It’s rare when an artist’s talk is actually so substantive that the experience of the show changes fundamentally after hearing it. A memorable exception was during David Hockney Portraits presented in the spring of 2006 at Boston’s grand encyclopedic Museum of Fine Arts. On first viewing I had dismissed two thirds of the exhibition as minor until one thought, expressed poetically by the artist, changed everything.
The museum had featured a string of Anglophilic shows around that time including Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Jim Lambie, and Cerith Wyn Evans. (In my role as exhibitions curator at the MIT List Center it was my privilege to co-curate the Wyn Evans exhibition in our space in Cambridge as well.) The citywide sense at that time was that as an expat English gentleman, MFA Director Malcolm Rogers was more inclined to green-light proposals exhibiting English artists. As an unrepentant Anglophile myself I was generally an enthusiastic audience member.
But Hockney was a different case for me. I had written my undergrad thesis on Hockney’s stage designs for opera. Yet now, as a serious curator mounting somewhat dour politically focused shows for the List, my earlier love of the joyful, sexy artist was slightly embarrassing for me, like a teenage-era boyfriend who I dated for his Bowie-esque haircut. I still saw the appeal of Hockney but could no longer defend his work in its entirety. I could still support the two early periods, the messy symbolic portraits sweating out abstract expressionism, and the crisp clean poppish ones. After that, while enjoying the naked beefcake pictures for what they were, I could march briskly and dismissively through the rest. So I went to the exhibition knowing that I would freely swoon over the early work and then endure the rest.
Indeed, as always, I wholeheartedly cherished the double portraits in both their London and Los Angeles flavors. Their clarity of execution visually electrifies their huge surfaces. More importantly, Hockney’s celebration of the fundamental fact of two human beings depicted in a single rectangle, even when they are looking past each other or have no visible connection, describes that fundamental aspect of human existence in the paired faces. We are hardwired to connect with other creatures with bodies, hearts, and souls; and we must learn to be with, and share space with, others in order to thrive as humans.
But then the show seemed to take a rapid dive. The paintings following were mainly single figures, inelegantly painted and seemingly rushed.
The more recent larger-scaled Hockney museum retrospectives elsewhere moved on to his Picasso tributes, experiments with painting on iPads, flat screen video processionals, and a surfeit of twisted landscapes in over-abundance. But this exhibition merely moved into a strangely amateurish realm for such a cultured painterly showman who seems to invite Old Master reverence for his works.
Despite dismissing the overall quality of the exhibition I scored a choice seat for the artist talk, and as someone very professionally involved with the history of queer image-making, I really wanted to hear his observations and stories.
At the point in his talk when he approached the part of the show where my “discernment” found fault in his paint handling he said, “when anyone I love dies I feel compelled to paint those who survive as quickly as possible as a statement to the heavens saying ‘we are still here.’” While I am sure this quote is incomplete and somewhat shaky in my memory from 13 years ago, its effect on me still resonates.
After so many years watching helplessly as HIV/AIDS took so many loved ones away, the statement of art being a potential way to celebrate who we still have by our sides to love felt incredibly profound. I thought about the folks who had gotten sick and then survived and I wanted to call them all that night and hear their voices and thank the heavens for their presence. It made me think of all the artist friends that had done my portrait with varying degrees of artfulness and the fact that at some point when I am dead, someone may choose to still have me hanging around their walls (or not).
I walked back into the show and what had seemed crude was now charmingly direct. The faces that were in early portraits but absent from later ones made me fear the worst, that their passing had provoked a flurry of survivor portraits. As an out artist Hockney had clearly lost friends who had died from AIDS. I checked wall labels but I don’t remember any specifics.
Portraits, by their nature, are always about mortality and art’s relation to our finite lives. I felt silly for not having thought of mortality on my first visit and was happy I had a second chance to see the paintings through a new set of eyes.