David Hockney studies Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-1971)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Acrylic on canvas
Tate. Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Art Set
An Artist Who Needs People
Charlie Scheips

Yesterday was the public opening of David Hockney: Portraits, a retrospective spanning over 50 years of the master Englishman’s work at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The show is an absolute pleasure to behold—the innovation and imagination that Hockney has brought to the genre ranges from the early fine-lined ink and pencil portraits from the late 1950s through the large-scale acrylic double-portraits of the 1960s (for which part of his early fame was based) to the cubist and photo-collage innovations of the 1980s right-up to the present large-scale water color and oil portraits he has made during the past several years.

Throughout Hockney’s artistic journey he has returned over and over again to subjects closest too him. His first major double portrait in the show is of his parents Kenneth and Laura Hockney—and although Kenneth died in 1978 he continued to paint his mother until her death at 99 seven years ago. Other regular subjects besides many members of his family included his early muse and friend designer Celia Birtwell (whose children and now grandchildren, are featured in the exhibition); Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood; art world personality Henry Geldzahler, as well as Hockney intimates, John Fitzherbert, Ann and David Graves, Elsa Duarte and family, Richard Schmidt, and Jean Pierre Goncalves de Lima; and Gregory Evans. Evans, who was a major force in the organization of this remarkable show worked on behalf of Hockney’s interests with the triumverate of curators Barbara Stern Shapiro (MFA), Stephanie Barron (LA County Museum) and Sarah Howgate (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

David Hockney: Portraits at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

Along the way, Hockney managed to have a virtual who’s who of the literary and artistic circles of his time sit for him including many featured in the show: W.H. Auden, ballet critic Richard Buckle, Francesco Clemente, Divine, Lucien Freud, Richard Hamilton, R.B Kitaj, restaurateur Peter Langan, Jack Larson, heart-throb 1970s model Joe McDonald; J. B Priestly, Patrick Proctor, curator Norman Rosenthal, Peter Schlesinger, Stephen Spender, Andy Warhol, collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman, Lawrence Weschler, Billy Wilder and dealers such as the legendary Nick Wilder and Hockney’s dealer in Los Angeles, Peter Goulds, as well as this writer.

It is extraordinary that it has taken this long for an institution to mount an exhibition of Hockney’s portrait work. But perhaps it’s a blessing that we can have such a wide range of time and media to see with un-jaded eyes. Walking around the exhibition during the final installation I was struck by the feeling of intimacy that was almost palpable in the galleries. Hockney has only very rarely done anything close to a “commissioned” portrait choosing instead familiar faces and personalities whom he knows so that he doesn’t “worry about resemblance”—the dread of all portrait artists.

As readers of previous Art Set pieces know, I have had an almost quarter century’s involvement with Hockney. In fact, the exhibition features three recent oil portraits Hockney made of me last year. During the press conference at the Museum last week, many of the reporters asked me what we talked about during the various sittings. Besides the occasional “lets take a break” or “cup of tea and a cigarette” we generally did not speak at all. This is another reason for Hockney’s choice of close friends as sitters—there is none of the nervousness or self-consciousness that a stranger might bring to the occasion.

Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Acrylic on canvas
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Marco Livingstone and Stephen Stuart-Smith (2002)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Watercolor on paper, 4 sheets
Collection of David Hockney
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

My Parents (1977)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Oil on canvas
Tate. Purchased 1981
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Andy, Paris 1974 (1974)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Colored pencil and pencil on paper
Collection of George Hecksher
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Henry (1988)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Oil on canvas
Collection of David Hockney
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Self-portrait 26 September 1983 (1983)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Charcoal on paper
Private Collection, San Francisco
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Top: Artist and Model (1973-1974)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Etching, soft ground etching, liftground etching
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Above: Divine (1979)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Acrylic on canvas
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Purchase: Gift of Richard M. Scaife, 82.67
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Top: Celia in a Black Dress with White Flowers (1972)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Colored crayon on paper
Collection of Victor Constantiner
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Above: Self-portrait with Charlie (2005)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Oil on canvas
Collection of David Hockney
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Above, left: The Scrabble Game, 1 January 1983 (1983)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Polaroid composite
Collection of David Hockney
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Above, right: Mum (1988-1989)
David Hockney, British, born in 1937
Oil on canvas
Collection of David Hockney
© David Hockney
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Since we are so accustomed to the photographic or photo-based portrait in our own time, Hockney’s portraits sometime elicit a response from casual viewers about the sitter looking either morose or bored. I frankly don’t think people look long enough at them to realize the subtle ways Hockney uses to conjure up his sitter’s persona from the blank page or canvas, And after all, a portrait is about two people—the one portrayed and the artist. Perhaps the artist’s own relationship plays into the creative dance which is portraiture.

David Hockney and Malcolm Rogers, director of the MFA at the Judy Garland Suite

The fact is that most of these things are made in a far longer time than the flash of a camera. Even Hockney’s photo-collages take longer as they are first shot and then assembled in his inimitable yet oft-copied fashion. No one can keep a smile for several minutes much less the several hours that most of the portraits have taken. Hockney has frequently railed against the dominance of photography in our world and these portraits stand as testament to his call for the return of art to the “eye, hand, and heart.” Or, in other words, they have depth, something very few photos ever have.

The first of us all arrived on Valentine’s Day to Boston’s Lenox Hotel that increasingly became a veritable Camp Hockney as the week progressed and more and more friends arrived—taking up about three floors of the hotel. Hockney was in the Judy Garland Suite which he laughed had no sign of her having stayed there. The wood paneled suite did feature two bad reproductions of 18th-century American portraits which Hockney renamed Fannie Abigail Garland and her husband Horatio. Thanks to a color copy of the real Judy Garland brought by Bing McGilvray, we managed to collage it atop of Fannie’s face. Judy lives!

The first night we had dinner in the hotel’s Azure restaurant with Gregory Evans, Peter Goulds, Sarah Howgate, Thomas Graf, Jean Pierre Goncalves de Lima, and Barbara and her husband Bernard Shapiro celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary. After years in Boston, the Shapiro’s have re-located to Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Arthur Lambert, Charlie Scheips, and David Hockney with portraits

The next night we arranged for a private dining room at the Atlantic Fish Company a block down on Boylston street which included the above mentioned guests and NPG director Sandy Nairne, sitting next to Hockney, Bing McGilvray, Sidney and Joni Felsen, Stephanie Barron, Elsa and David Duarte, George Mulder, Arthur Lambert.

By Friday, the day of the official press conference, lenders and sitters’ lunch and evening opening, the arrival of Hockney’s inner-circle reached critical mass. There were so many of Hockney’s sitters there that someone got the bright idea to have the sitters autograph pages of the catalog a la a high school yearbook—it caught on like wild fire, as they say.

And speaking of fire, one of the nicer things in Boston was the smoking lounge the museum installed in Hockney’s honor for the opening—complete with heating, ventilation and seating. If you didn’t want to be there—you didn’t have to. Bravo.

David Hockney, exhibition curator Barbara Shapiro, and Malcolm Rogers
David with sitters and friends
MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and David Hockney
Charlie Scheips and Ann Gund
Jen and Rick Gallagher
Erika Carlson and Stephanie Walker
MFA's Erika Field, Audra Rogers, and David Hockney

The exhibition remains at the MFA until May 14. It travels to the Los Angeles County Museum June 11-September 4 and then to London’s National Portrait Gallery 0ctober 12 until January 21, 2007. One of the reasons to also make it to the LA show is that Hockney’s fabulous Beverly Hills Housewife of the music patron and photographer Betty Freeman will be on view there.  The London venue is a cornerstone of the NPG’s 150th anniversary. Alas, the show is not coming to smoke-free New York.

Meanwhile, Hockney has moved to other pastures—namely the landscape of East Yorkshire where he is spending the better part of the year doing plein aire large-scale landscapes of the changing seasons. During the hanging of the show in Boston, Hockney remarked to me, “if I don’t say so myself, the beginning and the ending are both good,” He also mentioned later that seeing the work together made him think he “hadn’t been wasting his time.”

There is an excellent catalog for the exhibition with essays by Mark Glazebrook, Edmund White, and Marco Livingston. For more information on the exhibition and to order your catalog go to: www.mfa.org.

Photographs by Roger Farrington
The Art Set, ©Charlie Scheips, 2006

Previous Art Set columns -
Volume I, Number 1: In Search of the Continuous Present
Volume I, Number 2: A Tale of Two Cities
Volume I, Number 3: Julian and Julien
Volume I, Number 4: The Lobbyist
Volume I, Number 5: Hot and Cold
Volume I, Number 6: Design for Living
Volume I, Number 7: Bohemia: Now and Then
Volume I, Number 8: Casting the Net to LA
Volume I, Number 9: Hockney Time
Volume I, Number 10:
The East West North and the South of It
Volume I, Number 11:
Museum of Modern Art's New Photography ’05
Volume I, Number 12:
Contemporary auction week in New York


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February 27, 2006, Volume I, Number 13

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