Patrick Procktor: Art and Life, Huddersfield Art Gallery, Huddersfield

Better than Hockney? Maybe, according to this tight, clever show, dedicated to a prolific and neglected Sixties artist

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The Independent Culture

On a screen in Huddersfield Art Gallery, images digitised from the artist's Sixties photo album swim into focus. Many are of a young man – the artist's model lover, Gervase Griffiths, sexy in a rock-star way – wearing not many clothes and, eventually, none at all. It seems you have seen Griffiths's arse somewhere before, hauling itself out of a Los Angeles swimming pool or lying, supine, on a towel. But you haven't, because those bottoms were painted by David Hockney and this one was snapped by Patrick Procktor.

Patrick …? Exactly. Half a century ago, Hockney and Procktor were both in the Whitechapel's New Generation show, and their names have been linked ever since. Which means that you will definitely know Hockney's and very likely not Procktor's. Wisdom has it that there was only room for one painter of the Hockney kind in the 1960s, and Hockney got the job. Which is one of several myths dispelled by Patrick Procktor: Art and Life.

Two things quickly become clear. One is that Procktor did sometimes paint in a Hockney-ish way, particularly after the Yorkshireman reintroduced him to watercolour in 1967. But he also worked in all kinds of other ways, which has not helped his reputation either. The second thing this, tight, clever show makes clear is that Procktor was a very much better painter than Hockney, at least in the sense of being more endlessly proficient.

There are rooms of oils, watercolours and prints, all of them good. There is a two-minute portrait of Mick Jagger in felt-tip pen that is just wonderful. Procktor could turn his hand to anything, and did. He could also paint like anyone, and he did that, too.

In Pure Romance, a Hockney-ish Griffiths grins from a bed past a vase of Winifred Nicholson flowers. The first picture in the show – The Beach: Figures in Red and Black – suggests the influence on Procktor of Francis Bacon. (His heroes in art tended, predictably, to be gay: Bacon, Hockney, Keith Vaughan, Mario Dubsky, Christopher Wood.) There are Patrick Caulfield moments (Boy with a Facial Eruption), echoes of Willem de Kooning, Graham Sutherland-y landscapes. There is even a homage to Whistler, in the form of a portrait called Mother. Like Whistler's, Procktor's parent wears a long black dress. Unlike Whistler's, she looks like Mrs Danvers, or Countess Dracula. It is not a happy image.

But where is Patrick Procktor?

That question haunts his art. "I get an emotional, and almost physical pleasure out of painting people," he once said. "The brush, the colour and the paper, it's a substitute for touch." (Not much of that from Mother, you'd imagine.) In Copt, Procktor himself, in cryptic self-portrait, reaches out across the canvas to touch the flagellated back of a Christ figure, the artist his own Doubting Thomas.

The compositional distance is telling. Francis Bacon liked to be whipped, Procktor to imagine what it might have been like to touch someone else who had been whipped. His is the tourist's view, the voyeur's. His painting allowed him not to feel.

It's easy to see Procktor's life as a kind of fable. He was everything Hockney might have wanted to be and wasn't: tall, pretty, posh, classically skilled, a genuine blond. And that was his curse. Few of his friends and subjects made old age, and neither did he: Griffiths drowned, Eric Emerson overdosed, Derek Jarman and Dubsky died of Aids, Procktor himself of drink. His work is saturated with longing – to be vulgar or clumsy, or merely wrong; to connect. And he couldn't.

Endlessly reaching out, he never quite manages to touch. Try as he might, nothing is ever raw in Procktor's work: it's haute cuisine all the way. In a day when people wanted Wimpy Bars, this told against him. Perhaps his posterity will change, but for his own times, Patrick Procktor was too good a painter to be a good artist.