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Review: David Hockney at The Met

By Joseph R. Wolin
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David Hockney’s career is well known enough that this new retrospective provides few revelations. What this glorious exhibition does offer is a concision that emphasizes the themes found throughout the 80-year-old artist’s production.

David Hockney Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10 PM) W11 1962
Photograph: Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo, Norway, © David Hockney

As a student at the Royal College of Art in London in the early ’60s, Hockney emulated the Abstract Expressionists but queered their machismo with the addition of bathroom-stall graffiti. And though he was never really a Pop artist, he tapped into the zeitgeist by including flattened figures and consumer products. Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11 from 1962 boldly pictures two fetuslike men in the 69 position with toothy maws, their penises comically replaced by spurting tubes of Colgate.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967
Photograph: Tate, London, © David Hockney,

Hockney moved to Los Angeles in 1964, and the paintings he made there cemented his reputation. Setting modernist office towers against palm trees or depicting languid naked young men in showers, bungalow beds or shimmering swimming pools, the expat artist created quintessential images of the SoCal good-life, most notably in A Bigger Splash from 1967. Flat and geometric, save for some shrubbery and the Expressionist splash from the title, the piece pictures the pool and the diving board of a pink midcentury house under a cloudless cerulean sky. Cool and sophisticated, the canvas stuns with its balance of affectlessness and exuberant abandon.

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler & Christopher Scott, 1969
Photograph: Richard Schmidt, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, © David Hockney

A masterful series of double portraits of friends, family and patrons demonstrates Hockney’s command of a psychologically inflected figuration, and they are followed by wall hung with portrait drawings. Gorgeously deft and incisive, these works are among his greatest, especially the 1974 portrayal of Andy Warhol, seen slouching in a chair as his purplish suit fades into nothingness at the edges of the paper.

David Hockney, Large Interior, Los Angeles, 1988
Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © David Hockney

In 1982, Hockney assembled photos into large collages reminiscent of those in Cubism. They stylistically relate to his landscapes and interiors from the same period, such as 1988’s Large Interior, Los Angeles: a brightly colored, 10-foot-wide painting, in which splayed chairs, simulated wood grain and a disappearing table speak to Hockney’s affinity with Picasso, as well as to the multiple vantage points of his own photography.

David Hockney, Garden, 2015
Photograph: Richard Schmidt, © David Hockney

Hockney hasn’t let up, recently painting large, vibrant scenes of the Yorkshire countryside and his California garden that nod to the works of Van Gogh, Munch and Matisse. He embraces the eye-popping contrasts of his nearly acid hues—influenced, presumably, by the glowing iPad he now uses to draw. Dozens of them play on flatscreen TVs at the end of the exhibition, inspiringly upending the adage about old dogs and new tricks.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave (212-535-7710, metmuseum.org). Through Feb 25.

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