Passing through the misted glass doors into the light pink gallery, I am met by a lively throng of strangers. The damp squeak of winter footwear and the coats slung over creased arms evince the cool dusk of London in early February. But the room is warm and thick with activity; above the crowd, murmurings of admiration hang in the air like ceiling fans, working to suffuse the breathy fervency that has gathered at the threshold. It is an atmosphere akin to live performance. Only the stage is the Tate Britain, and the show is its sweeping retrospective of David Hockney’s artistic career – a prolific sixty years in which he has helped shape popular conceptions of contemporary art.
Hockney’s inquisitive attitude toward art’s performativity unifies the exhibition’s first room. Under the title ‘Play Within a Play’, a series of pictures from 1963 to 2014 convey the breadth of Hockney’s stylistic scope by exploring his engagement with perspective. Play Within a Play, the 1963 artwork that gives the room its name, depicts friend and dealer John Kasmin pressing his body up against a sheet of Perspex. Trapped behind glass and standing before a curtain as though on stage, Kasmin’s presence, his act (of being), is rendered theatrical both literally and metaphorically, as he performs the role of an artistic subject with near-hackneyed conspicuousness. This self-reflexivity is not lost on its viewers, who in turn must consider how our bodies operate within the gallery – do we mirror Kasmin’s apparent discomfort? – and interrogate notions of the art world’s exclusivity, even inaccessibility. In this way, Hockney’s painting both emphasises and questions processes of art’s creation and ingestion; he alerts us to art’s limitations but reaffirms its indispensability to the storytellers of human experience.
Play Within a Play discloses a central theme of Hockney’s artistic practice, one that figures as a commanding narrative of the Tate’s retrospective: what Hockney has called ‘pictorial problems’, or ‘the difficulties of depicting the world in two dimensions’. These difficulties surface when Hockney probes the dichotomies that they provoke: fiction and reality, object and subject, body and space. Plagued by the pursuit of objectivity, Hockney’s work is sometimes flattened as though by a calm detachedness, so invested in the theatricality of composition as to assume, as one critic has written, ‘a staginess in the settings and compositions’. This comes to the fore in a large room of Hockney’s double portraits, where stilted sitters and his adherence to the conventions of formal portraiture read like a saturnine comment on the artifice of companionship.
And yet Hockney’s ‘pictorial problems’ form the backbone of his creative development; for in endeavouring to solve them, he has employed a range of techniques and undergone manifold stylistic metamorphoses. From lithographs to life-size acrylics, intimate line drawings to kaleidoscopic photo-collages, Hockney’s works trace an overarching curve from abstraction to naturalism that runs from one gallery to the next like the road in his Going Up Garrowby Hill (2000).
As I proceed from room six to seven – from ‘Close Looking’ to ‘A Bigger Photography’ – the shift from exquisitely executed smaller studies to tumbling photo montages reifies Hockney’s protean artistry and acuity of vision. Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #1, one of Hockney’s photographic collages of the Western American road, typifies what he extracts from the medium in the 1980s: its ability, as cubism had achieved in paint, to condense a multitude of viewpoints into one single experiential scene. Enlarging signposts and roadside detritus to flatten the foreground and animate the middle-distance, Hockney formulates a moment in which time – an ‘elastic’ phenomenon, he maintains – has been manipulated as if by the viewer’s languid, roaming gaze. By striving to escape the restrictions of two dimensions, he initiates his redefinition of landscape painting by technological means, a process that would evolve to include iPad drawings and multi-perspective video installations.
Examples of these latter works close the retrospective at the Tate like the slow song of revelries’ end. Under low light, the glowing screens and saturated colours of Yorkshire country roads offer an apt metaphor for Hockney’s unrelenting productivity as an artist at eighty. And though the digital pieces are dwarfed by the majesty of his sun-kissed, 60’s California, Hockney’s embrace of art’s changing landscape speaks to the openness with which he continues to create.