“It’s got all the energy of the United States but with the Mediterranean thrown in,” says David Hockney of Southern California in the new feature-length documentary Hockney. The film takes a close look at what makes one of the world’s most famous artists tick.
Hockney arrived in his energetic, sunny Los Angeles from dreary, rainy Britain in the mid-1960s, and famously never left the place that became his spiritual and artistic home. Culturally, erotically, climatically, the city suits him, and its sun-drenched colors, tanned bodies, and glistening waters quickly became the hallmarks of his most familiar work. As we see in the film, even at 78, Hockney is still going strong, and surprisingly, still has a foot planted in both worlds: his British connections remain strong, personally to his family and artistically in his subject matter and in his outlook. In the film, it’s easy to see that whatever the subject, place or medium — from landscapes to portrait, from Hollywood homes to the English countryside, from drawing and painting to photography and collage — Hockney has a way of seeing and creating that’s as instantly recognizable and broadly appealing as the California sun and sea.
The two-hour film was made for the BBC, and we naturally delve into Hockney’s British roots and current connections (his family is still there, and he returns to paint every so often). For an artist famous for his light and airy canvases, his upbringing was surprisingly bleak: raised during the rationing and bomb raids of World War II in a working class neighborhood of Bradford, England, Hockney showed an early talent for art. He attended the Royal College of Art, and on a shoestring visit to the U.S., he fell in love first with New York then with Los Angeles. Hollywood itself, we learn, was an enormous inspiration to him as a child and a young man, a weekly trip to the cinema providing the only color and imaginative escape in an otherwise slate-gray world. Even today, he scoffs at the notion that LA has no culture; how could that be when it has Hollywood?
The film outlines many of the most salient features of Hockney’s life, taking an admirably dreamlike, somewhat impressionistic approach of weaving back and forth in time or shuttling between subjects: his lifelong friendship with art critic Henry Geldzahler, his love affair with muse and subject Peter Schlesinger, the devastation of the AIDS epidemic that took many friends and colleagues. It’s all nicely done and lovely to look at, though there are few big revelations here for those already familiar with Hockney’s life and work. There is, however, a lot of ground (and a lot of work) to cover, and no matter your particular area of interest in the artist, even at over two hours, the film will inevitably feel rushed in some regard. His work as a scenic designer for opera receives pretty short shrift; he’s not just an interesting dabbler in that realm, but a significant figure in late 20th-century design.
We see a broad range of Hockney’s work, and the filmmakers absorb and utilize his style; the establishing shots of landscapes or Hockney’s home or interview subjects begin to resemble his work in a charming way. As an artist, Hockney just has “it” — anyone can see that from the pieces themselves — but what exactly is “it”? That’s harder to place one’s finger on, and though there is some critical thought and a few reasonable guesses here and there, truly engaged and insightful critical appraisal of his strongest features (or consideration of his shortcomings) as an artist never really enter the picture.
Still, though there’s clearly too much subject here to fit comfortably in a single frame, the film does an admirable job of suggesting what defines Hockney. It isn’t so much a single approach or medium, but a sort of restless searching. Home may be chilled-out, sunny LA, but the artist’s most distinguishing quality is one of never settling on any one way of looking or being for too long. In the film, the artist still speaks of LA as if it is his own individual discovery, almost as if he was the first to find it. Clearly, exploration is just his way.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.