It’s a watershed painting. In this picture David finally gave up the idea of being a “modern artist” and decided, instead, to be the best artist he could be’
A masterpiece of pictorial drama from the collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott stands among the great icons of David Hockney’s oeuvre. Monumentally scaled and intimately observed, it is a glowing meditation on human and visual relationships, set within a panoramic theatre of colour and form. Hockney’s closest friend Henry Geldzahler – the legendary curator, critic and king of the New York art world – dominates the centre of the composition, framed by the city’s skyscrapers. Christopher Scott, his then-boyfriend, hovers to the right like a fleeting apparition. Completed in 1969, it is the third work in the career-defining series of seven double portraits that Hockney created between 1968 and 1975. With four held in museum collections, these extraordinary seven-by-ten-foot canvases represent the culmination of the artist’s naturalistic style, initiated in his Californian swimming pool paintings of the mid-1960s. Structured like a devotional triptych or an Annunciation scene, the painting stages an enigmatic dialogue between subjects and artist. Through crystalline use of one-point perspective, Hockney places himself in crisp communion with Geldzahler, casting Scott as a temporary imposter. Spatial and psychological tensions flood the scene, amplified by the scintillating play of light, shadow and texture across multiple glass surfaces. It is a thesis on the acts of seeing and knowing, presided over by the man who taught the world how to look at contemporary art. ‘It’s a watershed painting’, said Geldzahler. ‘In this picture David finally gave up the idea of being a “modern artist” and decided, instead, to be the best artist he could be’ (H. Geldzahler, quoted in P. Richard, ‘The Painter and His Subject’, The Washington Post, 30 March 1979, p. 8).
The work’s provenance, along with its extensive exhibition history, is exceptional. In 1969, it was unveiled in Hockney’s solo show at André Emmerich Gallery, where it was described as ‘truly amazing’ and ‘totally hypnotizing’ by New York magazine (J. Gruen, ‘Open Window’, New York, 12 May 1969, p. 57). It was acquired from the gallery that year by Harry N. Abrams, the renowned American art book publisher and distinguished collector. Abrams would go on to publish the first reprint of Hockney’s seminal autobiography David Hockney by David Hockney in 1977, and the work remained in his family collection until 1992. Under this stewardship, it featured in a number of significant exhibitions, including Pop Art Redefined – one of the earliest shows at London’s newly-founded Hayward Gallery in 1969 – as well as major touring retrospectives organised by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (1974), the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1984-85) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1988-89). In 1997, it became one of the final pieces to enter the prestigious Ebsworth collection, offering a rare British addition to one of the world’s greatest assemblages of twentieth-century American art. Long admired by the collector, it took its place alongside Edward Hopper’s 1929 masterpiece Chop Suey, as well as important works by artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe. For twenty-one years, the painting hung in Ebsworth’s home, starring in notable exhibitions during this period. Most recently it featured as a highlight of Hockney’s eightieth birthday touring retrospective originating at Tate Britain, London (2017-18).
Though nominally a portrait of Geldzahler and Scott, the work ultimately celebrates the friendship between Geldzahler and Hockney: two artistic giants at the heights of their powers. Geldzahler was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and at the age of 33 was already a prominent cultural figure. At the time of the painting he was working on his landmark exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970: a ground-breaking survey that revolutionised the public perception of contemporary American art. Spread over 35 galleries on the second floor of the museum, the exhibition – colloquially known as ‘Henry’s show’ – showcased 408 works by 43 artists, including Alexander Calder, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Franz Kline, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. Its vibrant spectacle caused an immediate sensation, capturing the tumultuous currents that were sweeping the nation into a new artistic era. Philip Leider, the editor of Artforum, described it as ‘an exhibition of American of art of the past thirty years as beautiful as any we are ever likely to see again’, whilst Barbara Goldsmith prophesised that ‘it will undoubtedly establish Geldzahler as the most powerful and controversial art curator alive’ (P. Leider, quoted in C. Tompkins, ‘Moving with the Flow: Henry Geldzahler’, The New Yorker, 6 November 1971, p. 58; B. Goldsmith, ‘How Henry Made 43 Artists Immortal’, New York, 13 October 1969, p. 44). Hockney’s portrait captures him on the brink of this acclaim, seated before his kingdom like a deity upon a throne. It is a testament to the man – and the moment – that established New York as a global centre of contemporary art.
Born in Belgium in 1935, Geldzahler fled with his family to America shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, and developed a passion for the arts at an early age. Educated at Yale, he was quick-witted and outspoken, with a razor-sharp intellect. In 1960, whilst completing his graduate studies at Harvard, he was head-hunted by the Met’s director James Rorimer, and set about updating its curatorial values. Geldzahler brought to the museum’s hallowed halls a vital passion for the art of his time, founded upon close friendships with many of the figures he championed. He was an important early supporter of Pop Art: Warhol reportedly claimed that he ‘gave me all of my ideas’ – most notably for his seminal ‘Death and Disaster’ series – and would go on to create an iconic 90-minute film of him smoking a cigar. ‘Everybody knew him – young Henry, Pop Art's champion’, wrote Paul Richard. ‘He dined with the best people, Claes Oldenburg and others cast him in their happenings, his photo made the papers’ (P. Richard, ‘The Painter and His Subject’, The Washington Post, 30 March 1979, p. 8). Gradually, his interests expanded to encompass Colour Field painting and abstraction, as evidenced by his selection for the American pavilion at the 1966 Venice Biennale. That year, he took temporary leave from the Met to become the first director of the visual arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, introducing a series of grants to support the work of living American artists. Between 1977 and 1982 he served as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City, famously becoming an early patron of the young Jean-Michel Basquiat. His untimely death in 1994 was mourned by many; he is widely remembered as one of the most innovative and influential voices in twentieth-century art history.
Of all Geldzahler’s artistic associates, it was Hockney with whom he shared one of the most significant relationships. The pair had met in Warhol’s studio in 1963, and quickly formed a close bond. ‘Henry and I got along instantly’, recalls Hockney. ‘… We realised we shared a love of music, opera in particular … and there was painting of course, and we became friends very quickly. He was very, very funny, very clever, and we had the same kind of taste. I thought we had a similar way of looking at life’ (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, Hockney: The Biography. Volume 1 1937-1975, London 2011, p. 129). The two met frequently, imbibing the New York art scene, scouring museums across Europe and holidaying with friends. ‘One couldn’t have a better companion for looking at and searching out art’, wrote Hockney. ‘His eye is terrific, and, trained as an Art Historian, different to mine, but between us we had a very rich time’ (D. Hockney, ‘Foreword’, in H. Geldzahler, Making It New: Essays, Interviews, and Talks, New York 1994, unpaged). Geldzahler wrote widely on Hockney’s work, and was one of the few people with whom the artist would discuss his paintings. Over the years, he became one of his most distinctive portrait subjects: Paul Goldberger suggests that ‘Mr. Geldzahler was nearly as well known for a celebrated portrait of him and his friend Christopher Scott painted in 1969 by David Hockney as for any of his accomplishments’ (P. Goldberger, ‘Henry Geldzahler, 59, Critic, Public Official and Contemporary Art’s Champion, is Dead’, The New York Times, 17 August 1994, p. 2).
For Hockney – an artist whose paintings rigorously interrogated the mechanics of vision – the curator’s shrewd, analytical eye offered an enticing subject. In contrast to the 1977 portrait Looking at Pictures on a Screen, which depicts Geldzahler in profile examining a selection of artworks, here he stares out from the centre of canvas as if evaluating the painter’s every move. His glasses are pooled with delicate reflections; his facial features are rendered with painstaking clarity. Each individual hair is combed into position, with piercing scrutiny lavished upon the contrasting materials of his waistcoat, trousers, tie and shoes. His surroundings quiver with art historical references: an appropriate setting for the man with whom Hockney shared some of his most important visual encounters. The work’s clear central vanishing point, positioned just above Geldzahler’s head, marks the first concentrated use of one-point perspective in Hockney’s oeuvre, demonstrating his fascination with the lessons of Renaissance draughtsmanship. Echoes of Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, medieval altarpieces and early marriage diptychs flicker in counterpoint with the clean lines of East Coast Minimalism and the flat planes of Colour Field painting. The work’s Pop heritage is offset by its poignant human drama, inviting comparison with Francis Bacon’s triptychs and Lucian Freud’s poised figural groupings. At the same time, its mood of quiet vacancy conjures the work of American modernists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler, both of whom were greatly admired by Hockney. A rich conversation about art unfolds in the space between painter and subject; Hockney’s gaze is palpable in concert with Geldzahler’s own. The addition of tulips – the artist’s favourite flower, and a deeply personal motif – seems to affirm his presence.
The intensity of the dialogue between Hockney and Geldzahler, as opposed to Geldzahler and Scott, distinguishes the work among the double portraits. Whilst many of these canvases feature a triangular relationship between subjects and artist, the present painting is the only example to implicate Hockney’s presence through both perspectival and symbolic means. Coupled figures had featured throughout his early practice, most notably the ‘Domestic Scenes’ of 1964, but it was not until his 1966 Portrait of Nick Wilder that Hockney began to focus more intensely on depicting his circle of friends, putting their physical characteristics and interpersonal relationships at the heart of the picture’s narrative. Combining exquisite observational detail with a heightened sensitivity to lighting, colour and formal dynamics, the double portraits offered a snapshot of Hockney’s milieu during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Beginning with American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968; Art Institute of Chicago), he went on to paint the English novelist Christopher Isherwood and his partner (Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968) whom he met in Los Angeles; the fashion designer Ossie Clark, a friend from his days at the Royal College of Art, and his wife Celia Birtwell (Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970-71; Tate London); and his great love Peter Schlesinger, who left the artist devastated after their split in 1971 (Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972). Other works in the series include Le Parc des Sources, Vichy (1970; Chatsworth House Trust), featuring Clark and Schlesinger, and George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, (1972-75; Tate, London). Hockney would elaborate the format in a number of smaller scale canvases during the 1970s, including Shirley Goldfarb and Gregory Masurovsky (1974; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and My Parents (1977; Tate, London).
Widely regarded as some of the artist’s finest achievements, the double portraits coincided with the evolution of Hockney’s naturalistic style. Inspired by the radiant light of California – a place he visited repeatedly from 1964, and would later make his home – he began to move away from the highly-stylised forms of his early oeuvre. Instead, he sought to capture ‘life as it was’, and to record the world around him in a manner that best reflected his experience of it. Water and glass featured heavily in the works of this period: Hockney relished the challenge of attempting to capture their fluid, unstable qualities. The insights gained from his swimming pool paintings are evident in the present work’s refracted play of light, channelled through the table, vase, the nest of windows and Geldzahler’s glasses. As the double portraits evolved, the artist began to develop a synergy between the human and pictorial elements of his compositions, finding technical ways to express his relationships to the subjects at hand. ‘There’s always somebody who looks permanent and somebody who looks like a kind of visitor’, he explained (D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 204). Whilst this quality is frequently taken to imply an emotional tension between the figures, it simultaneously speaks to the disjointed, fractured nature of vision itself. As Geldzahler explains, ‘the poetry is less explicit and we are therefore slower to grasp it. This accounts for the greater staying power of these paintings. We see them, remember them, and see more on subsequent viewings’ (H. Geldzahler, ‘Introduction’, in D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, pp. 19-20).
This understanding of the double portraits rings particularly true for the present work, where the connection between its two subjects remains deeply elusive. Geldzahler and Scott had first featured in the artist’s work in a series of fifteen hand-embellished lithographs made in 1967. Scott, an artist, actor and cultural patron, was not well known to Hockney at the time, but the couple’s dynamic piqued his interest. ‘Hockney was intrigued by what made the relationship work between the gregarious and witty Geldzahler and the younger and rather dour Scott’, writes Christopher Simon Sykes (C. S. Sykes, Hockney: The Biography. Volume 1 1937-1975, London 2011, p. 207). The work’s frequently-cited comparison with Annunciation scenes – a quality first identified by the curator Kynaston McShine – springs from Hockney’s contrasting depictions of the two figures. Whilst Geldzahler communes with the artist in crisp high definition, Scott is cast as a transitory illusion, his gaze bisecting their exchange at a perpendicular tangent. Shrouded in shadow and illuminated from the corner by a dark, otherworldly glow, he appears before the viewer like an ethereal visitation – ‘an angel in a raincoat’, suggested Hockney. Paul Melia and Ulrich Luckhardt suggest that he exists in an alternative perspectival realm, identifying a secondary vanishing point just below his arm at the confluence of the table’s diagonal highlights and the slanting windows of the right-hand building (P. Melia and U. Luckhardt, David Hockney, Munich 2007, pp. 88-9). ‘Christopher looks rather as if he’s going to leave or he’s just arriving’, explained Hockney. ‘… That is how I felt the situation was’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Glazebrook, ‘David Hockney: an interview’, in David Hockney: Paintings, prints and drawings 1960-1970, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1970, p. 15). Though Geldzahler and Scott remained together for another ten years, they ultimately parted ways.
In May 1969, the poet David Shapiro published an account of the work’s creation in ARTnews, illustrated with photographs by Basil Langton and Hockney himself. The artist’s process sheds light upon the roots of the work’s formal drama. In December 1968, Hockney had travelled to Geldzahler’s apartment on 7th Avenue in New York to make drawings and take photographs in preparation for the portrait. After falling ill with the flu, he returned to London, where the painting was completed over the next two months. Hockney began by sketching the composition onto canvas. He then painted the window’s vista in diluted purples and greys, using a photograph taken from Scott’s study. Next to appear was the sofa: a tattered specimen from the 1930s that Hockney took the liberty of ‘recovering’ in pale mauve. The floor went through several colour permutations, changing from red to brown to blue to a plain parquet. In order to align its patterning with the work’s perspective, Hockney attached twenty-five pieces of masking tape to the canvas, fanning out to the floor from the vanishing point two inches above Geldzahler’s head. The effect, he joked, was of ‘St Henry radiating light’. The tulips and glass table were artificially inserted into the scene in Hockney’s studio – the latter based on a printed advertisement – whilst Geldzahler’s Gilbert Rohde Art Deco lamp was repositioned to the left to counterbalance Scott’s vertical form. Last to be added were the diagonal highlights on the table, along with those in Geldzahler’s glasses and polished shoes. ‘If I were Jan van Eyck’, claimed Hockney, ‘I’d put my whole picture in that little reflection’ (D. Hockney, quoted in D. Shapiro, ‘Hockney Paints a Portrait’, ARTnews, May 1969, p. 64).
On one hand, the work’s composite nature may be seen to demonstrate Hockney’s early dialogue with the mechanics of photography. The artist had begun using a 35mm camera in 1967, primarily to capture source material for his paintings. Like many of his contemporaries, including Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon, Hockney was suspicious of the medium’s claims to truth, believing that its flat, dematerialised products were unable to capture the multi-sensory nature of visual experience. The deft formal and chromatic balancing act of the present work points to the distinctive post-Cubist sensibility that would manifest itself in Hockney’s 1980s photo-collages, and later in his vast multi-part landscapes of California and Yorkshire. Elsewhere, Martin Friedman claims that Hockney’s calculated approach to optical and psychological pageantry may be seen to prefigure his achievements in the field of set design, suggesting that ‘these grand, neoclassical paintings were a new, if introspective, form of theatre’ (M. Friedman, ‘Painting into Theater’, in Hockney Paints the Stage, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 32). Sykes, too, sees the work in this vein: ‘Hockney was developing the portrait as drama, and this is nowhere better realised than in Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, a picture that is awash with tension’ (C. S. Sykes, Hockney: The Biography. Volume 1 1937-1975, London 2011, p. 214). Taken together, these observations highlight the painting’s prophetic nature: its innovations point beyond the marriage of pigment and canvas to the rich multi-media scope of Hockney’s future practice.
Nonetheless, the work’s painterly qualities testify to the artist’s consummate mastery of acrylic: his favoured medium during this period. ‘The great way to use acrylics is the very old fashioned method of glazing with washes’, he explains. ‘… The glaze dries in ten minutes and then you can put another on so it’s just adapting it’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Glazebrook, ‘David Hockney: an interview’, in David Hockney: Paintings, prints and drawings 1960-1970, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1970, pp. 11-12). The canvas is abundant in textural variety, producing a powerful tension between abstract and figurative registers. The wall’s flat green planes were applied with a roller, whilst the buildings outside the window pale to near invisibility in delicate washes. Precise drips, streaks and scuffs are used to conjure the tactile qualities of the sofa and garments, whilst luscious, opaque slabs of impasto delineate the tulips. Bold, clean lines pick out the lamp, window frame and highlights upon the table, offering a sharp contrast to the variegated lines of the parquet floor. At times the colours seem artificially brightened: the deep green shadows around the window, the near-fluorescent strip of turquoise along the table, the blood-red petals and the piercing blue of Scott’s tie. Elsewhere, a delicate command of light and shadow imbues the work with sensuous realism. Every inch of the surface is alive with the visceral joy of painting: from the lustrous shine of Geldzahler’s shoe, to the luxuriant swathes of fabric that envelop his form. ‘I think anyone who makes pictures loves it’, Hockney explains; ‘it is a marvellous thing to dip a brush into paint and make marks’ (D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 28)
‘The weakness of a lot of paintings today [is that] their emphasis has been totally on form and not on content’, the artist has asserted. ‘It seems to me that really great pictures – and I’m interested in making pictures – must achieve a balance’ (D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 61). This, perhaps, is where Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott ultimately finds its meaning. It is simultaneously a story and a technical enquiry; a piece of theatre and a triumph of formal engineering. In this work, the artist crystallizes the purpose of the double portraits, locating their duality not only in their subjects, but in their approach to pictorial representation. The fractured pairing of Geldzahler and Scott becomes a vehicle for exploring the interaction between composition and narrative. In intercepting their mismatched gazes with his own, Hockney documents his search for equilibrium, capturing the fleeting moments of estrangement, suspense, clarity and unity that define the act of picture-making. In doing so, he illuminates the way in which we observe – and, by extension, come to know – the people and objects that punctuate our world.