The troubling thing about much of David Hockney's work is its seeming lack of trouble. Especially in his drawings, his undeniable facility can lead him into images that are trite. Yet there's no denying the man's skill and, in his best work, his ability to evoke the grace, character, and beauty of his subjects. Hockney himself is the subject of an adoring new documentary by Randall Wright, and, watching it, I wondered if the director were trying to replicate the ease captured in so many Hockney canvases. Hockney certainly deserves praise, but a puff piece such as this does even the greatest artist little good.
The opulence and leisure Hockney would depict in much of his mature work had an unlikely origin. He was born in 1937 in Bradford, England, a declining textile town gripped by strict wartime rationing during his early years. Hockney recalls chocolate being available for only a few hours on Saturdays. This gray industrial burg was a far cry from the lush California environs that dominate his paintings; perhaps this contrast or contradiction is the key to his work.
Yet if Hockney struggled, Wright reveals nothing about it. Hockney's classmates all recall their school days fondly, and no one has an unkind word to say about him. The footage of his art-school years has a bouncy Hard Day's Night feel, wacky bohemian kids clowning around for the camera without a care in the world. The artist portrayed here is a more cheerful, less opaque (or obtuse) Andy Warhol, presiding over a less drug- addled and negative-minded coterie of creative characters.
Being an openly gay man in the 1960s and '70s, when Hockney came into his own, couldn't have been easy, but aside from the occasional shot of him looking sad after a breakup, Wright glosses over this and the many other difficulties that even a man as successful as Hockney must have encountered. Hockney was hugely influenced by such older gay men as the writer Christopher Isherwood and the curator and collector Henry Geldzahler, who became a lifelong friend and confidante. The unabashed, matter-of-fact homoeroticism in many of Hockney's paintings challenged social mores, but Wright notes only that the artist's figurative work suffered commercially in an era dominated by abstraction.
No one can accuse Hockney of being lazy: over a 50-plus-year career he's embraced every medium imaginable, from drawing and painting to set design to photography to iPad art. His restless quest for fresh visual expression is inspiring even when the results are less than memorable. This flitting about from one type of mark making to another sometimes comes off as a kind of attention deficit disorder; like a hummingbird, Hockney can't land in one place for too long for fear of getting boxed in.
Picasso—who also restlessly reinvented himself—is Hockney's great idol, and like Picasso, Hockney has arrived at a level of success where anything he touches can be monetized. Unlike Picasso, and to his great credit, he's not content just to cannibalize his past work. His current output may not always transcend a kind of pretty, designed tastefulness, but neither is it crass or cheaply conceptual like so much stuff made by his contemporaries from the 60s onward.
The clownish peroxide-blond dandy portrayed in Hockney is smart, charming, and hard not to love, at least a little. Unfortunately, Wright is so enthralled with his subject that the documentary becomes an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rather than a true portrait of an artist. The endless glamour shots of Hockney's extravagant residences might work for a real estate spread but give little insight into one of the most celebrated visual artists of our time.
There are many ways to document a creative person's life. I don't mean to suggest that a documentary has to pillory its subject to be legitimate, but it demands some angle other than blind adulation. Toward the end of Hockney there's a scene in a huge gallery where people applaud ecstatically as a fax machine spits out sheet after sheet of a large Hockney drawing to be assembled on the gallery wall. This is what happens when average people interact with the ultrarich or ultrafamous; they can't help but be dazzled. But it's hard for a viewer to understand Hockney as a creative force when the film presents so little evidence of difficulty. There must be more gravity to the man's life and work than this breezy love letter will admit. v