At David Hockney’s ‘Bigger’ exhibition, what you see is what you get

Spencer Michels looks on as a cameraman shoots the artworks hanging at the exhibit “David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” at San Francisco’s de Young Museum while. Photo by Cat Wise/PBS NewsHour

You may get a jolt when you enter David Hockney’s new “bigger” exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. I did. There’s something welcoming and inviting about this huge display of nearly 400 of his recent works, something that says “come on in and look around.” It’s not even subtle.

Hockney, now 76 years old, is not a mysterious artist; what you see is what you get. And, perhaps a bit like Van Gogh, almost anybody can relate to his work. But that hasn’t diminished his stature.

A museum-goer walks past Hockney’s work “Under the Trees” (2010). Photo by Cat Wise

Art critics often tend to complicate what they see, and over-interpret the works they are expounding. And maybe that’s what good criticism is: connecting the artist with the past, finding things that the rest of us can’t see. For example, Hockney acknowledged to the critic for the San Francisco Chronicle that he has been influenced by Chinese artists, who, the critic explained, find “graphic equivalents not only for physical detail but for the changing play of light and shade across shifts in weather and time of day.” That’s pretty complicated stuff that certainly wasn’t apparent to me while soaking in the vast profusion of representational form and color that make up this exhibit. In basic terms, Hockney draws pictures, whether with a brush, a piece of charcoal, an iPad, a camera or an array of 9 or 18 cameras that record scenes and video. In fact he uses practically every media he can think of, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated and technically challenging. It’s not that he is a technological wizard, making 3D movies about space. This art show is no “Gravity” or “Avatar”. No, he has learned how to manipulate an off-the-shelf app called “Brushes” on his iPhone and iPad, and he uses it to make the kind of pictures he likes, very quickly.

He told me in an interview he wasn’t so much fascinated by technology itself, but only so far as it can help him make pictures. He has blown up simple iPad sketches and photos to gigantic size and the de Young has accommodated him by finding space for these huge pictures. From what I was told, he is very happy about the way his work has been displayed. Bigger may not always be better, but big is important in this show, aptly titled “David Hockney: A Bigger Exposition,” to contrast it with “big” expositions he has had recently in England.

“Still from Woldgate Woods” (November 26, 2010) is nine digital videos synchronized to comprise a single artwork. Hanging in a dark room at the de Young Museum, it clearly displays Hockney’s willingness to use different media for his artwork. Photo by Spencer Michels/PBS NewsHour

Hockney obviously likes what he does, and intends to keep on doing it until he drops, as he told me — this despite a recent stroke and a smoking habit he boasts about. He rushes out into the woods and sketches and takes pictures, sometimes even from his car, and he comes back and blows up the work to a size he is comfortable with. His subject matter has ranged all over the lot, from his earlier famous swimming pool scenes in the hills above Los Angeles, to the woods near his childhood home in Yorkshire, to hundreds and hundreds of portraits that are fascinating to look at. Earlier in his career he painted his parents in poses that gave clues to their lifestyles. He still uses that technique in the current show. But he also seems fascinated by the human face and has sketched hundreds of them; it reminded me a bit of Abraham Lincoln’s comment: “God must love the common man; he made so many of them.” Hockney said he intends to do more portraits in the months ahead — portraits that are fun and revealing to look at.

David Hockney talks to Spencer Michels in the exhibit halls at the de Young Museum. Photo by Cat Wise/PBS NewsHour

Several times during our interview, Hockney talked about seeing things that the average person does not, in nature, and even in his portraiture. He said he is fascinated by the different ways people sit down in chairs when they pose for him. His mission seems to be to show what he sees and then paints to those of us with less acuity. His vision, he thinks, may be his greatest gift. Whether that’s true or not, looking at what he sees and then records is a thrill. He is not speaking to us in riddles or hidden meanings, but laying it all out there for us to see and enjoy, and doing it with a well-honed sense of humor or playfulness. I’m not saying he isn’t deep and thoughtful; but you don’t come away from this show with a feeling you didn’t get it.

“David Hockney: A Bigger Exposition” is on show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until January 20, 2014. You can watch Spencer Michels’ full report on the exhibit on Monday’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour. Live stream the show on our Ustream channel at 6 p.m. EST or check your local PBS station’s schedule.