane, then duly expected of formalist art.

What's extraordinary about these early works is the easy accommodation they make to utterly contradictory kinds of art. The multiple styles are hardly at war here, jockeying for stature and position.

I tend to think of works like "Bank Building, Los Angeles" as essays in a kind of class mobility--in the leveling and melding of rigid claims to hierarchy and status, which are the age-old warp and weft of British life. As a gay kid from a lower-middle-class family in an unfashionable part of highly class-conscious England, Hockney knew the strictures.

He also seems to have been well aware that--traditionally speaking--the artist was always the servant of the aristocracy. In a modern democratic society, however, just who made up that aristocracy could not be answered by a call to tradition.

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