Hockney, who emerged as an artist just as London was entering its postwar "swinging" age of music, fashion and sexual liberation, has always been a hard artist to incorporate into the standard narratives of 20th-century art. His best-known work, made during an extended stay in Los Angeles in the 1960s, is figurative and wry, with a pop-art sheen to it. If that was all he ever produced — if he hadn't left a legacy of magnificent drawings, or designed opera stage sets, or used Polaroids to play games with multiple perspective points — then he might well be seen as a minor artist entranced by swimming pools, palm trees and other blandishments of sun-drenched suburbia.
But this exhibition, seen earlier at the Tate Britain and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, explodes that misconception. Often, when one explores the work of a single artist over decades of production, you struggle to find connections between the various chapters. The recent Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was full of fissures and sudden changes of course and an often bewildering sense that there wasn't just one Rauschenberg, but many. But Hockney is the rare artist who continually evolves without losing a powerful sense of continuity.
Early works, made while he was in 20s, take on sexual desire in a confrontational way, with some of the darkness found in the works of Francis Bacon (an artist Hockney admired at the time). But this feral energy is soon exorcised, and his focus shifts from desire to beauty, from furtive activity to open admiration. Beautiful men are seen in swimming pools, male couples co-inhabit benign domestic spaces, and the frisson of cruising gives way to a sense of tenderness that is, perhaps, even more challenging to heterosexual sensibilities.
These early works, in which male figures are rendered as sack-like grotesques, bleeding and blurring into abstract backgrounds, suggest a kind of torment, but torment leavened by humor. In later works, that humor is in turn leavened by a sense of isolation and nostalgia.
In a misguided effort to raise Hockney's credentials as a serious painter, critics often point to the many ways in which he grappled with abstraction, as if every great painter of the period had to stake out his or her place in relationship to the dominant mode of painting. But Hockney doesn't seem terribly addled by abstraction. Rather, he absorbs from it what he needs and deploys it to his own advantage. He is, perhaps, a bit like some fine composers, including Hindemith and Stravinsky, who borrowed and reconfigured gestures and ideas from atonal or serial composers without ever subscribing to a musical ideology.
Or, as a quotation from Hockney printed on the back of the exhibition catalogue puts it, "I paint what I like, when I like, and where I like, with occasional nostalgic journeys." Those nostalgic journeys offer much of the best of the show. There are drawings on paper made with all the finesse of Picasso, and perhaps even more humanity. There are large-format paintings in which beloved paintings from earlier ages — Piero della Francesca, Vermeer, van Gogh — are incorporated, taped onto a screen which suggests a mix of contemporary abstraction and pointillism.
The geometries of his early California paintings are sometimes said to mimic or confront the grid forms popular among minimalist painters at the time. Modernist buildings resolve into vertical patterns of colored windows. But these visual games usually have emotional resonance, functioning more as commentaries on the architecture than on minimalist painting. One particularly stunning work from the California years, the 1967 "A Lawn Being Sprinkled," shows eight perfectly triangular plumes of water shot out of irrigation nozzles set into a pristine patch of green lawn, like vaporous topiary. Two forlorn palm trees that rise above a distant fence locate the scene in California. Eliminate those trees and blur a few of the details — smudge the planks of the wooden fence, smooth out the texture of the grass — and this could be an entirely abstract composition. And yet the painting doesn't seem to want to flirt with that danger. It is happily representational — or at least happy to use representational gestures. And the curious stylization of the water jets seems more about offering a typically droll comment on the alluring, industrial perfection of American life than they are a feint in the direction of abstraction.
Hockney's photo collages, often made with dozens of Polaroid images pasted into a dizzying, multi-perspective view of a recognizable scene — his mother at a ruined abbey on a rainy day, or an intersection on a desert highway — are sometimes dismissed as gimmicky. But like the supposed references to minimalism or abstraction, they often have strikingly emotional power. The scene of his mother, in particular, captures her vulnerability in a way that transcends the virtuosity of the photo collage. A pair of shoes, presumably those of the artist, give the work an uncanny emotional power, somehow standing in for the tension between distance and intimacy that marks many close family relationships.
Hockney's more recent work has turned to landscape, rendered in brilliant, even garish colors. Matisse and Van Gogh are clearly in the background, perhaps too much so. But these works are not radically disjunctive from the earlier work. They are rich with the familiar Hockney fascination with how a mark on the canvas conveys information, how formalized and often bizarre the language of painting has always been. Hockney is now 80 years old and has had a prolific career. The most recent works are more difficult to love than the earlier work, but that is in part because they don't seem to fit the expectations we might have of an older painter: They seem more energetic, less contained, and more spontaneous than the work that has come before. They may not be the work for which Hockney is remembered, but one can admire them for what they say about the artist's relation to life. He seems inexhaustible.
David Hockney is on view through Feb. 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For more information, visit metmuseum.org.