The Hockney exhibition currently on at Tate Britain is a fabulous show: it gives you everything you could want and more. All the usual suspects are there: A Bigger Splash, candid portraits of friends and family, photo joiners, landscapes of sunny California and rainy Yorkshire, iPad works. But there was one room that really surprised me, which contained his earliest works from the early-1960s, made during and around his time at the Royal College of Art.
These particularly caught my attention because they were so different. Hockney is perhaps best known for the works that launched his career, the luxurious scenes of L.A. life he produced just a few years later; but these developmental pieces seem more raw, more personal. They’re fleshy, filled with phallic forms, scrawled with graffiti-like slurs (“queer”, “queen”) and quotes of Whitman poems (“And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.”). They are undoubtedly and unashamedly about growing up gay: Shame, Going To Be A Queen For Tonight, The Third Love Painting, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, We Two Boys Together Clinging (all painted 1960-61).
It’s important to note that being gay was still illegal at this point in the UK; homosexuality was only partially decriminalised in England and Wales 50 years ago in 1967. London was different from rural Yorkshire, though, in its attitudes. “In 1961, homosexuality was illegal, but I never gave it a thought,” Hockney explained. “The first straightforward gay men I met were at the College – Quentin Blake and Adrian Bird. The Bohemian world was different. There weren’t people telling you off because you weren’t prim and proper or respectable. You were a free spirit and did what you wanted to do.”
Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11 (1962) is a particularly poetic yet comic example: two amorphous beings engage in mutual fellatio, one chained to the bed, with tubes of Colgate oozing toothpaste substituted for genitalia and a tub of vaseline hidden away. The emergence of brands here chimes with the themes of Pop Art, which had emerged in Britain the previous decade. Hockney had got to know Peter Blake at the RCA – “[he] had left four or five years before me, but he would come back” – as well as other emerging British Pop artists, like Derek Boshie and Pauline Boty.
Hockney first visited America in 1961, when he visited New York; he translated the experience into a series of prints inspired by William Hogarth’s 1935 series A Rake’s Progress. But he also read Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreisler before his trip, with many of Dreisler’s novels dealing with the corruption of young American men when they move from the country to the city.
Plate 3a, The Seven Stone Weakling, sees the bespectacled Rake-Hockney mesmerised by two runners in Central Park, an air of American freedom and possibility encapsulated in a simple gaze.
He moved to L.A. in 1964 and stayed there for four years, painting scenes of Hollywood life. Sunbather, Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, The Room (all 1964-66) all capture the spirit of freedom and joie de vivre in Sixties Los Angeles with unmistakable homoerotic undercurrents. He refined his draughtsmanship – see In an Old Book, 1966 or Two Boys Aged 23 or 24, 1966 – and soon expanded into painted portraiture, especially double portraits in acrylic.
Thereafter, his work stagnates in my opinion: his photographic pieces remain intriguing but his excessive landscapes of California, the Grand Canyon and, later, the Yorkshire Dales become repetitive and kitsch. For me, his most interesting art was the early paintings: they are daring, honest and endlessly intriguing.
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