When looking at the plentiful selection of David Hockney’s early drawings now on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery, it is not the words of the artist but those of John Berger that first come to mind:
The act of drawing. Any fixed contour is in nature arbitrary and impermanent. What is on either side of it tries to shift it by pushing or pulling. What’s on one side of a contour has got its tongue in the mouth of what’s on the other side. And vice versa. The challenge of drawing is to show this, to make visible on the paper or drawing surface not only discrete, recognizable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance.1
On ViewPaul Kasmin Gallery
November 3 – December 1, 2015
Drawing is about a charged, unending exchange, a continual transformation that thrums with curiosity, vim, and the insatiable desire to describe. In this sensual, frenetic space between the seen and the unseen, one side of the contour and the other, we find a number of confident sketches by Hockney rendered in pencil, crayon, and ink. The lines that comprise each of these works on paper—whether there be many or few, color or no—are terse yet tender, and quickly captivate the viewer with their vigorous back-and-forth. They convey the hand of an eager young artist, who, like his idol Picasso, was (and is) committed to actively observing his world, while moving deeper into it by making new work everyday. And like the artist himself—who is now seventy-eight—they just don’t stop (even when they do), but, rather, continue spooling out into negative space, their invisible progression both indulgent and insistent.
First and foremost, these drawings act as elemental counterpoints to the saturated landscapes Hockey is best known for, presenting a perspective that is more spare, scraggy, light, and linear. The subject matter is predictable—ranging from fragmentary portraits of friends and muses to interior scenes and tentative forays into abstraction—but the expression is fresh. With economical scrawl, Hockney manages to circumscribe a moment, a wrinkle, a teacup, or a tuft of hair with just the right weight or amount of weirdness. The frizzle of bedhead and misaligned necktie in the 1972 portrait of Peter Langan are a fine example. In any case, the attention given here is studious, not at all precious or in pursuit of perfection; even the paper looks slightly crumpled.
Pieces such as Dr. Eugene Lambe, Lucca (1973) and Study of L.A., Paris (1975) show Hockney testing his strength with gesture and color complements. He demonstrates a penchant for a keen combination of aquamarine and magenta, along with their more sober cousins blue and red; the subjects blush like a Cassatt, or stare like a Neel. In Cubistic Woman (1963), overlapping segments of colored pencil and graphite betray a certain restive need to move through the line into the open, empty space beyond. The “pushing and pulling” of Berger’s summary come through with particular force in works like Cha Cha Cha (1961), Viareggio (1962), and Man Saying Absolutely Nothing (1963). The inclusion of text—such as the memo scrawled in the lower corner of Cha Cha Cha, which states that “I will love you at 4:15 pm on Tuesday”—further questions and plays upon the notion that connection, or time, like drawing, can be contained, or condensed into a single instance. The result is a collection of drawings that are equally fleet and pensive, containing (or at least hinting at) quite a bit more than what’s described on the page.
Thus this show feels like a timely glimpse of a life, seen over one’s shoulder in a reflecting pool; the works are present, but are also partial, too protean and doggedly intimate to be rooted in anything but Hockney’s past. The collection betrays something of an insider’s club, a who’s-who of the ’60s and ’70s art scene and of Hockney’s colorful coterie, as though each drawing is best served if accompanied by an anecdote. Numerous portraits of dealer John Kasmin, designer Celia Birtwell, curator Henry Geldzahler, and others ensure that the viewer remains an outsider looking in. But the opportunity to peek, we are reminded, is our privilege. One drawing—a still life, aptly titled Vichy Water and ‘Howards End’, Carennac (1970)—shows a wide-brimmed hat perched on the edge of the bistro chair. In the crown of the cap, the few descriptive dots and lines assemble themselves into a jaunty, cartoonish smiley face. The bottle, book, and assorted dishware are charming and frugal, and yet they hardly match the potency of the chapeau’s sideways smirk. Whether or not the artist meant to include this countenance in the total image, it is that lingering gesture of a grin which encapsulates, and solidifies, the knowing attitude that makes these sketches such a pleasure—and challenge—to look at.
- Berger, John. Bento’s Sketchbook. (Pantheon Books: New York, 2011), 113.