Monday, April 25, 2016

Randall Wright | Hockney

the far side of paradise

by Douglas Messserli

Randall Wright Hockney / 2016

Too bad Randall Wright’s documentary on artist David Hockney isn’t as intelligent as his subject. Although this film relays a great deal of autobiographical material, about his hometown in Bradford, England, his early days in art school, his move to New York and soon after to his beloved Los Angeles, his gay relationships, including his long term relationship with a young art student, Peter Schlesinger—which ended unhappily in the 1970s—and his long-term friendship with curator Henry Geldzaler—whose death was perhaps even a greater shock for the artist—the documentary leaves huge gaps along the way, often suggesting more than it actually shares about the artist’s life and ideas.

       We do get some wonderful archival moments, as when Betty Freeman describes dusting her then-husband’s collection of big-game animal heads, and insisting, accordingly, that he call his painting of her, Beverly Hills Housewife, and Raymond Foye’s painful discussion of how so many of Hockney’s friends died of AIDS. Geldzahler dances and mugs before the camera on Fire Island. And there are numerous wonderful moments with the artist painting and installing some of his major works, including A Bigger Splash and Bigger Trees Near Water. However, far more of the art is simply shown without any commentary.

       At points the movie seems to meander back and forth in time, refusing to even explain why, after years in Los Angeles, Hockney returned for a time to his native England. Although the film mentions, time and again, Hockney’s influence by Picasso, we hear only general comments from the author himself, who in his lectures on Picasso was absolutely brilliant.

        Although the film does briefly talk about Hockney’s attempt to rid art of the vanishing point, suggesting that might change the whole we perceive reality, it does fully explain the methods he used to achieve this. His fascination with the rippling water of swimming pools is briefly discussed but the balance in his work between the abstractions of water and other objects and the representations of human beings in basically ignored.

        We get a full discussion of how, after seeing a Clairol add on American television, Hockey immediately became a blond. But we have hardly any explanation of why he was so drawn to representational art, and what he personally meant to him to continue to challenge old ways of seeing.        

     If some of this is hinted at, more is simply ignored as the camera, as if belonging to a photographer for Home and Garden longingly savors the décor of the several houses in which he lived, at Malibu, for example, spending several moments just huddling over a full-lit fireplace while above the sea roils in. The beautiful landscapes of Yorkshire appear without a word.

         The film spends minutes peering out the narrow view of his childhood window without bothering to mention that that very “lack” of view might have a hand in why Hockey ultimately worked on such vast linear landscapes such as his Grand Canyon and Mulholland Drive works.

      The documentary does attempt to describe why and how Hockney was drawn to photography in his own works, but you’d hardly know that he was an expert of much of art history, except for his mother leafing through a childhood art book. 

       Nonetheless, for Howard and me, this film was pleasant, if for no other reason than being able to spot so many friends and acquaintances, some now gone: Freeman, Christopher Isherwood, and Geldzahler, among the dead, while the living include Foye, curator Stephanie Baron, Don Bacardy, and, of course, Hockney himself.

Los Angeles, April 24, 2016

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