Retrospective

From the Archives: David Hockney Paints a Portrait, in 1969

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1971. ©DAVID HOCKNEY/PRIVATE COLLECTION

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1971.

©DAVID HOCKNEY/PRIVATE COLLECTION

With a David Hockney retrospective having opened this week at Tate Britain in London, we turn back to the May 1969 issue of ARTnews, in which David Shapiro profiled Hockney as part of the magazine’s “Paints a Picture” series, in which an artist did just that. In lyrical, impressionistic prose, Shapiro recounts how Hockney prepared a portrait of Henry Geldzahler, who, at the time, was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern art curator. Originally presented with black-and-white photographs of Hockney sketching the work and explaining its use of perspective, Shapiro’s article follows in full below.

“David Hockney Paints a Portrait”
By David Shapiro
May 1969


London’s swinging Pop master paints the Metropolitan Museum’s Mod curator; the painting is included in Hockney’s current exhibition at the Emmerich Gallery

A teacher of electronic music once told me his chief interest with students was to take them by surprise, knock them off their charming equilibrium and reduce the complaisant symmetries of their rigid pieces. David Hockney claims to have reversed this modus operandi with a reintroduction of “conventional” perspectives (with less decorative distortions and tilts of the insistent planes); space neither too crowded or too sparse (as in the early graffiti-like etchings); earlier mannerisms of “framing” or curtain devices (as in Play Within a Play, 1963, with figure pressed against painted glass) expunged for more direct representations; symmetries (as in the central sofa of the Geldzahler portrait) produced with rule and tape; and the derivation of imagery from photos Hockney also sees as conventional (vide Sharf’s Art and Photography), as in Sickert, Corot, “and who else? Churchill, who said to Ghandi (one of DH’s heroes): ‘We will see the gentleman when he is suitably dressed.’ ” He reminded me of one of Shahn’s stern dictums to differentiate the 20-buck from the expensive suit, admires exuberantly the cleverness of Sargent and has the privilege with Kitaj of “giving up” Surrealism for domestic advertising and design. Thus, the N.Y. scene beyond the window, with its flat finesse, suggests less the ideality than the repetitiveness of a Persian, while the relations of canvas size (7 by 10 feet), big sofa and shoulder-sloped central figure are striking and immediately satisfying. The new work is less thinned and diminished, with a dramatic precision which recalls that exactness, as Whitehead said, is a fake—fortunately a network of feigning postcardlike colors is a great pleasure, too!

Fecit, delineavit, in a studio which serves as both beehive, arsenal, and coffee-mill: a few oils, finished and un-against the wall (Parking Privé: Du Splendide Azur; A Random House Dictionary; photos taped to the canvas); T-fluorescents above; three windows to the west; a draftsman’s desk; copperplates; radio; Rowney stacking palettes; cans and rags; Vibo French curves; electric heater; Black and Decker finishing sander; The Splendor of Brass (Telemann Overture in D Major); Lyons pure-ground coffee filled with pencils; Eagle prisma color and other acrylics; on the floor, telephone, stapler and knives; Rowney bristle series, photos of Henry Geldzahler, Christopher Scott and the work-in-progress against the wall; also pliers, paper palettes, rubber rollers; on another wall, a photo of the N.Y. skyline and the Duchess of Kent arriving to open St. Thomas; Richard Hamilton’s poster of the Stones (“Strong Sweet Smell of Incense”); Hooker’s green Liquitex; an Asahi Pentax; Lepage’s gripspreader; a jar of pennies; 3H, slate grey, flesh, copper, cold grey dark, cold grey medium, very light! Studio location in Notting Hill Hockney compares to the Lower East Side, done up, though seedy on exteriors. All this he cleans up before beginning work, wide awake, humming nervously as the line itself, gracefully offering to his many guests the exotic cigarettes that he doesn’t smoke himself, reconsidering areas of his double-portrait silently at 15 feet, and then quickly and decisively going into it mostly with a wrist held like Milstein’s bowhand, passing speedily for his needling line to make the sofa bleed or shine.

Perhaps it was at Kasmin’s gallery, examining chronologically etchings, canvases and 50 slides of Hockney’s work, from the savage (Kasmin: “And he was living very reticently in a shed at the time”) and roughly hatched fantasies of Doll Boy to the deadpan and quietened, desaturated work of “Melrose Avenue” genres of Los Angeles, that I dreamt up titles for suggestive essays for Hockney, namely: 1) Egyptian proportions (“which I had spilled accidentally on Time magazine reporter and called Clyfford Still”); 2) To the students in America: You’re one of 80,000 stripes today; 3) My father was an innocent, from the light-and-shade school; 4) Starting the Larry-Rivers, David-Hockney Rendering School (Oh why do schools try to teach the unteachable?); 5) Cosmetic Relations (Diebenkorn, Hamilton, Moynihan, Katz); 6) “The nerve of metaphysics”; or “I leave my limitations behind me”; or “The advantages of whimsy: faux and vrai naïve (Sir Joshua: ‘Genius begins where the rules end’).” The book might end with travelogue: Hockney takes you to Colmar; Grünewald on display (“It makes the Mona Lisa look like Roy Lichtenstein”); Christ grows as we shrink (“Look who’s more important”); then off to an Augustan grotto, reading Pope: vistas and ruins, a surprise to every view (“My painting is simpler every day: illusionistic”); Sheeler’s 1930s on the garden grounds, but other devices would allude to gangster movies, Muybridge; Old Kingdom profiles, always with autobiographical focus; then sallies to the East (Islamic and Indian miniatures on the walls, accounting for the Buddha-like Geldzahler?): He accepts a commission to Cairo instead of his own hometown, later wishing he were in Honolulu, dreaming there of Alexandrian streets and shops.

H. Geldzahler writes from New York concerning circumstances: “While I was in London in October, David and I thought that it would be nice for David to do a portrait of Christopher Scott and me. He then decided to fly to New York for a week. David took photographs and did very detailed drawings for four days until he fell apart with the flu. For the last four days of his stay he tried every home remedy in patent medicine that he had ever heard about. He also made the point over and over again that in England you can reach a doctor over the weekend. That has not been my experience. A few days ago David called and asked, I think, if Chris and I would fly to London for additional settings. I am very fond of David and flattered that he is doing my portrait. He is a good artist.” David, who believes you can’t take a bad photograph in California, and had done two double portraits (Weismans, Isherwood) there, and who hated the fat old lady models of the Royal College of Art, does not see his device of using friends and painters “as any more autobiographical than anyone else; that complaint is a schoolmaster’s; and I’ve done a painting of it as a school report!” Theoretically, the double portrait is both drama and “technical devices”: arrangement of disparate images (as in Gottlieb), the unsettling of the foci, the trompe-d’oeil admired in Domenichino, and likeness (“but not too like,” Henry totemic, Christopher more tentative); with the figures essentially detached, the line crisp. As for the sofa, it has its story, like another: a 1930s divan rejected by Geldzahler for the Metropolitan and bought by him privately, presumably for the scale, sheen and pinky mauves.

Dicta: “Christopher was swimming in that raincoat, on macrobiotic diet, which should account for some flattening out . . . The angle of shoes will make that floor a floor . . . Glazing which went out with the Impressionists is coming back again in this portrait . . . Thrilled by the Domenichino? I was thriller to be thrilled at al by the National . . . I used to leave a space around the canvas, a frame, or a curtain, but I’m beginning to leave that out too . . . [Of translations of Grimm] I think there’s a big difference between an enchantress and a witch, don’t you . . . [Using cloth to shine figure’s shoes, squinting, and rethinking at a distance without glasses] if I were van Eyck I’d put the whole picture in that reflection . . . [Of Christopher’s hand] That’s a weird little club, I like it . . . [Of putting socks on a figure derived from a sockless Macy’s advertisement] Well I think socks are sexy, don’t you . . . Even Cezanne with 20 years between brushstrokes used photos for the portraits . . . I’m not in principle against sentimentality, though I don’t approve of nostalgia; that Gorky double-portrait is beautifully painted . . . [On an Austrian pewter vase on his mantel] Somebody rang up and I thought How lovely! I’ll put some daffodils in that vase, get an overhead light, stand here, do the drawing very stark with lots of hatching [use aquatint for those shadows, softer] . . . [On speed-reading] All painting slows me down . . . [On Ad Reinhardt] Well that’s very tough, very singleminded. Did you see somebody chalked up ‘The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom’ on the wall down the block; now no Englishman do that, except maybe Bacon who lambastes abstract art each time I meet him, and all abstract art too . . . [On the Geldzahler floor] First it became red, then Indian brown, then blue and then I painted it about four different blues and then it became parquet . . . All my colors are similar . . . So my priority is line, let’s not revive Ingres vs. Delacroix . . . I don’t mind garlic in the mouth of [someone he loves] . . .

Pictura in transitu: Jan. 28. Cerulean floor must be lightened; the wall changed to a lighter green; Henry remains to be painted while one hand of Scott merely indicated in thin white; the N.Y. buildings (“There are no air-conditioners like that in London, it’s N.Y.!”) in greyish purples have been diluted, “more wishywashy with each coat.” Angus Wilson sits for drawing: “I’m a terrible fidget,” Hockney says, feels tentative about the floor, the two eye-levels, though crisp formula for Scott’s hair and raincoat is approved, Jan. 29. One would not call the window-frame ornate, as in the previous comedies of manner. Windows through windows; the time is noon; blur of photo over-exposure kept; the distance is plunged in light. Simple light source from left: “I have to keep having cleanups in order to keep organized.” Windows beyond like Mark Lancaster’s responsive rectangles, but it’s Seventh Avenue! Feb. 3. Table to be placed in front o.f couch marked with tapes, a T taped at H’s skull: “St. Henry radiating light,” a vanishing point for floor perspective. Hockney indicates left seat and couch-curve has been changed, tightened, to reduce depth: picture must be “on,” flat. On knees and sneaks (with yellow and blue socks), he draws, photos in one hand, Henry’s face shaded to the right, “essential.” The moldings of floor come and go. “Those trousers on Christopher must be pretty nondescript . . . I’ll work them up.” As for painting the unpaintable: chromium plated Altra Table, he works from black-and-white photos and ads, permitting independence of colors, “developed to meet the constant demands for an infinite variety of tables.”

En avant: The expressions, like the result of David’s first visit to Alexandria in 1963 and Los Angeles later: city masques. As in Jonson, the mask generalizes on the features “beneath,” often with reference to old movies, what one might call Hockney’s sinister decor (or chic, conversely), giving an effect of divine ninnyism or disappointed awe harassed by jerks. Strange as Henry Green, as Willkie. The two-figure problem: keeping space alive. Feb. 4. Left wall is now graded from almost sage green to olive and then to bluish spruce for shadows: right wall less graded: rolled on with rubber for mat finish. In early photos and one sketch: a lamp at left, a transparent coffee-table sprouting in foreground, to be reintroduced? On Hockney’s shelves: Noblecourt’s Tutankhamen, The Film Till Now, Swift, Time Capsule 1933, etc. The Egyptian inspires one to regard the double-portrait now as private life of a royal couple, with variations on the theme of “adversary abstract” and “placed within the yoke” or “the ecclesiastical throne.” Feb. 6. To continue the Egyptian model, Christopher with sharp nose now resembles the head of a funerary couch in the form of a cheetah, if the inscriptions are properly read, a “dummy” of the young Chris, wearing a compromise, as if in stuccoed or painted wood. The genre evokes an instant in the life of a “vanished” people, on gigantic panel, the world of the dead, west of Central Park (Thebes). No coffee-table yet. No still-life. The absence of these objects perpetuates very simple light. Perhaps grave-robberies provide the answer to this! Porter of Cornell through Nerval: “J’ai emporte man amour comme une proie dans la solitude.” The window beyond Geldzahler with its adapted stereotype, of N.Y. looks like a crown of justification for this line.

Feb. 6. His mother thinks his snowy hair is real by now, just as his figures turn equally illusionistic. No contempt for Sargent. Less a fan of Spencer than before. “The Precisionist View” opened to Sheeler again. Each figure loses one hand; the bright rosy tie will be brightened; he might like to start the parquet floor. He liked Wilson’s hands in movements, remarks on the bitten fingernails. Of a new dotty painter, “Like Larry Poons’s step-mother.” Draws a restaurateur (“Does Francis Bacon like Chinese
food?” not David’s question) and converses: “I was just looking at the way Ingres painted eyes . . . Sometimes I work at night; sometimes I don’t; I go out; I wish I could work office-hours; I go out looking for things . . . It’s one of the device Ingres chose to exaggerate, those lower eyelids, look, it’s not nature, it’s Ingres . . . It’s terribly difficult to remix a color, it dries darker, so I keep tubs of what’s left (like the green for the wall, for any large area actually) tucked away . . . for the retouching . . .” There are about 50 expendable tear-off parchment palettes of the floor.

Feb. 7. Still-life added and glass table (“It does look like glass, doesn’t it? Ah if I were Jan van Eyck I’d put my whole picture in that little reflection . . . Is the vase sitting still?) One and a quarter larger than life, each tulip (pink, red, violet, mauve) and green leaves going left and right “make the figures seem even more detached, let the eye circle around,” compositionally adding smaller triangles with Scott’s head apex. Formula for glass highlights: green Bocour and white in diagonals. On finishing: “The paintings do get better with time. Delacroix might’ve had a year, two years. Still, the varnish’ll make it richer.” Feb. 8. Early development of portrait detailed by David swiftly: “First I taped through the moldings . . . I rolled the green all over everything . . . Drew the sofa in vaguely with a brush . . . I taped the window area in then, painted it, from the photo I’d taken, ignoring everything . . . light
colors . . . Then next I taped sections of the sofa . . . each separate contour, reasonably balanced out . . . intuitively yes, sans ruler . . . You’ll notice though how the sofa alters, the curve would be lower, and lowering also gave more eye-level unity . . . The faces must be like, not too like, the floor and space empty . . . Empty, and totemic.” Feb. 9. Admires Pearlstein, Hopper, Rolling Power by Sheeler. Gives interview to student cheerfully: No tradition for his kind of figuration . . . Hogarth in the past . . . Graphics evading the rough hatchings get simpler and simpler (remind one of Einstein’s suggestions for elegance) . . . Etching is pure, immediate, the problem posed is to get that in the painting . . . Less tilting of the plane as in Tarzana … And too bad for German seriousness!

Early photographs taken for the Geldzahler portrait are bustling with objects: telephones, lamps, hallways, ashtrays; but Hockney happily has a taste for expunging the copula and widening the spaces between things, which work well with his strong triangular compositions. The eye believes, whether water or glass, without the need to examine microscopically a perhaps desaturated surface. Though he never collaborated, his own concerns have drawn him Cavafy, and what Auden dubs his Greek subjects: love, art, politics (“Hold it, there’s a bit of paint running . . . So Cohn-Bendit went out and did it!”) The painting, which might seem to be as tied down to a milieu as DH has asked to be beautifully tied down to the rules, asserts itself more as a prose: it is unwilling to be burnt up as discursive (“illustrationy,” “whimsical,” a “sensitive digestion of certain abstractions”). It suggests less perishable pleasures. The marks, tears and untidy wipes of his wonderful early work have turned to a more scrupulous, more harmonized Mutism, which finds in the double-portrait revitalized figurative methods for mimicry, a flight to life, as it were, with its tedium, contacts and furniture (where a sofa is a sofa, and never a grandfather), and the “instinct to approach others” rendered beautifully.

Curriculum vitae: 1937, born, Bradford, Yorkshire. 1953-7, studied at Bradford School of Art. 1959-62, at Royal College of Art. 1961, Guinness Award for prints. 19 first prize at Paris Biennale for graphic work. 1963-64, Taught U. of Iowa. 1964, first prize at 8th Lugano exhibition. 1965, taught U. of Colorado. 1966-67, taught U. of California. Lives in London.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 1969 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “David Hockney Paints a Portrait.”

Copyright 2017, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues