The Draw of David Hockney

Senior Curator at the MAC, Hugh Mulholland, on the enduring artist's widespread appeal and bringing his works to Belfast in a fascinating new exhibition

 I don’t know what art schools are like now, but I’m told they don’t do drawing. That seems a bit mad to me, that. - David Hockney

I meet the MAC’s curator, Hugh Mulholland in a little alcove in the building as far away from the sound of hammering and sawing as possible. The exhibition spaces are between shows and this period of transition is noisily unhelpful when you’re attempting to record the human voice. The room is dark and lit by a single white light lending the occasion unnecessary drama; in the back of my head the Mastermind theme underscores the interview. Luckily Hugh, bubbling with enthusiasm about the project, allays my fears from the off.

So, David Hockney, I say, well done! Bit of a coup. 'Thank you', he kindly replies, as if what I’d said was an actual question. 'Yeah, it was a little while in the planning and on a few occasions we thought we were going to have to abandon it. When you reach a certain kind of status as an artist there are a lot of people between an institution asking to exhibit your work and you, the artist. It also coincided with a very difficult and complicated period in Hockney’s life, sadly.'

So how long has this exhibition taken to realise?

'Perhaps two and a half years.' He exhales heavily, the exertion fresh in the memory. 'Part of the reason for looking to people like Hockney is an attempt to create a balance in our exhibitions programme. A lot of the work that we ought to be doing is the exposure of current practice artists who are established but perhaps a bit more experimental. I think a public institution like the MAC is charged with a responsibility to reflect current trends in art and introduce audiences to those trends. Equally we have to appeal to a mass audience as well and offer something which we think an audience is going to immediately be attracted to and Hockney, of course, is one of those names.'

Hockey isn’t just a monolith though, I say, he’s still producing interesting art. So this is really a perfect marriage.

'It is a perfect marriage!' Mulholland agrees. 'This is someone we can say has consistently experimented throughout his career but at the back of the experimentation is this essential skill of drawing; ways of looking and seeing and representing what he sees in the world.'

Hockney is a consummate drawer. It seems to be his lifelong obsession, the interaction between eye and hand is his lasting joy; the peculiar intersections between two states together, clinging. He has said: 'Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still.'

'People respond to the sense of labour that’s involved,' says Mulholland, 'his whole practice has been about this kind of apprenticeship, pushing himself and acquiring and developing new skills.'

Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978

'A Diver (Paper Pool 17)' 1978 © David Hockney / Tyler Graphics Ltd. Photo Credit: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

I draw, I do presents a fascinating glimpse at the early years of the artist. While there are also fantastic later graphic series included in the collection – Hockney’s own 'Rake’s Progess' and his illustrations inspired by Wallace Steven’s 'The Blue Guitar' are both here, it is the scratchy street scenes in muted blues and greens that take us furthest from the Hockney that we think we know.

Mulholland agrees. This was the draw for him too. 'At the very last minute I got a contact at Cartwright Hall in Bradford, and I just thought, those exhibitions (the Royal Academy and the Tate) will have access to those large canvases that are in private collections. It would be nice to go back to the early work.

'So I held off until I went over and saw what work they had and became really excited by some of the early pencil drawings because even at that very early stage you could see this clarity of line, and confidence, and you could see something that has been evident, the closeness and his dependence on a small circle of friends and family. There was an intimacy to that work that I thought was very interesting.

'He was also living in and working at Bradford and Bradford, at the time, was an industrial city, dark and grey, and there’s a sense of that in these early observational street drawings that he made. It was interesting because everybody in their mind has this image of a swimming pool, those blues and yellows, and this Californian lifestyle, and at the very beginning there was this depiction of the bleakness of the industrial north.'

As we leaf through the photographs of the exhibition it becomes clear that Hockney's commitment to the art of seeing is constant. It is perhaps why he has remained an interesting and vital artist, while contemporaries have fallen by the wayside or lapsed into self-parody. He will embrace different technologies, different techniques, different ways of recording his experience, but he never flags in this commitment to his art.

For the curator this collection sits cheek by jowl with the other Hockney retrospectives.

'This exhibition sits among two other major Hockney exhibitions happening this year. I don’t think they’re drawing on too many of these earlier graphic works so I think that for us there’s something that makes the exhibition quite distinctive. For me and the MAC it’s important to create opportunities for people to see work here.

'We may not have the draw of the Royal Academy but I think you can make a connection between one exhibition and another. I think if you were to see all three exhibitions it would give a greater understanding of Hockney’s whole body of work.'

There’s always something special about seeing an artist’s early, formative works – it’s a truism to say that biographies get less interesting the as the person gets older: you know all that stuff, that’s the stuff they’re famous for! But to see an artist’s early works and to realise the unwavering tenacity of their vision over the course of a long life is something to be enjoyed and celebrated, and David Hockney: I draw, I do delivers on this brilliantly.

David Hockney: I draw, I do opens at the MAC, Belfast on Friday, August 19 and runs until Sunday, October 16. Join Senior Curator Hugh Mulholland for a guided tour through the gallery spaces on Thursday, October 8. To book tickets visit www.themaclive.com/art.

Header image credits:
David Hockney "Self Portrait" 1954, Collage on newsprint 16 1/2 x 11 3/4", © David Hockney, Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt
David Hockney "Margaret Hockney" 2008, Inkjet printed computer drawing on paper, Edition of 12 49 x 33 1/2", © David Hockney