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.