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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION

David Graves in a Harlequin Shirt

David Graves in a Harlequin Shirt
oil on canvas, in four parts
overall: 106 1⁄2 x 30in. (270.5 x 76cm.)
Painted in 1982
L.A. Louver, Venice, California.
Private Collection, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in 1983).
Private Collection, La Jolla (acquired from the above in 1984).
Private Collection, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in 1988).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
S. Muchnic, 'American/European Painting and Sculpture Part II' in Los Angeles Times no. 8, 2 December 1983.
Venice, L.A. Louver, American/European Painting and Sculpture Part II, 1983.
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Keith Gill
Keith Gill Head of Department

Lot Essay

Occupying extraordinary territory in the history of portraiture, David Graves in a Harlequin Shirt (1982) is a monumental work dating from a pivotal moment in David Hockney’s practice. The finest of the artist’s 1980s portraits ever to come to auction—and among the largest he has ever made—it offers a virtuosic thesis on space, perception and perspective, marking a thrilling chapter in Hockney’s dialogue with the work of Pablo Picasso. The work comprises four canvases, stacked vertically like a totemic sculpture. Seated against a luminous sky-blue backdrop, Hockney’s friend and studio assistant David Graves towers before the viewer, wearing a vivid diamond-patterned shirt reminiscent of Picasso’s celebrated harlequins. Captured from numerous angles simultaneously—his face and limbs multiplied in entangled configurations—Graves’ portrait bears witness to the profound impact of Cubism upon Hockney’s practice. The work’s composite structure and compound perspectives, informed by close study of his Spanish forebear, would fuel the evolution of the artist’s practice: from his photocollages and set designs—areas in which Graves played a vital role—to his vast multipartite landscapes. Not seen publicly since 1983, it is a portrait of the man, the master, the muse and the method that would allow Hockney to conquer vital new ground in his interrogation of human vision.

Painted just two years after Picasso’s major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art had sent Hockney—and the wider art world—into a frenzy, David Graves in a Harlequin Shirt stands among the artist’s most ambitious conversations with his idol. For Hockney, Cubism represented a vital historical turning point, marking the moment that art first began to capture how we truly see the world. The artificial focus of long, extended sittings was replaced by a complex, composite view that accounted for the rapid-fire activity of the human eye and brain. Hockney had toyed with some of these ideas in his seminal suite of ‘double portraits’ during the late 1960s and early 1970s, where subtle warping and manipulation of perspective invited the viewer to move through the picture as if in real time. Here, Hockney’s engagement with Cubism reaches new heights: two faces and two sets of limbs entwine—a double portrait in one—as the kaleidoscopic patterns of shirt and floorboards merge seamlessly into a single hybrid vision. It is a remarkable engagement with Picasso’s legacy, taking its place alongside other major post-war responses to his work: from Francis Bacon’s shifting, multifaceted portraits, to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s electrifying visions of human anatomy.

The work is the largest and finest in a breakthrough group of five multi-canvas portraits that Hockney began in London in 1982, in the wake of his exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris that summer. The show, curated by Alan Sayag, had focused on Hockney’s photography, and had unleashed in him a radical new creative spirit. The process of leafing through his photograph albums in preparation for the exhibition, with the assistance of Graves, had sparked crucial revelations about the medium’s relation to Cubism, leading to a period of obsessive experimentation with composite Polaroids that made their debut at Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York shortly before the Pompidou show. Stopping off in London on his way back from Paris, Hockney began to translate some of these discoveries into paint, exploring—as he wrote to R. B. Kitaj—‘what [the photographs] had taught me about looking’. The present work is one of two depicting Graves; the other formed part of a four-part suite that included portraits of his close friends Celia Birtwell, Ian Falconer and Stephen Buckley. The results, for Hockney, were ground-breaking: ‘I’ve made something of a leap here’, he enthused. ‘Never again will anyone I’m painting have to “sit” for me, in the traditional sense—frozen still for hours. I can deal now with their liveliness’ (D. Hockney, quoted in D. Hockney and L. Weschler, Cameraworks, New York 1984, p. 20).  

To understand the full significance of this ‘leap’, and its consequences for Hockney’s future practice, requires a journey into the artist’s past. As a student, the influence of Picasso had loomed large in his imagination. Hockney returned multiple times to the artist’s 1960 exhibition at the Tate Gallery, fascinated by the sheer range and scope of his practice. Hockney’s early series A Demonstration of Versatility, exhibited at the 1962 ‘Young Contemporaries’ show at the Royal Society of British Artists, was forged in this very spirit, proclaiming his mission—like Picasso—to avoid allegiance to any particular genre or medium. The group, notably, included Figure in a Flat Style (1961), whose figurative use of composite canvases seems to presage the structure of the present work. Following Picasso’s death in 1973, Hockney made numerous works in homage, including Artist and Model (1973)—depicting himself in imaginary conversation with his hero—and Self-Portrait with Blue Guitar (1977), featuring a bust of Dora Maar in the background. He was, for Hockney, ‘the greatest portraitist of the 20th century, if not any other century’ (D. Hockney, quoted in J. Jones, ‘Cooler than Warhol, more enduring than Freud’, The Guardian, 8 September 2006).

By 1980, Picasso was beginning to re-enter the artist’s psyche with renewed significance. The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective, which Hockney attended on two occasions, was a 48-room extravaganza that many would come to regard as one of the finest exhibitions ever hung. Hockney emerged astounded: ‘it’s like the National Gallery all painted by one man’, he wrote. ‘Totally incredible … no artist ever left such incredible evidence of his experience before; it’s like Rembrandt, Piero, Van Gogh and Degas all in one’ (D. Hockney, letter to R. B. Kitaj, 20 May-19 August 1980). During this period, he was also fully immersed in work on the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Eric Satie’s Parade, which drew heavily upon Picasso’s original 1917 designs for the ballet. Hockney’s much-lauded interpretation paid tribute to his forebear in a number of ways, including—notably—nods to Picasso’s harlequin costumes. As he cemented his place on the international stage, Hockney was also beginning to garner comparisons with the man himself. One critic had likened the atmosphere of his 1980 Tate exhibition to the energy one experiences in ‘a room full of Picassos’, while the New York Times wrote that the Pompidou exhibition was ‘as close as he has come yet to paying homage by style’ (B. Levin, The Times, 15 July 1980; A. Grundberg, New York Times, 26 December 1982).

At the centre of this activity was Graves himself. He had been Hockney’s studio assistant since the 1970s, having met him at the opening night of The Rakes Progress at Glyndebourne, which Hockney had also designed. A sculptor, paper restorer and trained architect, Graves was working for Paul Cornwall-Jones at Petersburg Press at the time, and had a studio opposite Hockney’s in London. The artist had known Graves’ then-girlfriend, Ann Upton, since his days at the Royal College of Art: she had sat for him on numerous occasions, and Hockney would later photograph the couple’s wedding, giving rise to the monumental triptych The Wedding of David and Ann in Hawaii 20 May 1983. Graves accompanied Hockney on his return to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, and would become closely involved in his work: he played a particularly significant role in Parade, helping the artist refine the lighting concept by building a quarter-inch scale model of the set and rigging it with different coloured beams. He was also instrumental in Hockney’s photographic output, not only helping him with archives and editions, but also featuring in works including David Graves Looking at Bayswater, London and David Graves Pembroke Studios London Tuesday 27th April 1982—both contemporaneous with the present work—as well as The Scrabble Game of 1983, wearing the same distinctive ‘harlequin’ shirt.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that it was Graves who became a key subject in Hockney’s Picasso-inspired portraits. He was, in many ways, the man who had helped Hockney to reach new heights in his engagement with the Spaniard’s influence. Aside from the present work’s clear painterly debt to Picasso—its vibrant colours, rich textures and foregrounding of pattern—it also demonstrates a deeper understanding of Cubism and its visual logic. What Hockney came to realise during this period was that Picasso’s apparent distortions of space were in fact quite the opposite: by painting multiple overlapping viewpoints, he had achieved what ultimately amounted to a more realistic, more ‘embodied’ representation of how we perceive the world. Hockney’s set designs and photo works had set out to explore this very fact: by banishing painstakingly-observed one-point perspective in favour of fracturing, redoubling and repetition, he came closer than ever before to recreating the non-linear manner in which our eyes process visual information. This, in particular, had been the key revelation of the composite Polaroids, which emulated—in almost literal terms—the way in which multiple snapshot impressions are stitched together by our brain to create something resembling a whole.

In David Graves in a Harlequin Shirt, Hockney translates the thrill of this realisation to canvas. For the first time in his practice, he had succeeded in painting how we perceive a person ‘in the midst of living’ (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, ibid.). In the tangle of limbs, faces, postures and stances, Hockney captures the visceral sensation of looking at the world, placing the viewer at the centre of his own optical journey. It was a major turning point in his practice, giving rise not only to a flurry of ‘Picassoid’ portraits throughout the 1980s, but also to a wider commitment to painting the fundamental ‘feel’ of looking. In 1985, with the assistance of Graves, Hockney published a major 41-page essay on his findings in Vogue, accompanied by a lithograph of Celia Birtwell in the style of the present work. Elsewhere, his composite Polaroids evolved into complex photocollages, or ‘joiners’, consisting of multiple Pentax images stitched together. His paintings of landscapes and interiors, too, would embrace vast multipartite formats, seeking to capture the sense of living and moving within them. Later, Hockney would transpose these ideas to both film and iPad in giant composite views of his native Yorkshire. In the present work lay the kernel of a staggering multi-media empire: one whose scale, ambition and ‘versatility’ was rivalled only by Picasso’s own.

Aside from its significance within Hockney’s oeuvre, the present work also bears witness to a wider narrative within the history of portraiture. It was a story that the artist himself would later attempt to unravel, many years later, in his celebrated 2001 monograph Secret Knowledge. This extraordinary thesis delved deep into painting’s past, in a bid to explore the role played by optical devices in portraiture. Re-employing Graves for the project, he built a giant wall of art-historical reproductions that he scrutinised in detail, eventually concluding that crisp painterly ‘realism’ in art had taken hold at a clear identifiable moment in the fifteenth century, and that tools such as the camera lucida and camera obscura had been used much earlier than previously thought. These findings served to validate Hockney’s regard for Cubism, reaffirming it as the moment that portraiture broke free of centuries of constructed looking, and started to aspire to a more experiential understanding of its subjects. Other Picasso disciples had built their practices on similar understandings: Bacon—who refused to paint from life—believed it was possible to capture ‘all the pulsations of a person’ on a single canvas, while Basquiat turned his figures ‘inside out’, painting their internal and external anatomies as one. Another major artist of the 1980s—George Condo—would develop a practice that he termed ‘psychological Cubism’, seeking to paint figures who embodied multiple, conflicting emotional states.

The significance of David Graves in a Harlequin Shirt, then, lies in the discovery it proclaims. It speaks to the unleashing of a postmodern sensibility in art: one that—after Picasso—taught that simultaneity was the key to understanding the world. ‘[I]f you can see the front and the back, it means that you, the viewer, are in the picture’, explained Hockney, following an encounter with Picasso’s Sleeping Woman (1932) on a visit to the Centre Georges Pompidou some years later. ‘… Picasso has made us not voyeurs, but participants. And that seems to me to be an incredible achievement … It’s more exciting and it makes the world more intimate by drawing us into it’ (D. Hockney, quoted in P. Joyce, Hockney on Art: Conversations with Paul Joyce, Boston 1999, p. 111). Here, through the image of the man who allowed Hockney to significantly expand his engagement with these ideas, the artist invites us to catch ourselves in the process of seeing: to watch as we stand face to face with the mechanics of our own vision. It is a testament to the many-sided, ever-changing nature of human experience, in all its thrilling multiplicity.

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