David Hockney's current show at the Annely Juda Gallery (May 1-July 19, 1997) is not only his first show with a British dealer in over a decade: it's his most substantial painting show in London since his Tate retrospective in 1988 (which traveled to the L.A. County Museum the following year). Far more painterly and lush than anything he has done before, these images, all of which are recent, are joyous, vibrant, but also keenly observed and pictorially sophisticated, really making one think about objects in space the way Hockney does at his best. The title he has given his show is "Flowers, Faces and Spaces," which he hoped would get up some people's noses!
"Dennis Hopper is someone I've known for many years," he recounted to me when I caught up with him in his Hollywood Hills studio recently. "He himself paints and makes photographs. When I told him I was painting flowers, he said, 'God, what are you up to?' Dennis is not the type to even have flowers in his house, let alone paint them. But when he saw them -- he has a good eye -- he said afterwards that he could remember them. That's what matters." Hopper is right: these really are as memorable as they are delectable.
Hockney's art always pulls in two directions: towards a decorative joie de vivre and spontaneity, or towards a perceptual scrutiny almost claustrophobic in its intensity. The portraits all concentrate exclusively on the faces, cramming them into small canvases. They are of people very dear and familiar to him, his buddies in California and his siblings and his ancient mother in Bridlington, in his native Yorkshire. But when one impulse gets the upper hand, the other seems to demand compensation. So the portraits, each intimately observed, are hung together on a single wall forming a dense dazzle of shape and color which belies the often dark intensity of their individual observation.
Hockney has drawn and painted flowers throughout his career. Considering the duality of nature and artifice which pervades his esthetic, they are an inevitable source of fascination. Sometimes they are stylized and schematic, like his stick-figure trees, a phallic trunk with an abrupt burst of leaves. Other times they are meticulousy studied from life. For Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-71) -- one of his seminal images, and the best-selling postcard at the Tate, incidentally, which owns the picture -- he carefully set up the lilies in his Paris studio to catch a central light just like that in Clark's London living room.
And, he says, "I have always painted flowers for friends who were ill." But he has never had a period of such concentration on this still-life theme as last summer, when he painted 25 finely wrought vibrant compositions, one after another. Most of these are big pictures -- double life-sized -- with closely worked-up painterly detail.
Plenty of his "gods" painted flowers -- Matisse, Manet, van Gogh -- but Hockney claims it was Vermeer who got him hooked on the subject. He was given a special private view of the exhibition at the Mauritshaus in The Hague last summer, and it was "absolutely thrilling, I was amazed. After 350 years the color is still so vibrant. And they were painted only ten miles away, in the same light."
When he got back to L.A. he joked to someone that Vermeer's colors will last longer than MGM's. "But then it got me thinking about the fugitive nature of color unless you treat it physically correctly." He noticed how Vermeer lays yellows and blues underneath to make other colors glow. "Paintings have a general nature to go darker and duller with time." He emulates this technique where vibrant grounds are glimpsed through relatively dirty, loose over-painting which in turn intensifies the glow of flowers and fruit.
Flower painting focused his mind on the enigmas of transience and survival. In one image, which has vases of flowers and books, the discerning eye will recognize six of the volumes as belonging to the first English edition of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. "You have to work fast or make sure [the flowers] are very fresh. After four days they alter considerably. Sunflowers change shape after only three days." In the last few years, Hockney has had to cope with an immense burden of bereavement. His friend and champion Henry Geldzahler, who died recently of cancer, spoke of "the relentless clanging tocsin of AIDS which seems every month to toll for still another great friend or colleague."
As if this weren't enough to cope with, he was then terribly shaken by the tragic death from an aneurism in 1994 of the Californian painter, Sandra Fisher, the wife of Hockney's closest artist friend, R.B.Kitaj. "Friends like Sandra and Henry went to visit my mother, who is 96 now, and must have thought what a frail old lady she is. But Mother has survived a lot of my friends."
Hockney's flowers and faces will inevitably be seen as a retreat. Until recently, he has almost constantly been engaged in designing for the operatic stage, but he has decided to make the recent revival of Tristan und Isolde in L.A. his last theater project. Increasing deafness makes it very hard for him to hear music properly, and "it's the music you have to respect."
From the big stage to the corner of his studio, from the big screen to Vermeer: Hockney's new modesty of scale is all about a determination to survive, to deal with isolation in his own way. Formally, there is also a retreat to the comforts of traditional, single perspective after the wild spatial distortions of his Picassoid abstractions and Cubistic photocollages.
But melancholy in Hockney is always undemonstrative: an empty chair is as heavy as the symbolism gets. Unless, that is, a spray of flowers is itself a symbol of the effervescence of life, to be frozen in time like the ejaculatory splash of his swimming pool. If Hockney's intimacy is defensive, his strategy is still full sensory attrack. His drop-dead gorgeous color is a violent assault on the inevitability of decay.
DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.