Times Art Writer

David Hockney seems to have it all: critical success, financial comfort and enormous popularity. Now he has a corporate sponsor.

AT&T; on Tuesday declared its intent to underwrite the artist's coming retrospective exhibition at the County Museum of Art, in the amount of $850,000, and to give another $100,000 to the Los Angeles Music Center Opera's production of "Tristan und Isolde" for which Hockney is designing sets and costumes.

News of AT&T;'s support came at a press conference announcing the eagerly awaited exhibition. Hockney's mid-career survey will premiere Feb. 4 and run through April 24 at the County Museum of Art, then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London.

The Los Angeles opening coincides with the artist's 50th birthday and kicks off "UK/LA '88--A Celebration of British Arts," a two-month festival in Southern California.

The press conference was an official affair, appropriately staged in front of Hockney's 20-foot-long painting of "Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio," in the new Robert O. Anderson Building. Clad in a light gray suit and paint-spattered sneakers, the British-born artist sat quietly at one end of a line of five dark-suited men who praised his art and AT&T;'s generosity.

Museum Director Earl A. Powell called the show "the most exciting contemporary exhibition the museum has hosted." The presentation of about 150 paintings, 60 drawings, 30 photographs, assorted prints and illustrated books, plus examples of Hockney's stage design and a partial simulation of the artist's studio will fill the entire first floor of the Anderson Building, Powell said, making the retrospective the museum's largest solo exhibition to date.

Hockney appealed to AT&T; because the company wants to be identified with "big ideas" and looks for "strong tie-ins" when it considers cultural sponsorship, according to J. Kent Planck, corporate vice president for public relations. Citing parallel investigative paths between Hockney and the communications giant, Planck made no bones about his employer's use of art as part of its "strategy" to reach "key customers and key markets." Supporting such efforts is "good for business and it's good for the arts," he concluded.

After the conference, Hockney said he was undaunted by the prospect of the retrospective and the symbolic finality of such presentations. "It's just another show and I'll just carry on working," he said with characteristic good humor.

One aspect of the project that departs from business as usual is Hockney's involvement in producing the catalogue. Declining to describe how his part of the book will look, Hockney said he has designed several pages that "are not reproductions." These works of art will allow "the exhibition to flow into the catalogue--and the catalogue to flow into the exhibition," he said.

Hockney also noted that the show will include a model of the "Tristan und Isolde" sets for the production of Richard Wagner's opera opening in December in Los Angeles. Consuming his interest for several months, the opera commission has allowed Hockney to transfer his investigations of spatial representation from photography and painting to three-dimensional structures. Hockney said his ideas for the sets came from the musical score and that the sets are at once "the most abstract and the most realistic" thing he has ever done.

The Hockney retrospective is the fourth visual arts project to win AT&T; sponsorship. It follows the opening exhibition of the New York Museum of Modern Art's enlarged facility; a show of French Impressionist paintings at the National Gallery in Washington that traveled to the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and "An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art," currently touring the country.

The $850,000 gift will fully fund the Hockney exhibition at all three museums and pay for the catalogue. When a reporter blinked at the size of the budget, Planck, who is affiliated with AT&T;'s advertising department, put it in perspective. "It may sound like a lot of money, but it's less than the cost of a minute of advertising time for the Super Bowl," he said.

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