Museum  January 18, 2021  Cynthia Close

David Hockney: Drawing from Life

The David Hockney Foundation © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney, Gregory (detail), 1978. Colored pencil on paper. 17 x 14 in.

Paintings of turquoise swimming pools drenched in California sunlight may be the first images that come to mind at the mention of British artist David Hockney, but drawing is the continuous thread running through Hockney’s life. Drawing ties together all his loves, from the people he adores to the artists he has learned from throughout art history.

From his earliest days attending the Bradford School for Art and later the London Royal College of Art, where drawing from life was a core component of the curriculum, Hockney has resisted external pressures to conform to the art of his time. Praise for the onslaught of American Abstract Expressionists was beginning to have an impact, but Hockney found this stylistic approach “too barren” and was undeterred in his pursuit of intimacy, of truly “knowing” the people in the world he inhabits by drawing them.

Collection of The David Hockney Foundation

David Hockney, Study for 'My Parents and Myself', 1974. Colored pencil on paper. 14 x 17 in.

Hockney has had approximately 1,000 solo and group exhibitions during the course of his career. When Sarah Howgate, the Senior Curator of Contemporary Collections at the National Portrait Gallery in London approached him about doing a drawing show focusing on the small group of family and friends that had sat patiently as subjects for him for years, it was not surprising when he replied, “well, I’m a bit exhibitioned out, but I do think it would be fascinating to see,” Hockney admitted. “There aren’t many artists who’ve been drawing the same people for over sixty years.”

David Hockney: Drawing from Life, now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, takes a focused look at drawings of the four most significant people in his life: his mother Laura, textile designer Celia Birtwell, his curator and advisor Gregory Evans, and printmaker Maurice Payne. Alongside them, we see the parallel examination of Hockney's own passage through time in self-portraits.

Collection of The David Hockney Foundation, © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney, Mother, Paris, 1972. Colored pencil on paper. 17 x 14 in.
 

Both of Hockney's parents were supportive of their son’s pursuit of art. Hockney executed a number of double portraits of his father and mother, but Laura Hockney, his vegetarian mother, emerged as the more dominant subject. In the extensive hardcover catalogue accompanying the show, Hockney commented, “It’s a very traditional thing to do, I know, painting one’s parents, but I think it could be a lot more than just that…” The earliest drawings of Laura appear in his 1953 Bradford art school sketchbook. The artist has kept up the practice of drawing in sketchbooks using a wide variety of media and several have been included in the exhibition providing an added dimension to understanding how the artist thinks.

The 1972 colored pencil portrait of Mother shows her seated in three-quarters view, hands gently folded in her lap, her neutral expression exuding a sense of compliant calm. Detailed attention has been paid to drawing the hands as well as the dotted patterning of her dress. A series of drawings of “Mum” from a 1994 sketchbook focus on her aging face, the lines of deeply etched wrinkles rendered like a roadmap of a life well-lived. As a willing model, she never showed a trace of vanity. Hockney was with his Mum when she died.

© David Hockney. Photography by Richard Schmidt, Collection: The David Hockney Foundation

David Hockney, Celia, Carennac, August 1971. Colored pencil on paper. 17 x 14 in.

Hockney met Celia Birtwell in 1960s bohemian London. She became a dear friend, muse, and confident. In the colored pencil drawing Celia, Carennac, August 1971, she sits relaxed, facing us. The casually worn, boldly patterned robe is perhaps one of her own designs. Hockney confides, “Celia has a beautiful face, a very rare face with lots of things in it which appeal to me…” The drawings of Celia done in 2019 show the still sweet but aging vestiges of that face.

Gregory Evans has been Hockney’s intimate friend, model, assistant, and now his curator, for over fifty years. Hockney has drawn him in every conceivable state, nude and clothed, starting as a tousle-haired youth in the 1970s. Some of the artist's most erotic drawings have been done of Gregory and while his body reflects the passage of time, Gregory’s facial expression remains inscrutable and unchanged.

The David Hockney Foundation © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney, Gregory, 1978. Colored pencil on paper. 17 x 14 in.

The master printer, Maurice Payne has been Hockney’s friend and collaborator on several major etching projects since the late 1960s. He has sat for numerous portraits, saying, “I’ve always felt there was something quite sexual when David was drawing me.”

For every artist, the most available model is themselves, but few, outside of Rembrandt and Picasso, have so faithfully returned to the exploration of the self, as has David Hockney. From a 1954 student collage, to a series of iPad drawings from 2012, Hockney has excavated his own image.

© David Hockney. Photography by Richard Schmidt

David Hockney, Self Portrait with Red Braces, 2003. Watercolor on paper. 24 x 18 1/8 in.

In the end, his words, like his art are resoundingly hopeful: “What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing; you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought. I am constantly preoccupied with how to remove distance so that we can all come closer together, so that we can all sense that we are the same, we are one.”

The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © David Hockney

David Hockney, Self Portrait 26th Sept. 1983, 1983. Charcoal on paper. 30 x 22 1/2 in.

David Hockney: Drawing from Life is organized by Sarah Howgate, Senior Curator of Contemporary Collections, National Portrait Gallery, London. The show originated in London in 2019 and includes an extensive hardcover catalogue.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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