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Getting to the heart of Hockney

Times Staff Writer

In the big, beautifully installed, 50-year survey of portraits by David Hockney that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, there’s a modest-size etching that is something of a touchstone for the entire show. It’s not the largest or the flashiest work on view, and given the size of this very large presentation it would be easy to miss. But search it out. The picture is all about relationships.

Titled “Artist and Model” and made in 1973-74, it came shortly after the pictures of bathers -- men being drenched in tiled bathroom showers, others lounging in and around backyard swimming pools -- that the British painter made in Los Angeles during the previous decade. Those paintings established his international reputation as an artist.

The etching shows two men seated on small stools across from one another at a table. The figure at the left -- portly, balding, bearded, with coal-black eyes and dressed in dark slacks and a horizontal-striped jersey -- is instantly recognizable as Picasso. The figure on the right -- slim, young, bespectacled and nude -- is Hockney. He was 35, and Picasso had just died.

Hockney sits ramrod straight, exposed. His left hand is outstretched and lies flat on the table. The slender fingers barely touch Picasso’s fleshier hand, at the pinkie, as if to draw a current of energy from one to the other.

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Two different etching techniques distinguish the figures. Picasso is executed with a soft-ground method, which makes his physical bearing at once heavier, more pliable and monumental. By contrast, the needle-sharp linear hatching that describes Hockney is crisp and alert. One feels permanent, like a mountain; the other prepared, like a new shoot.

The older artist holds a plain sheet of paper upright between them and stares intently over its upper edge at the younger man. Hockney is positioned so that he can’t see what’s on the paper (and neither can we), and he looks straight into Picasso’s eyes.

It’s as if the depicted sheet functions as common ground -- just like the actual piece of paper on which the etching has been printed, the one a viewer looks at. The plane of art simultaneously separates and unites them -- and us. Art is articulated as a delectable territory for conversation and connection, and as an arena where profound questions of mortality reside.

There is so much contained in this single modest etching that the remaining 160 paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, prints and a tapestry filling LACMA’s galleries suddenly seem to fade into the distance. (The show was organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery, where it travels in October, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where it closed last month, but numerous additions were made for Los Angeles -- the artist’s adopted hometown.) How will one have enough stamina to see the entire show?

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Happily, the exhibition comes equipped with several seating areas -- not the usual benches, which are in short enough supply in most art museums, but fashionable settees and upholstered side chairs arranged in casual, domestic groupings. These are not just functional places to sit and rest your feet, but also social spaces in which to lounge and chat. Congenial discourse and public interaction -- these are hallmarks of Hockney-style portraiture.

“Artist and Model” also announces Hockney’s well-known fascination with Picasso, his protean predecessor. Given the cheerful audacity of pairing himself with a titan, the etching brims with the sense of artistic ambition that unfolds throughout the galleries.

Yet the portrait connection is significant. Cubism -- which Picasso pioneered in 1907, and which became the starting bell for Modern art -- is all about relationships. So the etching is especially instructive in an exhibition devoted exclusively to portraits.

Cubism examines relationships between solid mass and ephemeral space, which seem to permeate one another in Picasso’s art. It examines relationships between space and time, as objects in his paintings appear to present themselves from multiple perspectives all at once.

And, not least of all, it goes beyond these formal concerns to examine human relationships -- to scrutinize the separation and connection between people.

There’s a reason Picasso’s most frequent subjects were his wives and lovers. Cubism demanded it. Cubism represents a revolution in artistic form not simply because of its degree of abstraction, but because of the astounding sense of intimacy with which it is infused.

When the eyes in a Picasso portrait are both on the same side of a head; when the nose shows up in profile and head-on and askew all at once; when the mouth seems to frown, smile, pucker and gasp concurrently -- well, put them all together and this is not the face one sees when sitting demurely across the table from another person. No, this is the face you see when you’re making out, lips smashed together, or thrashing around in bed. A Cubist face is as intimate as portraiture has ever been.

Hockney’s 1960s paintings of bathers, which remain among the greatest in postwar art, took up a founding motif of Modernism. Cezanne’s monumental bathers, which inspired both Picasso and Matisse, wiped clean the crowded slate of art history, to go back to origins -- to scenes of Genesis without God, Arcadia minus mythology. His powerful nudes pictured a secular Eden and an earthy, pastoral paradise.

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Hockney did something similar. But his bathers add a specific type of intimacy, rarely seen in Modern art before. They introduce a previously concealed social dimension of homosexual experience. Many of the show’s paintings, drawings, photographs and other works use the singular identification of portraiture to accomplish it, and these are among the most compelling works on view.

“Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” (1966) portrays a modern domestic backyard as a bright, airy, idealized oasis. The home resonates as a sensuous private retreat for love -- a suburban grotto -- while the flat color and wide, white border give it the look of a glossy magazine spread, like something out of Life or Look.

The secular Adam in this L.A.-Eden is Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s boyfriend in those years. He rises from the luxurious pool like a male Venus, born from a man-made sea. Even the composition of his body, which cuts off the legs as they disappear into the water, yields the appearance of a sculptural torso from ancient Athens or Rome. Seen from the rear, the voluptuous figure becomes an emblem of Greek love.

“Love is the only serious subject,” Hockney is quoted as declaring, in prominent advertisements for the touring portrait show. A certain stark irony accompanies the fact that these ads appeared during a week that saw conservative supporters of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage liken it to civil rights legislation. The LACMA show offers a rather different judgment.

A few surprising omissions should be noted. Although classic paintings such as “Beverly Hills Housewife” (1966), “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)” (1968), “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott” (1969) and “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” (1970-71) are here, some important ones are not. “Portrait of Nick Wilder” (1966), “The Room, Tarzana” (1967), “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968) and “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)” (1972) are among those works that are especially missed.

But there are compensations, and it’s hard to argue about omissions in a show this big. One of the nicest surprises is the large 1977 canvas showing Schlesinger seated before a Polaroid SX-70 camera mounted on a tripod -- a very strange painting that deserves to be better known. It’s a double-portrait, as surely as those showing the Weismans, the Clarks, Isherwood and Bachardy, or Picasso and Hockney are.

The instant camera looks like a cross between a predatory praying mantis and C-3PO from “Star Wars” (released that year). Peter looks away, directly at a viewer. The picture is dominated by a flurry of feathered brush strokes and passages of painterly bravura rendered in turquoise and violet.

In this particular conversation, the business-like speed of the mechanical image machine doesn’t stand a chance. The slow, sensual, ineffable pleasures of painting are just too seductive.

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‘David Hockney Portraits’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Noon to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; noon to 9 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Wednesday

Ends: Sept. 4

Price: $12 to $15; free for children younger than 17

Contact: (323) 857-6000; www.lacma.org


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