(Water on Skin) Sensation (David Hockney)


Invested in the anti-aesthetic, people committed to modern and contemporary art, including art critics, often struggle with optimism, pleasure, and beauty. In the case of David Hockney, that is to miss the point and overlook what the aritst shares with more pessimistic painters from his same milieu of postwar British figurative painters like Kitaj and Francis Bacon, another gay artist who stands out as polar opposite to Hockney. As for Hockney’s work, you can see now a large collection of it at a major retrospective at the Met.

About this ambivalence regarding Hockney, here is the great Roberta Smith at the NYT, taking with one hand only to give with the other.

“No, Mr. Hockney, at 80, is not Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter. But he has his own greatness, which flows from openly following his own desires — including his attraction to other men — while rigorously exploring the ways art and life feed each other, visually and emotionally. Full disclosure, forthright joy and forward motion are the dynamos of his art, which in my book at least, gives him an edge over Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.”

Note here the comparison between Hockney and Bacon, which is the difference between pleasure and pain.

At the same time, this review here by Andrea Scott at the New Yorker reminded me of Deleuze writing about sensation in Bacon’s art:

“How acrylic can be thinned to soak into canvas and mimic the blue translucence of water, or how it can be brushed onto a surface in undulating cream-and-gray strokes to convey the plushness of a shag rug underfoot. Sensations—visual, tactile, emotional—are the heart of his project.”

I don’t know terribly much about the scholarship on Hockney apart from general impressions, much of which remain under-interpreted and under-theorized. There has to be more to it than “Americans take showers all the time,” as Hockney once said in the mid 1970s.

I am sure that Deleuze could be of some help here in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, and also Levinas writing in Totality and Infinity about enjoyment and Kant of course, writing in the Critique of Judgment about beauty There is no social conscience here, no moral or political edge. With Hockney, art starts and stops with a more or less stable corporeal sensation. Pleasure and pain are different kinds of sensation, but they are sensation nonetheless. In this body of work, like water on skin in a warm space, the materiality of thin acrylic soaks into a physical surface, creating effects and affects that are translucent.

But what is one supposed to make of the black plant, whose location is central in the bright and aqueous scene, Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills (1964)?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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