LOS ANGELES -- David Hockney is going deaf. Nothing can be done. He has spent years designing sets for Mozart, Wagner and Stravinsky; now silence is descending and his hereditary hearing loss is smothering the operas he loves. He fears it's made him antisocial. He says, "You either sit there silently or else do all the talking."
His art is in museums now. Peter, Mark and Mo, the lithe young men he used to draw, are growing into middle age. Isherwood is dead, Celia's body has thickened, Henry's hair has grayed. Once Hockney was a wonder boy. He turned 50 last July.
Upstairs, in the galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, more than 30 years of Hockney's life are waiting on the walls. It is the morning before his first full retrospective goes on public view. A young man from the BBC, a crew from CBS and dozens of reporters are waiting for their interviews. But Hockney is not there. He is downstairs, by the guard's desk, dashing out the door.
He sees a face he knows and says, "Oh, hello," and then, "I'm sorry." He wants to stop, he wants to run. "It's these hearing aids," says Hockney. He wears one in either ear. "Stanley -- he's my little dog -- just chewed up my good ones. He would have to choose this morning. I'm late for my appointment. I've got to get two more."
His voice retains some shadow of his native Yorkshire, of grim Bradford in the Midlands, but he's an Angeleno now. The high-keyed colors of his house in the hills above the city, and of his newest paintings, those never seen before, have a shine that's almost blinding. You would think he would be fretting -- at the rush, the inconvenience, the misdeeds of his dachshund -- yet joy seems to surround him. His sweater is the color of swimming pools in sunlight. His smile is as bright.
I have never seen him scowl. People smile when they see him, and when they see his art. Think of all the high-priced artists who strive to shock or baffle, who treat you like a sap. Hockney isn't like that. Much modern art attacks. His, instead, invites. Hockney, when excited by something he's discovered -- say, the look of California, or that of moving water, or how to give his photographs a sense of shingled time -- takes his viewers with him. He teaches what he's learned. And he tells you who he is.
If you know his art at all, you feel you know his homes, the poetry that's moved him, the tulips on his table, his parents and his friends. When he writes about his work, vividly and well, he does so not to brag, only to explain. Hockney does not obfuscate. His paintings, from the start, have been thoughtfully instructive, touchingly endearing, absolutely clear. No wonder people love him. His paintings seem to glow with authentic generosity. He treats you like a friend.
His touring retrospective is vastly entertaining. It starts when he's just a kid, with a portrait of his father. It includes his art school paintings with their scrawlings and their jokes; his paintings of transparencies, of water and of glass; his landscapes, still lifes, set designs, his photographs and prints; and dozens of his portraits of his heroes, lovers, pals. His show is shiny and it's smart. What fun it is to see.
It is fun to see that glossy light, those cushions on the sofa, and his mother posing primly, patiently and proudly for her vastly gifted son. It is fun to look at Hockney as piercingly and swiftly he peers into a mirror and sketches his self-portraits. Looking at his grand, many-imaged photographs is like strolling there beside him as, slowly in his mismatched socks, he walks around that Zen garden at Kyoto, or through a square in Paris or across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Walking through his show is like flipping through a scrapbook filled with snapshots of old friends -- Henry Geldzahler, the scholar, lovely blue-eyed Celia Birtwell, little Stanley with red rubber ball, Christopher Isherwood at home.
But the pictures on the wall, the later ones at least, are much more than simple, single snaps. They're stills, they do not move, and yet they carry with them a sense of languid afternoons and friendly recollections and of quiet times unfolding.
Nothing here is coarse or forced. The painter's wit is sharp, and his ironies are gentle, and a kind of singing sweetness seems to fill the air. There are 200 works on view, and it is not easy to imagine another living artist capable of mounting a retrospective more appealing.
What, then, is that subtle, nagging irritation that undercuts the endless pleasures of this show? It comes and goes and comes again, like some unscratched bug bite. Is it jet lag, or just sourness, that plants the seed of doubt?
Or is it that one wonders -- can great fun be great art?
All of Hockney's life is here, all except the darkness. Nothing in his art suggests misery or bitterness, sourness or fear.
I know no other vanguard artist who draws, from life, as well. He seems to shift his style in almost every portrait. He's as good with a Rapidograph as he is with colored pencils. Look at Celia with white flowers, or that drawing of his mum (made the day after his father died), or Henry in a deck chair. Every gesture seems controlled by the artist's keen intelligence. No line is out of place.
Few Americans can draw so well. Alice Neel's dead now, and so is Raphael Soyer, and even at their best neither of them showed Hockney's sweet and stunning skill. Who, then, are our portraitists? England has a bunch: anguished Francis Bacon, and penetrating Lucian Freud, and somber R.B. Kitaj, Hockney's art school friend. But all these men paint pain or doubt. Hockney does so rarely. Though the only people he portrays are those he deeply cares for, his evident affection is kept at some strange distance.
Hockney worked two years in British hospitals as a conscientious objector, rather than accept military service. He is not at all a snob, he is intolerant of injustice and writes with deep disgust about the class system of England. But no trace of his politics is apparent in his art.
Homoerotic art is these days much in fashion. But, unlike other artists who wave their gayness like a flag, Hockney portrays his with no trace of belligerence, and with a kind of damped-down passion. Even when he paints the men he's loved most deeply, his pictures have about them no trace of fiery lust.
Hockney has of late learned much from the last, and undervalued, paintings of Picasso. But no sign of that master's rage is seen in Hockney's art.
Instead, a friendliness unending, a politeness deep and generous -- toward his sitters and his audience -- flows like balm throughout this show.
His art is rarely vapid, rarely facile, and never void of passion. But what his friend Henry rightly calls "the double entrancement of learning and teaching" is the fuel that feeds the fire of David Hockney's art. The passion that burns in it is the passion of the pedagogue.
You feel that in his finest works, say, such Polaroid assemblages as "Noya and Bill Brandt with Self Portrait (Although They Were Watching This Picture Being Made) Pembroke Studios London 8th May 1982." It's made of 49 square photographs, each one near perfection. Hockney draws like a magician, yet driven by some questioning, some need to learn and teach and test, he tied his hand behind his back, and, picking up a camera, just went click, click, click.
His final photographic piece, "Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18 April, 1986," is even more impressive. It shows a stretch of highway in the Mojave Desert, but as no single photograph could depict the scene. It's been pieced together of some 700 snapshots. It took Hockney nine days just to take the pictures. He climbed a ladder to photograph the stop sign, he knelt on the ground to aim at the squashed beer cans. You almost walk into that picture, and it takes an hour to see it fully. It's not just a slice of time.
Whether exploring the restrictions of single-point perspective, or the task of painting swimming pools ("Water can be anything -- it can be any color, it's movable, it has no set visual description"), or the problems of the stage, Hockney has never ceased exploring.
He says the "Pearblossom Hwy." picture, because its slow construction became a kind of drawing, has brought him back to painting, has returned him to the hand. His newest works on view are prints made in his studio with an office copier.
His quest goes on and on.
Hockney knows he's 50, but he says, "I feel just as I did when I was 25." His eagerness is boyish still. When he talks of Chinese landscape scrolls, or about Picasso, he does so like a kid who's just had the neatest lesson. When he talks about the love he feels for his little dog, he does so with the joy of a wholly happy child.
His boyhood is retreating. Perhaps when Hockney's old and deaf, some Beethoven-like darkness, some tragic understanding and sense of shadowed depth, will open underneath the brightness of his art. Perhaps, and perhaps not.
It may be that the fault is ours, and not his.
It may well be that Hockney will someday be remembered less for his portraits and inventions, his photographs, his stage sets and his barrier-testing restlessness than for the amiable kindness that flows throughout his art.
Though the Los Angeles County Museum organized this show, Hockney was himself the curator most responsible for his home-town retrospective. (When a collector from Hamburg refused, despite the artist's pleas, to lend a painting of a swimming pool for this touring show, Hockney made a copy. It is there on the wall.) An $850,000 grant from AT&T helped pay for the show. It will visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan, June 18 to Aug. 14, and then go, next fall, to London, to the Tate. It will remain in Los Angeles through April 24.