Artwork: (Left) David Hockney .”Self Portrait Gerardmer France 1975.” Chromogenic Print, 14 1/4 X 11 1/4″. © David Hockney. Photo credit: Richard Schmidt. (Right) David Hockney. “Self Portrait, 20 March 2012 (1219).” iPad drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond Exhibition Proof, 32 x 24.” © David Hockney.
“When conventions are old, there’s quite a good reason, it’s not arbitrary,” David Hockney told Marco Livingstone in a series of interviews published in 1981 bearing the British artist’s name as his career was reaching new heights. “The way we see things is constantly changing. At the moment the way we see things has been left a lot to the camera. That shouldn’t necessarily be.”
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Indeed, Hockney has never been one to bear the burden of visual clichés, avoiding the spiritual and intellectual death that repetition and convention creates. Ever he first appeared on the scene in the 1960s, using Pop art as a means to push the envelope and bring gay rights to the fore during an era when it was still a love that didn’t dare speak its name, Hockney’s penchant for iconoclasm has been served up style and verve.
The legendary artist turns 80 on July 9, and to celebrate, the Getty, Los Angeles, presents Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney, two new exhibitions of work: Self-portraits, which opened yesterday, and Photographs, which opens July 18. Both shows will be on view through November 26, 2017.
Drawn from a body of work that spans six decades, Self-portraits is a study in the way the artist has made himself a topic of study in various media from countless vantage points, always looking at the way in which the surface becomes a metaphor for the soul.
“We live in an age where the artist is forgotten. He is a researcher. I see myself that way,” Hockney told The Observer in 1991, recognizing all upon which he placed his attention was worthy of examination. In this way his self-portraits remind us of the ways in which we evolve not only physically but also emotionally, psychologically, and mentally as we go through life.
The beauty of Hockney’s pictures of himself is the knowledge that age seems to be agreeing with him. Within his most recent works, made on an iPad, we see the artist at 75, blue eyes shining, cigarette pursed in mouth. Here is the wisdom of the ages at work, the knowledge that the best way to live is to stay open, active, and of the moment.
Contrast this with a self-portrait made in 1954, a lithograph in five colors that feels decidedly self-conscious and physically closed. The artist sits with his arms crossed against his chest, a gesture that reveals a need to take hold while he is exposing himself. Although it was made some 60 years ago, his spirit feels older and colder than it does in his iPad portrait.
Happy Birthday Mr. Hockney is a journey across media and throughout time, as we see the ways in which the artist transforms his understanding of art by continuously switching it up. It is clear this is not for the sake of change itself, but for a desire to understand and perceive the essence of life through a variety of means.
Photographs does this brilliantly, showing us the many ways in which Hockney used the camera to original effect. He first began using a 35mm camera in the 1960s to document family, friends, holidays, and travel. Then he realized that the photograph could hold the place of preparatory sketches, and he used them to create studies for photographs. Through this process, he came to recognize that the “decisive moment,” so exalted in the photo world, was merely one way of capturing time—and was entirely too static for him.
Realizing that we see both still frames and moving images, Hockney began using a Polaroid SX-70 camera to create multiple views of subjects in instantaneous prints during an era when film processing took several days, or even weeks. He then took this insta-pictures and assembled them into grid to create a larger composition that was as cohesive as it as complex. His works no longer maintained the “documentary” feeling of the photograph, but began to embody the painterly spirit of the artwork.
At the same time his Polaroid composites and the photo collages were entirely ahead of the curve, anticipating the digital layering and compositing of images with computer software that has become de rigeur.
“The purists think you’re going backwards, but I know you’d go forward,” Hockney told Livingstone back in 1981 in that same interview. “Future art that is based on appearances won’t look like the art that’s gone before.”
We can see this wisdom clearly in every work chosen for Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney. Indeed, it is a tremendous thing to reach 80 for anyone on this earth. The knowledge gained by simply going on cannot be underestimated. Hockney shows us hat happens when life is lived free from the fetters of convention to remind us that it is within our power to dictate the terms of our creative practice.
Happy Birthday good man! Here’s to many more. They say artists live long lives because looking at the world through fresh eyes keeps you young.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.