Is David Hockney a genius - or what? Popularity not the ultimate test

IT'S really too bad that David Hockney isn't a genius, for then his delightful wit and restless imagination might transform his creative endeavors into great works of art. As it is, he must make do with talent of a rather high order, and produce works that are ``merely'' charming, fascinating, and occasionally quite brilliant. There are those who would disagree, who would insist that his phenomenal popularity both with art professionals and the public is proof that he has achieved the highest level of artistic importance. And that he will go down in art history as one of the major creative figures of the latter half of the 20th century.

For those so convinced, I would point to his roughly 30-year retrospective currently at the Metropolitan Museum here. True, it is packed with witty, inventive, enchanting, and clever things. There is no shortage of brilliant draftsmanship or rich, exuberant color. Adults will be impressed by Hockney's varied enthusiasms, his technical flexibility and discipline; children, by his sense of fun and his bright colors. And everyone will enjoy the extraordinary vitality his art conveys.

Almost everything will be there, in short, except that aura of unarguable authority and conviction that is the stamp of truly major work and that is present in exhibitions of such artists as Matisse, Klee, Pollock, or Kiefer.

What we find, instead, is a kind of pictorial magic, a wonderfully appealing spirit of creative independence that thumbs its nose at artificiality and convention on the one hand, and pays tribute to select institutions and artists on the other.

``David Hockney: A Retrospective,'' which was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and sponsored by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, touches upon every aspect of his career to date.

Its 150 paintings, 60 drawings, 30 photographs, several suites of prints, and a number of designs for opera productions are on loan from public and private collections throughout the world, and constitute the first large-scale exhibition of his work assembled anywhere.

Hockney was born in Bradford, England, in 1937. While a student at the Royal College of Art in London, he flirted with Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art ideas, and adapted several of the latter to his own use - although always in a very personal manner.

Success came rather quickly, first for his paintings and prints, and then, somewhat later, for his photographs and stage designs.

Throughout, he also maintained a significant reputation as an excellent draftsman, one of the few established artists, indeed, of the past three or four decades of whom that can be said. He has traveled widely and frequently, but appears most at home in Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1979.

His art represents a long, remarkably wide-ranging creative journey from a cool, intimist style of representational painting derived largely from Walter Sickert, through the freeing influences of Pop Art, Cubism, and Picasso, to an extremely sophisticated and somewhat hedonistic celebration of sensory pleasure in images that make very specific reference to particular people, places, objects, and events, but are largely dependent on modernist ideas and devices for their formal identity and effect.

He is most famous for his brilliantly hued, highly simplified canvases and prints of Hollywood swimming pools and swimmers; large, precisely delineated, and starkly composed double portraits of friends and family members; blatantly decorative California landscapes and cityscapes; and, more recently, imaginative stage sets and incredibly intricate photocollages.

Of them all, his photocollages have probably garnered the most serious respect in the art world. And with good reason, for these complex, multiply fragmented assemblages, which incorporate elements from as many as 600 photographic prints, have added a new dimension to the art of photography.

In them, subjects are seen from several angles at once, from a variety of perspective points, or as a series of overlapping or sequential images.

The viewer, as a result, is confronted by a challenging composite effect, and is inclined, therefore, to linger longer and more thoughtfully over the formal and thematic implications of these pictures than is normally the case with more conventional photographs.

His stage sets for operatic productions expanded his reputation as well as his creative horizons, and led to successful, if somewhat controversial, designs for such operas as Stravinsky's ``The Rake's Progress'' and ``Oedipus Rex,'' and Wagner's ``Tristan und Isolde.''

In all, Hockney's career to date has been well rounded and impressive. One cannot view this huge exhibition without feeling considerable respect for the creative imagination and wide-ranging talent that produced its many works.

And yet, this viewer also could not help feeling somewhat cheated, as though all that talent and imagination had been put to largely trivial use. As though Hockney had opted to be the playboy of late 20th-century art rather than one of its genuine masters.

After its closing at the Metropolitan Museum on Aug. 14, ``David Hockney: A Retrospective,'' travels to the Tate Gallery in London, where it will be shown from Oct. 26 through Jan. 3, 1989.

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