Am I asleep or awake? Has the world gone mad? Can it really be true that the building once cosily referred to by all those Harris-Tweedy connoisseurs as the old Millbank Tate is about to stage yet another exhibition by dear old Hockney, that cussedly flat-capped, chain-smoking, Horlicks-quaffing Yorkshireman? (Or is it Bovril? I almost forget.)
Do we really need one though? Did we not see a giant show by Hockney at the Royal Academy in 2012? That one was called A Bigger Picture. And did not that very same private institution stage an exhibition of 80 portraits, several cross-legged, of his colourful friends – there were such colours! – upstairs in the Sackler Galleries during the second half of last year? And was it not yet another work by Hockney that was the talking point of their summer exhibition in 2007, when he and his team of deftly muscular laddermen erected Bigger Trees near Warter, the largest, multi-part painting that had ever been shown there? I could go on. Let me.
And did not the National Portrait Gallery stage an even more comprehensive exhibition of his portraits just a few months before that? And do I not myself have vivid memories of seeing, in a giant museum in a small town in Swabia, just a couple of days before the day before the day before yesterday, an enormous show of his east Yorkshire landscapes, and of sitting with the man himself, on a low wall, just after yet another tediously protracted German press conference, nodding compliantly, as he confidingly described to me his daily routine – up at five to catch the best of the light, and back in bed again before eight? And were there not also several smaller shows at Annely Juda, his gallery in Mayfair, over these same years? In short, is there any part of the world that would refuse him entry? Somewhere as morally draconian as Singapore perhaps? But does he have careless habits with his gum?
Big? Too often exposed? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
The one due to open at the Tate, with 160 physical works, rolling screens of iPad and iPhone drawings, and various rooms of giant video pieces – one if these will be an 18-screen video wall – will be a yet bigger picture still. But are there new works in this show, works still wet to the touch? A handful, no more than a handful.
But why do it it all? Why keep showing him off to this brazen degree? Do we really need to keep up with the the fruits of his unstoppable work ethic? Would not a couple of aircraft hangars up in the Minnesotan wilderness do just as well? Many works by artists of greater or lesser talent have to suffer in this way, in silence, squeezed into well constructed aluminium racks, in the dark. What could the reasons possibly be for the fact that every plumber, every pen-fiddler, has his Hockney favourite, that all that idle Hockney banter needs to be cranked up all over again? There are several possible answers to this question. I rank them in order of probability, with the most plausible last.
That it is a touching birthday gift to David, whose 80th birthday, slightly disappointingly, falls in July, not long after the show is due to close.
That it would be almost impossible to do otherwise because he is “our greatest living artist”, an honour that was nudged in his direction a matter of seconds after Lucian Freud, our most recently deceased greatest living artist, albeit one maddeningly born in Berlin, died in July 2011.
That he is indeed our greatest living artist, of which a little more later as the argument gains pace.
That he makes money for himself and all the rest of us.
Let us look at the money issue first. No one has ever tried to claim that he is a greedy man. Careful yes, greedy no. In fact, being a Yorkshireman myself, I have it on good authority that I have never met a greedy Yorkshireman. But he is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser. Not long before A Bigger Picture opened at the Royal Academy in 2012, I received an unusual gift from its press office. It was an iPad drawing of a motorway scene, sent to me by David, with his best wishes. Some months later I asked him whether I could upload it to the Bow-Wow Shop, my online poetry magazine, and invite all my readers to download it in their turn. I wrote to him, to ask permission. He said yes. He also said something else. He told me that there had been 600,000 visitors to A Bigger Picture. Not bad for an old RA, he chortled. I had to agree.
Does Tate Britain need a crowd pleaser like Hockney to bolster its fortunes? It certainly does. Consider these attendance figures. The Barbara Hepworth show attracted 124,000 visitors, the Auerbach 90,000, Artist and Empire 63,740 and Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979, to which last I award the Cold Potato Prize of Least Visually Alluring Show of the decade, just 27,174. Who would not crave for a Hockney in such circumstances?
One of the men who will be most pleased to be staging this show is the newly appointed director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson. He and I had lunch together when Nottingham Contemporary opened in 2009. He was its first director, and he opened the gallery with a show of works from the 1960s by... Hockney.
Oh no, not Hockney again! I lamented in the review I wrote for The Independent. Why Hockney? I asked Alex. Why take unnecessary risks? he replied. He will be eagerly anticipating the fruits of the forthcoming lack of risk-taking. But others will undoubtedly profit handsomely too. Simultaneously, a private print gallery behind the Ritz in Mayfair called Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, for example, will be staging a show of all Hockney's print output between 1961 and 1963. Many of the works will be for sale. What a deft selling opportunity with so much clamour in the air!
But why are we doing all this anyway? Is Hockney really deserving of this ridiculous amount of attention on the grounds of merit alone? Certainly not. He can be wonderful – some of those early prints were wonderful. He can be awful – as he so often was in the 1980s, when he played at being Picasso or doggedly painted his dogs. He can also be no better than pretty good. Many of his portraits look tossed off. Part of his success is due to the fact that he has always had this canny ability to win us all over. When he came down to London from Bradford in the early 1960s, he knew how to deal with the toffs. Nothing fazed him. He knows how to talk about what he wants to talk about. And has his being gay and a Yorkshireman, a Yorkshire-Californian who possesses a bit of the stardust of being a sort of cannily sited local internationalist, helped a bit too? Undoubtedly. The lad is indisputably ours, of course, but he has also made glamorous good beside the sun-soaked pool, you know the sort.
Part of the reason for Hockney's success is that so much of the work is so agreeable to look at. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t hold us to account. He is not dangerously experimental. It’s full of content. It's safe to look at. It doesn't bamboozle or madden or intellectualise or seem to be asking particularly difficult or self important questions about perception or the nature of subjectivity. It’s quite often the stuff of racy Aunt Edith’s drawing room. Good for her – if she can bring herself to wrench the mouldering stacks of 10-bob notes out from beneath the mattress.
'David Hockney' is at Tate Britain, 9 February to 29 May
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