The Breadth of Hockney’s Brilliance, in Prints at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Because prints are cheaper than non-multiple media such as painting, there is an art world prejudice about them—it is assumed they are less important. That’s not true. All David Hockney’s brilliance is on display in “Hockney: Printmaker” (through May 11) at Dulwich Picture Gallery: his wit, his energy, his technical mastery, and his questing intelligence.

Few artists in history of have employed as many diverse media as Hockney. Etching, both hard and soft ground, aquatint, lithography, computer-drawing—the list goes on and on, including a few of Hockney’s own invention, like the images made with a color photocopier in the 1980s.

Perhaps only his hero Picasso has been as varied. And this may be because they had the same problem: their own virtuosity. Hockney had already attained extraordinary fluency as a draughtsman by 1954, the date of the first works here. He was 17 when he produced these accomplished color lithographs, such as “Fish and Chip Shop.”

A decade or so later, Hockney could—brilliantly—draw like Picasso (when the latter was reviving Ingres, who in turn was emulating

I once asked Hockney why he switched so restlessly from medium to medium. His answer was that doing so forces you to be inventive. Each medium lends itself to certain effects. Etching, for example, essentially consists of fine lines, so it is admirably cut out to convey the elegant modern classicism of the Cavafy suites, and also the more quirky line of Hockney’s first print masterpiece, “A Rake’s Progress” (1961-3).

Color lithography, on the other hand, invites the artist to build the image out of chromatic blocks. “Rain” from his “Weather Series” (1973) is an image entirely in shades of blue, interrupted by thin diagonals of white paper: a downpour causing ripples on that classic Hockney subject, an L.A. pool.

How to pin down transparency and fluidity by making marks on paper or canvas in two dimensions? This is a problem he has pondered for decades. One of the latest images in the exhibition, “Rain on the Studio Window” (2009) toys marvellously with the same conundrum. Famously, Hockney loves to use the adjective “Bigger,” but some of the finest things he has done, many of these prints included, have been miniatures.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

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