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'Hockney' paints an intimate portrait

by David-Elijah Nahmod 

David Hockney paints "Woldgate Before Kilham" (2007). Photo: Jean-Pierre Goncalves
David Hockney paints "Woldgate Before Kilham" (2007). Photo: Jean-Pierre Goncalves  

After viewing Hockney, viewers might feel as though they've been personally introduced to the renowned, openly gay artist David Hockney. In Randall Wright's well-made feature-length documentary, we meet the now-78-year-old and still active Hockney and his younger self. We learn, in intimate detail, about his artistic and romantic loves, and about what inspires him.

A legendary painter, Hockney is also an avid photographer. As Hockney explains in the film, he prefers painting because photographs, which are created in the blink of an eye, lack the love, warmth, time and craftsmanship that it takes to create a painting.

Hockney had a distinctive personal look for much of his life. His pageboy blond hair and circular black-rimmed glasses would have made him stand out in a crowd even had he not become a famous artist. Early in the film, Wright lets viewers know what inspired that look: a Clairol commercial that the British-born Hockney saw on American television during his first visit to the States more than a half-century ago. These seemingly trivial details humanize the artist.

Much of Hockney's work was inspired by his love for Los Angeles, a city where he has lived for many years. "It's got all the energy of the United States, but with the Mediterranean thrown in," he said of the sun-drenched, ocean-front movie capital. LA was a far cry from the drab working-class neighborhood where Hockney spent his youth. He never bought into the myth that LA is a "cultural wasteland," as some have called it. After all, the city serves as home to Hollywood, and he's enjoyed a lifelong love of the movies.

As Wright's camera glides past many of Hockney's paintings, the bright and sunny influence of Los Angeles can clearly be seen. There are a number of poolside and beachfront portraits of surfer boys. As early as the 1960s, Hockney was quite open about his homosexuality. He lived, he points out, in bohemia, where sexuality has never been an issue.

Home-movie footage shows Hockney with his first lover, pretty-boy art student Peter Schlesinger, who was an early muse and who ultimately broke his heart. Friends of Hockney who share their memories of those days include actor-playwright Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen on TV's Adventures of Superman) and artist Don Bachardy, who for many years was the partner of openly gay author Christopher Isherwood. Viewers will also meet the first out gay man that Hockney ever knew. That man, along with his father, taught Hockney to never fear what people thought of him. He never did.

Hockney the film now emerges as a loving look inside the private life of a man who always remained true to himself and his art. (Opens Friday.)