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David Hockney continues prodigious picture-making career by adopting new tech

December 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: A new show in San Francisco features the work of a prolific contemporary artist.

Special correspondent Spencer Michels has our story.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s a huge exhibition, and it features 398 pieces of art by the British artist David Hockney, the largest show in the history of San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Hockney has painted or produced most of this art in the last decade using 14 different media, including charcoal, oil, watercolor, cameras and iPads, digital art that is a major feature of this show.

Among the most dramatic work here is “The Massacre and the Problems of Depiction,” a grisly and intriguing watercolor that harks back to Goya and Picasso, with the added twist of a hooded photographer apparently figuring out how to depict what he’s seeing.

That’s been one of Hockney’s major preoccupations throughout his long career. In this show, some work repeats techniques and themes he has used before. He has continued painting portraits, often of his friends and family, long a favorite subject for him. He even did a series of uniformed museum security guards, which he whipped out a decade ago.

But he has always been innovative in subject matter and technique. In the ’60s, he moved from England to Los Angeles, and began a series of vivid paintings of swimming pools and nude friends in them or getting out of them, pictures he became famous for. Some critics classified his work as pop art, a term he doesn’t embrace.

DAVID HOCKNEY, artist: Well, I never thought that, but, I mean, other people did. I mean, I didn’t.

Somebody said, actually, I was more related to Alexander Pope than pop. I’m just an artist who’s done my work. I have done it now for 50, 60 years, and I will do it until I fall over, actually.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hockney, who has had a stroke and is hard of hearing, recently turned 76, placing him in the ranks of older artists. But many critics consider him young because of his use of technology, especially the use of the iPad and multiple digital cameras.

He used 18 purposely slightly-out-of-synch cameras to record “The Jugglers” in 2012 in what he regards as a cubist movie. He has blown up to gigantic size images he created on an iPad, nature scenes from his childhood home in East Yorkshire and pictures of Yosemite in California. They are part of his stated mission to get people look at their surroundings.

DAVID HOCKNEY: I have always been very excited visually. I have. And I think I see a bit more than other people do. I mean, I have pointed out, you know, most people don’t really look very hard. They scan the ground in front of them, so they can walk.

SPENCER MICHELS: And “Yosemite” that is behind us here, you’re seeing things that I might not see, perhaps?

DAVID HOCKNEY: Well, actually, that day was a remarkable day in Yosemite, because the clouds were below us, and that’s quite rare. And I drew it quite quickly, actually.

SPENCER MICHELS: You think speed is important. You have mentioned that several times.

DAVID HOCKNEY: Well, any draftsman knows about speed. I mean, Rembrandt drawings, you can see speed in them.

I am interested in speed. I think most painters paint faster than they tell you.

(APPLAUSE)

SPENCER MICHELS: Hockney doesn’t slow down, except for frequent cigarette breaks; he’s adamant on that subject. He is a celebrity among art lovers, and has been in the public eye for decades.

According to the museum director, Colin Bailey, he defies the traditional view of an aging artist.

COLIN BAILEY, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: In a celebrated essay about aging, the art historian Kenneth Clark talked about transcendental pessimism and raging against the night. And that is an idea, a sort of cliche almost, that we have. We certainly don’t see it in late Hockney.

This is a man who is very active, very energetic, but we are in a period where every day counts, and I sense that with this desire to work all the time. However, the idea of old age and old age style is something that when you look at Hockney’s recent work, you’re sort of dumbfounded, because these look like the work of a very young man: energetic, exuberant, vital, optimistic.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hockney’s fascination with new development in digital images goes beyond a simple camera, which he says provides only a split second snapshot in time.

 

He sketches directly on the iPad using an app called Brushes. You can see him here making pictures in these recordings on display in the museum.

Somebody your age, my age, all that technology, is it — it must be tough, huh?

DAVID HOCKNEY: Well, I mean, it’s not that tough for me. I mean, I’m only interested in the technology of picture-making, anything that makes pictures.

So, cameras, I was always interested in. The iPad is a — I think a terrific new medium, much better than drawing on the Photoshop and things, because you can pick up a color. In fact, you can be very, very fast on an iPad, faster than watercolor.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Hockney’s reputation comes not from his digital images, but according to Richard Benefield, the museum’s deputy director, from his skills as a draftsman.

RICHARD BENEFIELD, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: I think the draftsmanship is at the core of everything that he does, whether it’s making the photo collages that he did in the ’80s, making prints, even the way he puts together the screens or the video cameras to make these multi-camera movies.

SPENCER MICHELS: In this grouping, Hockney has taken four video views of the same woods in Woldgate in different seasons using nine cameras. The images surround the visitor and provide a dramatic, yet peaceful experience.

Like the seasons depicted here, Hockney’s work changes constantly, which is part of his allure, but so too is his continuing fascination with nature. “The Bigger Exposition” contains a raft of new charcoal drawings of the wooded English countryside.

And full-color landscapes are prominent in the Hockney show, despite what Benefield says is a trend in the art world against them.

RICHARD BENEFIELD: There have been people who have said, who’s painting landscapes anymore? Landscapes are dead.

But David has said, it’s nature and it’s always changing, so how can you not want to paint it? And, you know, with his landscapes, spring is always coming at some point, no matter where you are. So I think in some ways the landscape is a really life-affirming sort of choice for him.

SPENCER MICHELS: Life-affirming is really what Hockney is about. And he executes his work with a twinkle in his well-trained eye. The Hockney exhibit runs only in San Francisco through Jan. 20, 2014.