Exhibition Review: "Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney!" at the LA Getty Museum
The Jovial Skeptic: “Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney!” at the LA Getty Museum
Written by Madeleine Leddy
David Hockney, child of the British pop art movement and a particular strand of postmodernism, has never stuck exclusively to one medium. While his notoriously playful, almost childlike portraits and self-portraits—mostly done in acrylic, with a few exceptions—may be the images that characterize the Hockney “palette” in much of the contemporary public’s collective consciousness, there is another archetype in his repertoire that arguably has more interesting theoretical grounds: his photography, and especially his photo collages. Having experimented most prolifically with photo-collage in the 1980s, Hockney developed a style that equalled his paintings in uniqueness and vibrance, and probably surpassed them in enigma.
Before looking at the Getty’s comprehensive Hockney celebration—which, to the interest of photographers, focuses primarily on his collages and other mid-career work in the medium—it might be best to step back and recall how the artist himself characterizes his relationship with photography (which has been called, aptly, “beautifully complicated”). Indeed, the Getty exhibit is divided solely between Hockney's self-portraits (some of which are photographs themselves) and photo work, which invites the question: why are we celebrating Hockney’s photos, when even the artist himself claimed to find more depth and possibility in painting ?
Hockney seems to have taken cues from Walter Benjamin, the early-20th-century German philosopher whose The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Petite histoire de la photographie (“Short History of Photography”) introduced some of the fundamental principles of contemporary art criticism. Benjamin, who was as much a Marxist as he was an art critic, associates photography—a medium more reliant, inherently, on the machine than its predecessors, painting and drawing—with industrialization. To him, the replacement of the handheld paintbrush or pencil with the dial-operated camera obscura (and how obscure it was, indeed, to be able to perform in an instant a task that took history’s Vermeers and Rembrandts weeks, if not years, to accomplish—at least, the “task” at its most basic level) was equivalent, or at least parallel, to the replacement of human labor with machines. And like most Marxists, he expressed a notion that this transition was the beginning of the end—that a post-human, artless apocalypse could be nigh.
Evidently, neither Hockney nor Benjamin ever completely lost faith in photography’s potential as an art form: Benjamin still wrote about it, and Hockney still practiced it. Both, however, subverted it, and neither understood photography as "truth." Photography was, for Benjamin in theory as it was for Hockney in practice, a process of manipulation, a human labor.
Hockney's photography—especially his photo collages—communicate intensive labor. He brought his subjects to life from every possible angle, and pasted the resulting snapshots together in a multi-dimensional pastiche, where every photo’s edge was meticulously matched or contrasted with the next one’s. The arrangement of the photos in an order that makes sense to the naked eye—a depiction of the subject or scene, “unfolded” as we see it from multiple vantage points—is the result of careful placement and angling. Take his “Pearlblossom Highway,” for example: the detail shots—a patch of sand here, a piece of litter there, a palm tree trunk photographed inch by inch and its individual fronds each splayed across their own polaroid—collectively form a recognizable California scene, and, like pieces of a puzzle, the micro-photos are lined up to construct coherence from disparate odds and ends.
“Construction” aptly describes his collages: It evokes both the labor of making and aligning hundreds of small images, but also the lens through which Hockney saw his work. His photographs were not intended to convey truth, nor did he think of them as organic masterpieces; he was aware of both the limits and banality of the camera, and with his mise en scène of this very banality—the very fact of his using a pedestrian film camera (no fancy gear) and his quotidian, unimpressive subjects (landscapes with plastic-bag tumbleweed, friends dressed in blue jeans, a man diving into a backyard pool)—he seems to make light of his mistrust of the medium. The collages are carefully-manipulated portrayals of real life; an almost caricaturistic expansion of the nature of any photograph, from Mr. Hockney’s point of view.
There are plenty of discourses in art history that could be applied to Hockney’s ever-original pieces. His obsessive capture-and-recapture of scenes from slightly different viewpoints—and of slightly different details—and the middle-class quality of his sheerly normal subject matter are both features inherent to Pop Art, the movement Hockney had already somewhat unwittingly spearheaded by the1970s, when he began taking photography more seriously.
His technique of arranging the photo-pieces to “unfold” a scene or object from multiple angles is similar to the Cubist ethos, according to which painted geometric shapes (rather than polaroids or film prints, as in Hockney’s take on the idea) abutted and overlapped one another in an attempt to fit three dimensions as integrally as possible onto a two-dimensional canvas. Picasso even figures, fairly heavily, into Hockney’s repertoire: not only is Nicholas Wilder “studying” a Picasso book in Los Angeles in one of the collages on display, but a separate collage, “Still Life Blue Guitar 4th April 1982,” is a pastiche of Picasso staples portrayed in a similarly “cubic” format: the guitar, the fruit bowl, the sheet music.
But ultimately, why look at Hockney’s photography through this kaleidoscope of lenses? Why not, as the Getty exhibit’s title suggests, simply celebrate its whimsy and its nostalgic appeal to a bygone era of colorful plastic lawn furniture, of newspapers and magazines delivered to doorsteps rather than mobile phones?
It feels important to celebrate this body of work with some theory in mind because of Hockney’s own proclaimed jaded view of photography. It seems unlikely that he would have practiced with this medium—by which he was, by all accounts, unimpressed—had he not seen its potential as the basis of an intellectual exercise. His references to bygone artists and movements (the Warhol Marilyns in “Paint Trolley, L.A. 1985,” the constant reappearance of Picasso) allowed him to achieve just that: a timeline of visual art in the 20th century, a subtle critique of the shift from human-centered to machine-centered media and production. It would be a stretch to qualify Hockney’s collages as Marxist; but they are in many ways political, at least with regard to the art world. The politics are just hidden, of course, by Hockney’s distractingly familiar layer of fun: his colors, his plastic lawn chairs, his California beaches.
Special thanks to the J. Paul Getty Trust.