David Hockney’s Canyon Is a 24-Foot Postcard

In Washington this summer, the National Museum of American Art–a wholly owned subsidiary of the gargantuan Smithsonian bureaucracy–has been exhibiting a recent painting of the Grand Canyon by the English painter David Hockney. Well, it’s not exactly a painting of the Grand Canyon. Some 60 separate canvases have been mounted to form a grid on four unframed panels that together measure 24 feet in width. The combined canvases give the viewer a gaudy, panoramic view of the Grand Canyon called–what else?–A Bigger Grand Canyon (1998). The result is what might be called Vista Vision painting, embellished with a bit of Mr. Hockney’s whimsical Cubism.

Remember Vista Vision? In my generation, anyway, it was one of the things that ruined Hollywood movies. All that wide-screen space and terrible color vainly attempting to disguise the abysmal absence of dramatic interest! There is a similar feeling of soulless Hollywood kitsch in A Bigger Grand Canyon. It’s as if the entire Grand Canyon had been removed from its natural habitat to “sit” for a portrait by Mr. Hockney in the environs of Southern California. The color is more Sunset Boulevard than anything remotely resembling a natural wonder. The light is that of a Hollywood studio, and both the flora and the topography of the canyon are reduced to decorative props. One half expects to find a Beverly Hills swimming pool nestled in one of the canyon’s steep ravines or atop some cozy plateau.

According to the museum, “A Bigger Grand Canyon was inspired, in part, by the large-scale Grand Canyon view captured by 19th-century landscape painter Thomas Moran … Hockney was intrigued to see how another artist grappled with representing the same vast, heroic space.” In the painting by Moran, which was featured in a big show of the artist’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington last year, the heroic scale of the canyon is indeed rendered as heroic pictorial space. Moran approached this stupendous subject with an appropriate feeling of awe, and with a distinctly religious sense of its spiritual grandeur. In Mr. Hockney’s Bigger version, everything looks smaller, nearer and devoid of distinction. Notwithstanding the large physical dimensions of A Bigger Grand Canyon, Mr. Hockney’s treatment of its subject is the artist’s usual blend of the deadpan and the ironic. This is the Grand Canyon between quotation marks, so to speak–not the Grand Canyon but the “Grand Canyon”–and it is in the nature of this mode of pictorial irony to render every subject it touches as antiheroic.

Now, this mode of pictorial irony is perfectly appropriate for certain portrait subjects, and back in the 1960’s it was employed with great effect in Mr. Hockney’s portraits of literary and art-world eminences. Particularly in the series of double portraits he was then painting–of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and Fred and Marcia Weisman–he had found both the subjects and the style that suited his sensibility as an artist. As I wrote about his work at the time–1969–”He is the kind of artist who needs a face and a body to look at and a situation to grasp before his talents can be fully engaged. What he has done on the present occasion is to carry a certain aspect of Pop art in the direction of Evelyn Waugh–a development both unexpected and often very funny.”

Without a human subject, however, Mr. Hockney’s pictures tend to settle for a decorative irony. When the subject is landscape, the result is pictorial banality–superficiality in both form and content. For a subject like Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, to which Mr. Hockney has devoted some very garish paintings, the punishment may fit the crime. But as a means of encompassing the landscape of the Grand Canyon, decorative irony is merely trivializing, and recourse to Cubist gimmickry only makes matters worse. Cubism, as Mr. Hockney has used it in both his painting and his photo-collages, is little more than an illustrator’s device designed to lend a certain modernist look to what is otherwise a conventional banality. Laying on a lot of neo-Fauve color, as he does in the Mulholland Drive paintings, does nothing to redeem what is essentially a highly colored illustration.

About A Bigger Grand Canyon, Elizabeth Broun, the director of the National Museum, tells us: “The grid of canvases helps underscore the idea that it is not one instantaneous observation but different, multiple views that the mind synthesizes into one.” Alas, this is the kind of museum baby-talk that gives art appreciation a bad name. Has there ever been a painter in the entire history of landscape who did not synthesize “multiple views … into one”? Isn’t this exactly what Thomas Moran did in his painting of the Grand Canyon? As for the claim made by Jacquelyn Days Serwer, the museum’s chief curator, that Mr. Hockney is “one of the most original artists of our time,” the less said the better.

It remains to be noted that the honorary patron of David Hockney’s Grand Canyon, as this fiasco is called, is no less an eminence than Hillary Rodham Clinton. The work remains on view in Washington through Sept. 7, and then travels to the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, Calif., from Sept. 14 to Oct. 24; the Pompidou Center in Paris in January 1999, and the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn in May 1999.

David Hockney’s Canyon Is a 24-Foot Postcard