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MFA High on Realism

By Cara B. Eisenpress, Crimson Staff Writer

Boston’s winter grayness didn’t make it into the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), where the saturated colors of two new exhibitions testify to the long, eastward journey their artworks made from warmer and brighter climates.

“David Hockney Portraits” and “Light My Fire: Rock Posters from the Summer of Love” both opened at the MFA in February.

David Hockney is a British artist who has been living in Los Angeles since 1978—341 miles and a decade away from equally Californian graphic artists in Haight-Ashbury, who invented the psychedelic poster aesthetic for then-new rock bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.

Hockney has been selling paintings since he was in art school in the 1950s and is best known for his large, realistic canvases of scenes that appear typically “L.A.”; people are frequent subject matter, but so are architectural terraces and geometrically rendered, perfectly landscaped backyard pools. “David Hockney Portraits” is the first exhibit dedicated expressly to Hockney’s work on people.

This limit feels anything but confining. It gives balance and unity to the collection of paintings, prints, video stills, photograph montages, ink outlines, pencil sketches, and crayon drawings from each of the last six decades, including the current one––a bounding diversity that might have felt cumbersome without such a focus.

More importantly, the persistent interest the artist seems to have for depicting people is evident upon entering the exhibit. Unlike other realist artists, Hockney is not satisfied to concern himself with forms like shapes of noses or proportions of torsos. Rather, his portraits capture essences of the people he paints—subject matter close to the artist, as all the works in “David Hockney Portraits” are of people Hockney knows.

The exhibit is organized by classifying the artist’s relationships with the people he uses as subjects. From the first section, “My Parents,” the gallery moves on to “Friends and Lovers” and “Studio Visitors.” Before long, it is compelling and clear and the portraits can speak convincingly for themselves.

A photomontage from the early 1980s, when Hockney was experimenting with photography, hangs close to the exhibit’s exit. It’s called “The Scrabble Game, Jan. 1, 1983,” and it consists of many uncut 4x6 color photographs of the board game being played between the artist and three opponents, including his mother.

Rather than conveying the room and the people as they might have been at one point in time, the piece catalogs the expressions and gestures of the players as the game progresses, repeating images of their faces and bodies. At the bottom of the board on which the photographs are pasted is Hockney’s left hand and his Scrabble board with its seven letters; this places the viewer distinctly in the artist’s viewpoint. Despite nearly erasing himself from the photographs, the traces, his hand, and the words he made on the board, Hockney accentuates his presence in his work.

Knowing the part this interaction with his subjects plays, simple line drawings are transcendent. The galleries are full of such sketches and experiments, which seem minimal, if perfectly accurate, in which the models have expressions which would illegible to strangers, if not for Hockney’s translation.

A series of six small canvases from 1997 show no more than the faces of six friends. Each has a deep green background that plays off the contrasting red tones that saturate the faces, but despite the connections their aesthetic and their proximity draw from one to the next, each face promulgates the personality embedded in the collection of noses, eyes, and cheekbones.

Despite the beauty of the rendering of sketches and the immediacy of studies like this one, the most memorable pieces are the large paintings, acrylic, watercolor, and oil, whose tense compositions intertwine portraits with narrative, especially in the number of works with two people.

“Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott,” from 1969, shows a couple, close friends of Hockney, in a room furnished with little besides a sumptuous pink sofa. One man, Henry, sits comfortably on the couch at center, illuminated from behind by an open window with a city scene. His partner stands in profile at the painting’s right, symmetric with the unadorned lamp at left, looking anxious. Although their story is not clear from the painting, their positions and expressions imply that there is an intricate tangle of feelings involved, and one that Hockney is privy to.

The last paintings in the gallery are from 2005, and like most of Hockney’s oeuvre, they are vibrant and personal. They conclude, without being didactic, the transparent trajectory by which visitors understand how this fantastic artist’s growth is based on talent and fueled by a need for experimentation.

Downstairs, a far smaller exhibit brings together posters advertising San Francisco rock concerts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their deep oranges, pinks, turquoises, and greens rotate in spirals, grace the arabesques of illegible typography, and decorate faces, flowers, and animals.

The psychedelic style is as ingrained in our culture now as the Grateful Dead’s sound, which makes it all the more fascinating to see the conception of this aesthetic here.

Changing colored lights illuminate several prints, which respond with movement—a dancer pulsates, a butterfly flaps its wings in the once lifeless paper.

Suddenly, not only are you no longer in cold Boston, but you are not in 2006. Time has sped backwards and your mind is expanding: you are there at a Doors concert, tripping, in 1967 San Francisco.

—Staff writer Cara B. Eisenpress can be reached at eisenpr@fas.harvard.edu.

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