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Getting to the heart of Hockney

June 12, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In the big, beautifully installed, 50-year survey of portraits by David Hockney that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, there's a modest-size etching that is something of a touchstone for the entire show. It's not the largest or the flashiest work on view, and given the size of this very large presentation it would be easy to miss. But search it out. The picture is all about relationships.

Titled "Artist and Model" and made in 1973-74, it came shortly after the pictures of bathers -- men being drenched in tiled bathroom showers, others lounging in and around backyard swimming pools -- that the British painter made in Los Angeles during the previous decade. Those paintings established his international reputation as an artist.

The etching shows two men seated on small stools across from one another at a table. The figure at the left -- portly, balding, bearded, with coal-black eyes and dressed in dark slacks and a horizontal-striped jersey -- is instantly recognizable as Picasso. The figure on the right -- slim, young, bespectacled and nude -- is Hockney. He was 35, and Picasso had just died.

Hockney sits ramrod straight, exposed. His left hand is outstretched and lies flat on the table. The slender fingers barely touch Picasso's fleshier hand, at the pinkie, as if to draw a current of energy from one to the other.

Two different etching techniques distinguish the figures. Picasso is executed with a soft-ground method, which makes his physical bearing at once heavier, more pliable and monumental. By contrast, the needle-sharp linear hatching that describes Hockney is crisp and alert. One feels permanent, like a mountain; the other prepared, like a new shoot.

The older artist holds a plain sheet of paper upright between them and stares intently over its upper edge at the younger man. Hockney is positioned so that he can't see what's on the paper (and neither can we), and he looks straight into Picasso's eyes.

It's as if the depicted sheet functions as common ground -- just like the actual piece of paper on which the etching has been printed, the one a viewer looks at. The plane of art simultaneously separates and unites them -- and us. Art is articulated as a delectable territory for conversation and connection, and as an arena where profound questions of mortality reside.

There is so much contained in this single modest etching that the remaining 160 paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, prints and a tapestry filling LACMA's galleries suddenly seem to fade into the distance. (The show was organized by London's National Portrait Gallery, where it travels in October, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where it closed last month, but numerous additions were made for Los Angeles -- the artist's adopted hometown.) How will one have enough stamina to see the entire show?

Happily, the exhibition comes equipped with several seating areas -- not the usual benches, which are in short enough supply in most art museums, but fashionable settees and upholstered side chairs arranged in casual, domestic groupings. These are not just functional places to sit and rest your feet, but also social spaces in which to lounge and chat. Congenial discourse and public interaction -- these are hallmarks of Hockney-style portraiture.

"Artist and Model" also announces Hockney's well-known fascination with Picasso, his protean predecessor. Given the cheerful audacity of pairing himself with a titan, the etching brims with the sense of artistic ambition that unfolds throughout the galleries.

Yet the portrait connection is significant. Cubism -- which Picasso pioneered in 1907, and which became the starting bell for Modern art -- is all about relationships. So the etching is especially instructive in an exhibition devoted exclusively to portraits.

Cubism examines relationships between solid mass and ephemeral space, which seem to permeate one another in Picasso's art. It examines relationships between space and time, as objects in his paintings appear to present themselves from multiple perspectives all at once.

And, not least of all, it goes beyond these formal concerns to examine human relationships -- to scrutinize the separation and connection between people.

There's a reason Picasso's most frequent subjects were his wives and lovers. Cubism demanded it. Cubism represents a revolution in artistic form not simply because of its degree of abstraction, but because of the astounding sense of intimacy with which it is infused.

When the eyes in a Picasso portrait are both on the same side of a head; when the nose shows up in profile and head-on and askew all at once; when the mouth seems to frown, smile, pucker and gasp concurrently -- well, put them all together and this is not the face one sees when sitting demurely across the table from another person. No, this is the face you see when you're making out, lips smashed together, or thrashing around in bed. A Cubist face is as intimate as portraiture has ever been.

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