Hockney at the Tate

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There are a very few people who are regarded as National Treasures in the UK:  the Queen (it goes without saying) and David Attenborough are obvious examples; David Beckham’s potential ebbs and flows; David Hockney’s on the list.  Before I visited the Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, I’m not sure that I’d have described him as the UK’s greatest living artist, but I am now.

Hockney’s work feels as though it’s become more familiar over the last decade following works in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, two solo-artist exhibitions at the RA (one of block-buster proportions) and another at the National Portrait Gallery.  What I found so fabulous about the Tate exhibition is that it shows how Hockney has innovated throughout his career but with immense coherence.

He’s been fortunate to live at a time when photography has become accessible, along with video and most recently, iPhone and iPad drawing tools.  But the exhibition shows that these new media have been used in a way that’s consistent with Hockney’s pencil and charcoal drawings and his paintings.  He’s looking and seeing the same types of scenes and objects, people and places, capturing them using new tools.

Because he’s so highly-regarded and so famous, the temptation is to think that he’s painting (or drawing or capturing) significant events or important things.  But the curators make the point that he’s content to draw what he sees through the bedroom window when he’s sitting in bed, his garden, his friends – a pair of slippers, cast aside.  His skill as a draughtsman makes them special, but they are ordinary objects.

His skill as a colourist sprinkles them with fairy-dust too.  Near-neon splashes, bold swathes of magenta, orange, yellow and blue, poles of red and snaking purple roads appear in the later paintings, a warmer palette than the cooler blues and flesh tones of works from the 1970s and 80s.  Your head tells you that the vibrant colours shouldn’t work, but your eyes tell you that they do.

The final room has iPad drawings that at least one review dismissed pretty much out of hand.  But spend time there watching the drawings come to life, from blank screen to finished object, passing through that point where you think it’s wonderful and complete but Hockney knows better and shows you just what more is needed.

And don’t miss the room with the four video installations, particularly the part where the car comes down the road.  An artist approaching 80 decided to put a 3×3 rig of cameras on a car and drive down a country lane; the result is very special.  As I was saying, this is an innovator who records everyday things.

A final word on logistics:  this is a big exhibition and I’ve been twice, once for the first half and once for the second.  It’s also popular.  If you can, find a friend who’s a member (I did and thank you!) and go at 8am on Saturday or Sunday when members have the place to themselves.  Otherwise, book an early slot and head straight to the end of the exhibition so you have the video room to yourself, then linger in the room of drawings – and only then head to room one.

Revelation at the Royal Academy – Bill Jacklin

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I paid a visit to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London recently and decided to roll the David Hockney exhibition into the trip.

The only way to guarantee you’ll get in (even on a sunny afternoon when I thought everyone else should be out of London or in the park) is to book tickets in advance.  That requires a bit of guess-work about how long you think you’re going to need in each exhibition.  I decided that, on past form, a little over an hour should cover the Summer Exhibition, but I hadn’t a clue how long the Hockney would take, so the Summer Exhibition went first.

As usual, there were a few works in the Summer Exhibition that meant it was worth the trip.  Favourite room was the architecture room, filled with works that generally didn’t make it to construction.  The drawings were exquisite and I was surprised how many of them were for sale – or, rather, had been.  Pretty much everything had been snapped up.

I had nearly half-an-hour to kick my heels before the Hockney ticket would do its thing.  I headed for the Madejski Fine Rooms, which are usually quiet – and I was blown away by the exhibition there.

I’m ashamed to say that Bill Jacklin’s work had passed me by.  What I’d been missing!  The exhibition begins with etchings and lithographs from the early part of his career.  The works depicting his father and inspired by him are particularly moving.

But my favourites by a country mile were the lithographs of skaters in New York.  He captures the movement, gestures and poses that are specific to skating – and the fun too.  There’s a flash of colour – deep red; rich orangey-yellow – that makes you wonder whether it’s a trick of the light or the imagination.  But it’s there, mingling with the otherwise monochrome palate.

There are fizzing skies, works that could only be of Venice, sharp contrasts between light and dark in works of urban conflict and clashes and much more besides.

After this, the Hockney exhibition was an anti-climax – recognisable and predictable, although he’s a most fabulous colourist.  But put it this way:  I spent longer at the Bill Jacklin exhibition.

If you can make it, do rush there – it closes on 28 August.  And the best news is that it’s free – and you don’t have to pre-book a ticket.  Otherwise, check out his website.  So, so worth it.

Perfect Picture Gallery

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To mark Frieze week, I’ve put together a list of what would be in my perfect picture gallery. It started off as a list of seven, but I kept adding to it.

1 Any drawing by David Hockney – a preference for a pencil drawing from the 1970s, but I’m not fussy; I could live with pretty much anything.

2 Sean Scully pastel – I know the one I’d choose, but it’s in a private collection and I don’t want to out the owner or the work. All the same, it’s a very special piece from an artist who produces lyrical abstract works.

3 The Cardsharps by Caravaggio in Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth – skipping on and in a very different vein, I’m in the room with those naughty cardsharps and very conscious that I’ll need to count my fingers when I slip away.

4 Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange) by Mark Rothko – I saw this just before it was auctioned at Christie’s, New York, in 2007 and I carry an image of it in my head to escape to when life gets tough. The blue and the orange glow and, if this entry were the picture equivalent of Desert Island Discs, this would be the one work I’d save from the waves. The owner is a very lucky person indeed.

5 Peter Doig watercolour – I don’t even know the name of this work, but I’ve carried the image in my head since I saw it at Frieze New York in May. A person is in a canoe, face hidden, hand dangling in the water as the canoe glides along. And that’s all reflected in the water. It’s exquisite.

6 Girl in Field ‘68 by Richard Forster – he produces fabulous, highly-detailed pencil drawings and I have no idea how he has the patience, skill and attention to detail the works demand. This particular drawing is from 2007 and it evokes memories of summer days in teenage years. Truly beautiful.

7 Any video installation by Elizabeth Price – I didn’t like video works until I saw the magic she conjures. I’m still ambivalent about video work – except anything by Elizabeth.

8 Self-portrait in a Fur Cap by Joseph Wright of Derby – this one’s from left field. I saw it at the Art Institute of Chicago in August and it stopped me in my tracks. It dates from the 1760s, but it looks as though it could have been painted last week.

9 The photograph – I wondered about a Mapplethorpe, but I’ve opted for the Warhol-esque filling station photograph from The New Cars, the series US Harper’s Bazaar commissioned from Lee Friedlander in 1964.

10 Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein, the Younger – because, if you’ve seen it, how could you not want it in your own perfect picture gallery?