David Hockney is one of the most well known artists of the past half-century and, at 76, is busier and more popular than ever.
In 2012, the Royal Academy invited him to fill the entire gallery for the Olympic year. He succeeded spectacularly.
As if that wasn’t enough, he added even more works for his new show at the de Young, which opened last week.
An enormous exhibit of 300 artworks displayed across 18,000 square feet, "David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition," is the largest show ever presented at the de Young.
Hockney was a working class boy from Yorkshire, one of five children, who went to the Royal Academy on a scholarship. His first New York Show in 1964 made him immediately famous. His risqué autobiographical work touched upon the taboo subject (at that time) of homosexuality and added a touch of the outré to his public persona.
His talent for portraits, his spectacular of color, the boldest since the Fauves and his paintings celebrating the affluent life style of Southern California complete with swimming pools, joie de vie and pretty boys kept him in the spotlight. His charm, his sense of sartorial style and dyed blonde hair simply added to his popularity.
Lucien Freud’s anguish encrusted portraits and Bacon’s paintings of destructive Eros were not for him. Even though he has had a rough year - a stroke, the complete loss of his hearing, the suicide of one of his assistants' -you would not know it by his work.
Several years ago he returned to Bridlington, a seaside town in Yorkshire where he also maintains a residence, and painted scenes of the nearby countryside. Although he still divides his time between the UK and California, it is the Yorkshire countryside, which inspired the majority of landscape paintings in the current exhibit.
The show is full of his fascination with and expert use of technology - from his iPad drawings to a movie made with 18 cameras photographing simultaneously but adjusted to project slightly off tilt.
His series of images of Yosemite came from his iPad drawings but don’t work as well as his more en plain air works from the countryside outside his home in England. Some of the iPad drawings are displayed on digital screens, others, like the Yosemite works, were printed on six large panels. Hockney’s technical assistants used large inkjet prints reproduce the images he created on his iPad. But there is a flatness of touch, a sense that the outsized scale makes these paintings lose immediacy and authentic vision.
“A Bigger Exhibition” also has several walls of his superb black and white drawings. These come as a welcome relief after gallery after gallery of blindingly vibrant, over the top color. Drawing has always been the bedrock of Hockney’s art. “Drawing is an ancient thing,” he wryly observed at Wednesday’s press preview. “So why were they saying we’ll give it up? After 30,000 years, why would we do that?” Why indeed? With a line similar to Ingres, Hockney’s deft portraits hold their own against the overwhelming excess of the rest of the exhibit.
“The Bigger Message,” Hockney’s challenge to Claude Lorrain 17th-century painting, “The Sermon on the Mount” is a 15 x 20 foot mess. Composed of 30 assembled canvasses, it’s a rare clumsy misstep for this usually facile artist.
A show of this size and complexity is reminiscent of an Edwardian banquet – too many courses and too many heavy sauces. Like those multicourse banquets of stupendously rich and ultimately indigestible food, this one would have benefited by some careful editing
The visual overkill is apparent in every medium. His superb draftsmanship is displayed "The Arrival of Spring in 2013," 25 charcoal drawings charting the transformation of the seasons. That is more than enough but the next room has inkjet prints of digital photographs of the same drawings. In Hockney’s case, the path of excess has not led to the palace of wisdom.
After that, the artist's sketchbooks come as a welcome relief. Small in scale, these original marks of the artist’s hand are more “real” than yards of his digitally manipulated images.
The next series "The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011," should have been exhibited as a stand-alone show.
The 13-part series, with 32 canvas oil paintings and 12 printed iPad drawings is charged with piercingly sharp, virtuoso colors. These dreamscapes of the English landscape are viewed through the lens of a surrealistic vision – magenta tree stumps, orange logs on a deserted road, viridian green and blue trees.
Fifty or so years after Hockney graduated from the Royal Academy of Art as a charming enfant terrible, he is still reinventing himself. His energy is commendable and his output astonishing. But, as Robert Hughes once wrote, he is still the "Cole Porter of contemporary art"– producing work that is bright, colorful, appealing and extremely popular. Those looking for depth of meaning will have to look elsewhere.
Tickets for timed-entry run $25; if you're willing to spend up to $45, you can score premium tickets online ($1 more at the door) that allow you to enter at any time on the day you choose.
David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition: Paintings, drawings, works in digital media and ephemera. Opened Oct. 26 through Jan 2014. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, S.F. (415) 750-3600. www.deyoungmuseum.org.