Portrait of a portraitist


The distinguished British artist David Hockney began winning acclaim, and notoriety, during the 1960s, at the dawn of his career.

Given his somewhat mundane and irreverent imagery, he was often grouped with other British and American artists associated with the Pop Art movement. But Hockney, who was born in 1937, has not only outlived most of his contemporaries, he has continued to grow in terms of technical skills, points of view and emotional insights.

While renowned as a painter, Hockney has experimented with all kinds of media, including drawing, printmaking, photography, digital imagery and stage design.

Having primarily challenged himself, he has in turn attracted legions of admirers. Indeed, Hockney can now be considered a contemporary “old master.”

Thanks to a huge gift of British art in 1996 from Richard Brown Baker (1912-2002), a Providence native and a brilliant collector, the RISD Museum acquired three works by Hockney.

One is a pen-and-ink portrait, created in 1969, and another is an aquatint of a reclining figure, made six years later. But my favorite Hockney at the RISD Museum is an acrylic painting on canvas (6 feet tall by 4 feet wide), made in 1964. Titled “Plastic Tree Plus City Hall,” it sardonically portrays the landmark office tower in downtown Los Angeles, my hometown.

Hockney grew up in Bradford, England, then studied in London, but began living in L.A. that very same year. After teaching briefly at UCLA, he decided to stay in the city, but he has also traveled widely.

Yes, much of Hockney’s early art portrays swimming pools, palm trees and hillsides, as well as light, glamour and effervescence: a world of pleasure, if not hedonism. And Hockney has never been shy about portraying gay culture.

Yet a great many of his portraits, especially of friends and lovers, display kindness, charm and intimacy. Among his many portraits of colleagues, including Jews, I especially admire Hockney’s portraits of Henry Geldzahler, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first curator of modern art – such warmth and dignity.

In 1978, as an interviewer in UCLA’s Oral History Program, I became friendly with two Hockney clients, Fred and Marcia Weisman. In 1968, the couple, having become major collectors of contemporary art, commissioned a double-portrait, an acrylic on canvas, 7 feet tall by 10 feet wide.

After their divorce, Fred established a museum in his new residence, and Marcia, whom I came to know much better, became a key leader and benefactor of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

By the time I had met the Weismans at their Beverly Hills home, Andy Warhol had already created their portraits, which I saw hanging in their Malibu residence.

One day, Marcia offered to take me to see a new Warhol show at an L.A. gallery. I offered to drive my Toyota, which I thought was apt, because Fred was an East Coast importer and distributor of such vehicles. Marcia decided, however, to drive her Bentley.

No doubt the Weismans had been inspired by a renowned art collector, Norton Simon, who not only built his own fabulous art collection but ultimately installed it in the failed Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. Norton was Marcia’s older brother, and Fred and he had been business partners for decades before their financial separation.

 Yes, the Simon-Weisman family were Jews, but, as far as I could gather, they were not major supporters of Jewish causes. However, they did belong to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where my family belonged, and Marcia helped Cedars-Sinai Hospital acquire some art.

Fred also helped his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, erect an art museum, which was designed by another Angeleno with a rather modest Jewish profile, Frank Gehry. Early in his career, before achieving stardom, Gehry had renovated the Weismans’ kitchen.

Why did Hockney’s haunting portrait of Marcia and Fred, who had posed beside a Henry Moore sculpture and a Native American totem pole in their verdant backyard, end up at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is quite prominently displayed? Essentially, the Weismans didn’t like it. Marcia looks far from attractive, and Fred resembles a zombie. At the time he posed for the portrait, he was in fact recovering from a beating by Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard. I probably shouldn’t say much more about this bizarre incident, though the perpetrator is also deceased.

I’m not sure what Fred and Marcia had paid Hockney, but their portrait is now probably worth tens of millions of dollars. When I last saw it, in 2018, at the Metropolitan Museum, as part of Hockney’s traveling, international retrospective exhibition, I wanted to tell other visitors that the Weismans were good people – at least to me – and that they had suffered numerous misfortunes. Hockney never knew this, or didn’t much care. Since 1968, however, he has accepted very few portrait commissions.

 By the late 1970s, my younger sister, Betty, had become a Hockney fan. A journalist, she once interviewed him at his studio on Mulholland Drive, atop the Hollywood Hills.

On April 18, 1985, when I saw a major traveling exhibition of Hockney’s theater designs, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I happened to recognize Hockney. So I asked him to autograph a copy of the exhibition catalog for Betty. He seemed angered by my request, but also accepted my flattery. So, to be rid of me, he complied.

Betty and her husband, Keith, who became deeply interested in contemporary art, eventually acquired three Hockney prints.

My wife, Betsey, and I recently visited London, primarily to savor its superb art museums. We encountered only one Hockney painting, “A Bigger Splash,” created in 1967. One of 10 Hockneys belonging to Tate Britain, it portrays a backyard swimming pool. There’s a splash, but no people.

Betsey and I almost accidentally encountered a Hockney self-portrait from 2012 in a Mayfair restaurant aglow with contemporary art. I thought that this image was a lithograph, but later learned that it was an iPad drawing printed in an edition of 25.

How this artist continues to challenge and perhaps surpass himself!

The RISD Museum needs an even bigger and better Hockney painting. Perhaps a portrait of Betsey and me?

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.