By Chris Wallace
David Hockney is having public words with fellow English artist Damien Hirst. Both have big shows opening soon – old lion Hockney next week at the Royal Academy and middleaged lion Hirst in April at Tate Modern. No-one’s going to get killed in the Hockney-Hirst blue but the spatter-pattern made by the flying words is interesting.
Posters for the Hockney show incorporate a note which reads: “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” Pressed, Hockney confirmed it was a sledge directed at Hirst, much of whose work is executed by studio assistants. Hirst famously once said he couldn’t be “arsed” actually turning his concepts into artworks and concedes the best dots in his trademark dot paintings were produced by an assistant - and that the dots he painted himself were pretty ordinary by comparison.
Hockney, in contrast, underwent exhaustive, craft-based art training and is committed to producing work by his own hand. Christopher Simon Sykes’ new biography recounts Hockney’s fight to break out of Bradford Grammar and enroll at Bradford School of Art’s junior school, and the cunning he had to deploy to study painting there when he graduated to tertiary studies, facing down family and institutional pressure on him to prepare for a career in commercial art. He tells of Hockney’s triumph when he was admitted for post-graduate painting studies at the Royal School of Art and moved south to London, working impossibly long hours in training built on the idea that only when the craft is mastered can art be produced – by the artist him or herself, not a sidekick.
Of course, Hirst’s approach has much older antecedents. If we could visit the studios of Renaissance artists like those whose works are on show at the NGA right now, apprentices doing their masters work in much the way Hirst’s studio assistants do now would be seen as commonplace. Nevertheless Hockney’s comment hit home, especially when he subsequently amplified them. “I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft, it’s the poetry you can’t teach,” Hockney said. “But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.”
Hockney is on the record claiming many contemporary artists just can’t draw. Many of his early breaks, the new Sykes biography of him makes clear, flowed from his ability as a draughtsman, including his admission to the Royal College of Art. It was 1957 and concern about an overpreponderance of abstract artists in student ranks gave the figurative work of Hockney a boost in the selection process. Arguably it’s a significant factor in the popularity of Hockney’s work, too. Few visitors miss “A Bigger Grand Canyon” (1998), for example, when they visit the NGA, and not just because it’s been hung over the escalator. (Interestingly, that’s the painting Hockney has chosen to adorn the home page of his own website).
Damien Hirst has responded goodnaturedly to the Hockney sledge. “It made me laugh,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “David is a friend and emailed to say it was a light-hearted comment that was taken out of context.” Certainly, both Hirst and Hockney are getting terrific publicity from it – many more people know about their forthcoming exhibitions as a result of the Hockney-induced argybargy.
Far from undercutting its content, though, the context of Hockney’s comments underline his seriousness. In a way The Guardian headline pitting them “head to head with solo London shows” is right. Hockney, 74, is mounting a monster of an exhibition at the Royal Academy. It’s current work, not a retrospective, and features landscapes of his beloved Yorkshire of massive scale.
“I work always – I don’t stop working – but the scale of the work would be different if I wasn’t doing it for here,” Hockney has said of the Royal Academy show. “I simply wouldn’t do it that big. So it was an opportunity, and I am an opportunist, so I’m going to take it. And I did.”
It’s the old lion slapping the maw of the middleaged contender with a big paint-spattered paw, saying: “Okay, show us what you can do that matches that.” I wouldn’t want to be Hirst come April. He may well not measure up so well. All Hirst will need is the red tops picking up Hockney’s cue and it could get very ugly indeed. Never mind. They’ll both end up laughing all the way to the bank.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 14 January 2012