David Hockney at home in sunny L.A. British-born artist enjoys superstar status

DAVID HOCKNEY is probably one of the most generally popular artists working today. His shimmering turquoise pools and languid male bathers are ubiquitous icons of the American good life. In the same sweep, hard-boiled critical consensus acknowledges that Hockney may well be one of the most innately gifted and facile draftsmen since Matisse. Somewhere between his early study at the Bradford School of Art in England and attaining the age of 50, Hockney has turned into an art superstar whose persona and polyglot style have the uncanny ability to bridge sensibilities from the highbrow to the vernacular.

Hockney has written - and been the subject of - a handful of books; his life and personal foibles were captured in the widely released film ``A Bigger Splash''; his familiar pool images were among the official emblems of the Los Angeles Olympic Games; and his marvelously moody set designs for operas like Mozart's ``Magic Flute'' often garner more attention than the leading soprano.

Now the multifaceted David Hockney is the subject of an ambitious and eye-opening career retrospective appropriately debuting in Los Angeles - Hockney's adopted home - at the L.A. County Museum through April 24. Culled from museums and private collections, the prodigious undertaking goes a long way toward putting this artist in perspective, separating the myth from the man, the media phenomenon from earned accolades.

The exhibition spans three decades via some 150 paintings, 60 drawings, samples of photography, graphics, and a model from Hockney's recent impish sets for Wagner's opera ``Tristan und Isolde.'' After its showing here, ``David Hockney: A Retrospective'' travels to the Metropolitan Museum in New York (June 18-Aug. 14), then to the Tate Gallery in London (Oct. 26-Jan. 3, 1989). Though the hanging of this show makes a great effort to homogenize, rather than highlight, the interesting contradictions in Hockney's career, its comprehensive scope gives a telling evolutionary overview.

A youthful, beautifully realistic painting of the artist's father from 1955 has all the sensitive modeling and somber, robust detail of the Renaissance or Dutch tradition. Just a year later, however, predating and possibly anticipating the look and strategies of English Pop Art, Hockney paints himself in a flat, childlike style closer to cartoons or book illustration, his hair reduced to wavy dark lines, background detail abstracted into a colorful squiggly pattern.

This uncanny tension between masterly drawing skill and a knack for seeing the world with the colorful stylized directness of an artist like Matisse animates all of Hockney's art.

Hockney came of age in the '60s, during the heyday of London's avant-garde movement, fed by British Pop Art and the American Abstract Expressionists. Works from this period are wry, highly conceptual spoofs, using language and pun as well as imagery to nettle contemporary manners. ``Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style'' immortalizes a huge box of English tea in a painterly slapdash style that off-handedly nods to Andy Warhol. In ``The Second Marriage,'' he limns beautiful primitive bride-and-groom figures with the jostled, jagged anatomy of Willem de Kooning.

In '64 Hockney moved to Los Angeles, where he says his style and his vision were acutely influenced by the area's sun-saturated clarity, colors, and geometric '50s architecture. The absence of London's dense atmosphere elicited from Hockney work that was seductively pretty, even amiably hedonistic, but which also made a serious campaign of investigating how we see, how color and light interact - all the ways this information might be transferred to the taut artificial surface of the canvas.

With analytical charm, Hockney reduces sunlight on California pools into puzzle-piece mosaics or serpentine white lines in these pieces. Light surrounds his figures and defines them with the stark linear detail of graphic art. The edgy psychological prod always present in Hockney's work from youth is embedded in superficially playful documents like the ``Beverly Hills Housewife'' or ``Two Boys in Pool, Hollywood.''

The pure predictable Hockney that everyone expects and loves - the artist of unassailable technique and visually soothing images, elegant and safe enough to grace the homes of well-heeled collectors - is represented in ``Corbusier Chair and Rug,'' ``Still Life on Glass Table,'' and ``Mt. Fuji and Flowers.'' Much as one may want to fault these works for their utterly digestible perfection, it is not easy to do.

Hockney's famous portraiture is sampled in several absolutely fine self-portraits and fragile renditions of the now-famous Celia, a London fabric designer and a member of the Hockney circle. Hockney's large-scale double portraits are not just impeccably painted documents of cultured life, but also probing statements about the ``givens'' of human relationships. One sitter looks blankly out at us; the other looks wistfully to the person sharing his space. One sitter stands boldly in the foreground; the other stands reticent and preoccupied in the back. Clearly one of the most beautiful of these is ``Christopher Isherwood and Don Bacardy.''

Least touted, but possibly among his finest and most provocative works, are Hockney's photo collages, which build realistic scenes from literally dozens of small images. These approximate the kaleidoscopic sense of space of early Cubist works and share the Cubists' concerns about how much we actually see, what the mind fills in for us, and what perspective is.

When Hockney tries to graft this sweeping and bending Cubist space onto playful romping paintings like ``Mulholland Drive,'' the results are far less interesting. There are low points, which really do ring of clich'e, like ``Some Neat Cushions,'' but almost everything, even Hockney's latest foray into Expressionistic works in the style of late Picasso, are difficult to fault.

Fame has its costs. Purists still chastise Hockney as a dabbler, or worse, a merchandiser of formulaic pabulum, about as provocative as a comfortable easy chair. The high points of this exhibition may force even those cynics, however, to concede that a relentless and genuine spirit of experimentation, a clarity of vision, and tour-de-force technique fuel the art of David Hockney.

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