Drawing is not an art, it's a cause

This is the show where David Hockney set out to prove that drawing is the foundation of all art. By Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture
Drawing. Capital D, Drawing. It is more than a medium or an art. It's a cause - something that's spoken up for, something we ought to get back to, or so they argue. One who has often argued it is David Hockney; he argued it again earlier this week, and this may add a kind of emphasis to his "Drawing Retrospective" which has just opened at the Royal Academy.

A display of work becoming also a demonstration of a case? It isn't just that one knows where Hockney stands, it's the way it's curated, too. There are drawings of all sorts. Early art- school exercises from his Bradford years. Studies and designs for other works. Life sittings. Finished portraits. Free inventions. Notebook sketches. All drawing: and the fact that they are put together, regardless of occasion, makes drawing as such, and this exemplary life spent drawing, into the show's guiding theme. But a false trail, I think it would be. Best to leave the cause out of it.

The cause of drawing is a dodgy affair. It keeps changing base. There is the "Ingres" argument: "Drawing is the probity of art", art's essential training ground, its guarantee (all art?). There is the "Caveman" argument: look at Lascaux: drawing is a basic human instinct, a biological need which we deny at our peril. There is the "Latin" argument: drawing is valuable for its own sake, an act of intense attention, a physical and intellectual discipline. All these could be reasons for drawing, as an activity. The last one is a very good reason. But what seems to slip out of the picture is the proof - drawings.

Drawings themselves are the strongest argument for drawing. For example, Ingres's drawings, or the caveman's, or Hockney's - or some of them. It is drawings, certain drawings, that make you glad that someone did and could draw. I don't deny that most drawings have an aspect of activity, work-in-progress, trial-and-error. They show their workings so visibly. This is very interesting to observe, and part of what we value in them. But how these workings work out, case by case, not the business of drawing per se, is what you're grateful for.

Hockney's drawing has always been a matter of self-disruption. It's often at its most delightful when most equivocal. And in its first decade - from his arrival at the RCA in 1959 - it doesn't evolve; it picks up and grafts. First the carefully marked observation skills learnt at Bradford get bolshed up with graffiti scratchings, dumb bluntness and rude words. (The curators don't blush, cataloguing one drawing as Fuck (Cunt), to distinguish it from another Fuck (My Brother).) Then the joint influence of life-work and Physique Pictorial adds an elegant illustrational manner. Then there's a bit of hieratic ancient Egypt. By the mid Sixties he has a drawing syntax which is slick, formal, gauche, correct, wild - each tendency qualifying the others. You can sometimes follow these gear-changes (animated/ diffident) along the length of a single line. It is the making of the typical Hockney boy, the anatomy losing and regaining its tension and articulation, stiff inflatable, wonky puppet, living muscle in one. An early example is caught in Man Running Towards a Bit of Blue.

This equivocal hand is, if you like, Hockney's style. It's often splintering up into its ingredients. But often, too, he sets it off with something which is definitely not his hand - something impersonal, objective and bold. That's not me, that's a bit of typography, or a bit of pure geometrical design: those abstracted modernist buildings. Or, here's a block of sheer, undiluted colour: the scribbliness of crayon startlingly concentrates into areas of total saturation. Or, here's a concept, a neat graphic idea: the stylised ripples of swimming pools. These devices are a further sort of pictorial irony.

At which point - the later Sixties - there's a straightening out, a let's- get-serious about drawing and about people: life-drawing, the real stuff. You could see it as a humanisation. It's certainly a resolving of the repertoire into almost a single manner, stylish-academic, smoothly modulating between tones, and between sketchiness and definition. Those properly sat-for portraits of friends - Celia, Henry, Gregory - become, in the Seventies, without play and, at this level of accomplishment, without much risk.

They need some. Life-drawing, however good a thing, has a clear quid pro quo. Its subjects tend to be the life-drawn. If it's pictures you're after (as apart from practice), they're going to be pictures of people standing, sitting or lolling in drawable positions. The interest of such pictures is mostly going to be in the performance. Here we have crayon- work that is sensitive, delicate, economical, very fine, slightly sugary, what-is-the-point life-drawing.

But contemporary with these are Hockney's most astonishing productions, the pure line ink life-drawings - the portraits of WH Auden and of Henry in Italy, and many pictures of Peter lying around seductively in hotel rooms. Here every stroke is on its pins, ink forbidding error. No corrective back-tracking. No anticipatory roughing-out. The drawing is like that toy where you have to manoeuvre a ring very carefully around and along a serpentine wire without touching it (if you do, a bell goes off); it is fatal to rush, equally fatal to hesitate, until the end. These drawings are watchable from moment to moment, as the lines track their way round each representational problem without losing sight of the whole emerging picture. If there's a case for drawing here, it's drawings like these that must be the leading exhibits.

Thereafter, it seems to me, the past 15 years have been aftermath. He can do more or less what he wants with pen and pencil, but it's coasting. The Polaroid collages were a great idea, taking literally the idiot's guide to Cubism - objects shown from different angles - and producing something that didn't really look like Cubism, but looked exciting. One or two are included here, being considered by Hockney a form of drawing. (I'm sorry the curators didn't break traditional distinctions in other ways and include some etchings, too.) As for the other post-Cubist stuff, those curly landscape thingies and blobby object thingies, they're a kind of fun you can't join in.

In a way, Hockney is as curious and various as ever, but the catalogue's final chapter heading, "Demonstrations of Versatility", is an aptly dubious compliment. (There's no need to demonstrate: he got that job years ago.) And if the drawing lobby were to point to this later work and say: Couldn't do that, could you, without a lifetime's drawing behind you? - well, they'd probably be right, but I suspect they, too, would feel this wasn't the place to force the issue.

To 28 Jan. At the Royal Academy, London W1 (0171-439 7438)