This is a story about harboring a grudge, and then letting that grudge get in the way of my critical judgement. It’s about being wrong, which is different than getting something wrong—one’s judgement of a work of art, or a body of work; the critique of it—because being wrong requires doing something wrong, and doing it for a reason.
This is a story about my grudge against David Hockney, and not just his work.
In my third year of graduate school, this would be 1999, Hockney came to Columbia University’s campus to deliver a lecture entitled “Lost Knowledge: The Coming Post-Photographic Age,” the contents of which would be published, in greatly expanded form, as Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Viking Studio, 2001). The contribution of Secret Knowledge, for those who need a refresher, is that many of the Old Master artists of the Renaissance and after made use of various optical tools—lenses, mirrors, camera obscuras—to execute their work, and that many later artists, working into the 18th and 19th centuries, continued to use “technology” to assist and augment their practices, including, importantly, Ingres in the 1820s, who made copious use of a camera lucida.
Hockney hit upon his “discovery” when visiting Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, which opened in late January of ’99. There he noticed two types of lines in Ingres’s drawings: those that were, on the visual evidence, very precise, and those that were “groped for,” which is to say sketchy or sketch-like, lines that are working out a contour or form rather than just describing it, precisely. The latter were the types of lines with which Hockney, as an artist, was very familiar; the former he would come to understand through his own apprenticeship to the camera lucida and the capacity for tracing that it affords.
I’m rehearsing the Ingres observations here because they were the best part of Hockney’s “Lost Knowledge” lecture. Here was an artist whose deep, and deeply embodied understanding of drawing, brought to the foreground an aspect of another artist’s practice that had not been given its full due. It also situated technology, and optical technologies specifically, more centrally within a then-growing “contest of meaning” that the discourse of photography—its theories, its practices—was bringing to art history. This is what brought me to graduate school.
It was Columbia in the late 1990s after all. Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Moderneity in the Ninteenth Cent. (MIT Press, 1990) had single-handedly redefined for me what a work of art history was and could be (it still has no equal). And Rosalind Krauss, through more than two decades of writings at that point, had shown how photography’s technical and philosophical resources could be marshalled to upend (and then become) art history’s establishment narrative.
All of which is to say that, when Hockney got around to disparaging art historians for not seeing what he had; when he trotted out the straw man that “the art historians” were too busy lionizing the Renaissance “master’s” and their skill and draughtsmanship and “genius” to recognize these artists’ rote reliance on optics (just imagine it: that snobbish, upper-class accented English gleefully pronouncing “It’s optics!” such that the “You fools” needn’t be uttered); when Hockney gave the appearance of having hit upon this all on his own, as if art historians hadn’t been discussing artists’ use of optical tools for decades (really? No nod to the fucking literature?)—well, I was pissed.
I was more than pissed. I was done. Done with Hockney. And this, before I’d even gotten started on him. For nearly the next 20 years, when someone mentioned his name, all I could muster to say was, “I fucking hate Hockney.” And the patent absurdity of this statement, married with my vitriolic tone, made it humorous. And if it was humorous, it didn’t require explanation. Which was good, because I didn’t have one. If required, I would just ape a dismissal I’d heard a smarter senior scholar once drop: “I just can’t see the point of it.”
Of course I was wrong.
When did I come around? The iPad drawings were a start, and then the high-def video work from 2011, Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos and this brought me back to the Polaroids and photo collages, and to the questions of perception and space that much of Hockney’s art has wrestled since the beginning. I still don’t like much of the painting. The portraits, the post-impressionist rehashes, and landscapes. I don’t even like the swimming pools all that much, but I can see the point of them (and the point isn’t the money, though there’s that). But my juvenile grudge—I was in my early 20s, by all accounts a total juvie, faking it by back-stroking in the pressure cooker the best I could—my grudge had kept me from actually looking at a lot of Hockney’s work. And not looking isn’t critique. It’s not even thinking. Not looking is just ignorance on parade.