(David Hockney; Collection Art Institute of Chicago; photo by Richard Schmidt)

David Hockney (b. 1937)

American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968

On view at the Art Institute of Chicago

Great Works, In Focus

Make a fist

This 1968 David Hockney painting suggests complex social relationships, partly by leaving them out

David Hockney’s “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman),” 1968. On view at the Art Institute of Chicago. (David Hockney; Collection Art Institute of Chicago; photo by Richard Schmidt)

David Hockney painted this electrifying double portrait of two art collectors, Fred and Marcia Weisman, in Los Angeles in 1968. That was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and just three years after the Watts Riots rocked Los Angeles. The riots prompted a commission, headed by former CIA director John McCone, which attributed the underlying causes to the high unemployment, poor schools and inferior living conditions endured by African Americans in Watts. McCone’s report recommended emergency literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing and more job-training projects, but hardly any of it was ever implemented.

I mention all this only because … well, because.

I invite you now to pay attention to Fred Weisman’s fist, which is squeezed so tight that the paint from which it is made seems to drip from it in two vertical streaks.

The so-called art world presents a puzzle that no one has ever solved. What is the relationship between the special energy of artists, the acquisitive energy of wealthy collectors and the broader energy of the society they share?

There is no single answer. It depends on the artists, the collectors and the society you are talking about. But a double portrait, in the Art Institute of Chicago, by a gay Yorkshireman in Los Angeles depicting the daughter of the Hunt Wesson Foods empire and her art-crazy husband in a country undergoing unprecedented social upheaval presents a fascinating case.

Hockney’s double portraits are among his greatest achievements. He began this one a month after embarking on the first, a double portrait of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

It was 1968. In January, Hockney had mounted a well-received show, which included what is now his most famous painting, “A Bigger Splash,” at the Kasmin Gallery in London. The previous year (in which homosexual acts between consenting men 21 and over had been legalized in England and Wales), Hockney and his 18-year-old boyfriend, Peter Schlesinger, a student at UCLA, went on a road trip across Europe.

After the show closed, Schlesinger joined Hockney in New York and, together with gallery owner John Kasmin, they set off on a second road trip, this time to Los Angeles with a stop at the snow-covered Grand Canyon. “It was like an ‘Easy Rider’ in a Volkswagen,” wrote Hockney. Hockney had a new Pentax camera. He and Schlesinger took hundreds of photos.

All this is to give an idea of Hockney’s energy.

What about the Weismans’ energy? Beginning in the 1950s, they had built up one of the best collections of contemporary art in the United States. They had work by abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, and by pop or proto-pop artists including Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.

Marcia Weisman had asked Hockney, whose early work combined both pop and abstract expressionist influences, to paint her husband. But Hockney didn’t take commissions, and instead proposed this picture.

What to say about it? The raking light is incredible; echt California. The colors: exquisite. The way Marcia’s hot pink dress chimes with the jade and turquoise of the William Turnbull sculpture between them and the blue sky is utterly brilliant.

The composition is almost terrifyingly tight. Only the Native American totem pole at right is not either a strict frontal or side view. The paint: very thin. Up close, you see Hockney’s hypersensitivity to tones winning out over attention to details. And the texture: wonderfully various against the smoothing effect of the raking light. The stone paving, for instance, is black and white dashes on a tan ground, while the biggest stone in the Turnbull sculpture is scarred by hatched striations.

All these formal qualities feed into the psychological aspect, epitomized by Fred Weisman’s dripping fist. The two collectors, almost impossibly rigid, have been transformed (“reified,” the Marxists would say) by the Los Angeles light and by this cheeky, bohemian artist into objects almost indistinguishable from the objects they have acquired.

Meanwhile, the weather is beautiful, and in Watts, another boy has been drafted to fight Communists in Vietnam.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.