“Los Angeles is not what you see in the movies. It’s like Detroit with palm trees.”–Don Draper
I never liked the Los Angeles episodes of Mad Men. Well, at least at first. Something about Don losing himself in the sun, sand and vivid colors of California just felt wrong. He belonged guzzling an Old Fashioned in the corner of some dark bar in Manhattan, not slurping down Mai Tais near a pool.
However, in retrospect, Mad Men’s Los Angeles tapped into the city’s mythic imaginary–an escapist fantasy (one that provided a momentary relief from Don’s personal hell of his own making). And Don certainly isn’t the only one who found himself lured in by the promise of Los Angeles. From Naomi Watts’s hopeful actress Betty stepping wide-eyed off a plane, gazing at the palm trees, in Mulholland Drive to Lana Del Rey’s siren call to join the freaks in California, the city trades in a particularly artificial American dream.
Almost no representation of this peculiar dreamlike Los Angeles is as quintessential as David Hockney’s paintings, as seen in his current retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I mean, there’s a reason that washed-up actor Bojack Horseman owns a play on Hockney’s existentially surreal Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) in the animated Netflix series, a representation of the ideal Hollywood dream continually chased.
Overall, the Met’s exhibition is both wide-reaching and precisely chosen, spanning six decades of the artist’s work from his early naughty and quite obviously homoerotic paintings to his later vibrant landscapes and iPad drawings. Despite the range of work on view, Hockney’s depictions of Los Angeles are so romantically impressive–and conceptually curious–that they managed to outshine much of the other paintings in the exhibition (with the possible exception of his monumental portraits of friends and contemporaries such as writer Christopher Isherwood and Henry Geldzahler, portrayed in enormous portraits like queer royalty). Frankly, I zipped by everything post-1980, but that could be attributed to getting lost in the LA warmth as an unexpected snowstorm blew in on a Friday afternoon.
Hockney’s vision of Los Angeles was formed long before he arrived on the west coast, courtesy of that forefather of filth Bob Mizer and his Physique Pictorial. Hockney was not alone–Mizer’s muscle-bound studs probably influenced the conception of LA for more than a few gay young men. In Hockney’s mind, though, LA was full of beefcake hunks and, the most American of cleaning methods, showers. As Met curator Ian Alteveer explains to Garage Magazine, “He had long fantasized about LA, partially through his access to magazines like Physique Pictorial, and he talks about how he thought that LA was full of movie stars and semi-naked people, and that when he arrived there what he found was not far from his fantasy. He had knowledge of LA through those beefcake magazines and had also read John Rechy’s City at Night—noirish stories about hustlers in Pershing Square.”
This LA fanaticism can be seen in Hockney’s painting Domestic Scene, Los Angeles from 1963, which significantly predates his visit to Los Angeles. In the painting, two nubile young men shower together. One stands in the shower while the other is outside of it, near, impossibly, an upholstered chair (will someone please think of the damp fabric?!). Despite being culled from a beefcake mag, whose source is seemingly betrayed by the one man’s gym socks, the scene is quite tender, reminiscent of Hugh Steers’s domestic bathing paintings.
Of course, in 1963, painting a sweet domestic scene of same-sex kinship would still make many pearl-clutch considering homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in England until 1967. Hockney, though, didn’t hesitate to play with blatant queer references in his early paintings. The first room of the Met’s exhibition is, on this front, a revelation, presenting Hockney’s early works. Many of these paintings drew upon lurid scrawled graffiti found in public bathroom cruising zones, as seen in works like My Brother Is Only Seventeen. Especially at a time when Warhol was seen as a little too “swish” for even Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Hockney’s paintings, like Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10PM) W.11., seem quite radical and also hilarious. Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10PM) W.11. features two men in a state of…ahem…mutual pleasure with a tube of Vaseline peeking out from under the bed. Instead, of penises, however, the figures have tubes of Colgate–a silly yet sordid nod to the Pop Art trend at the time.
But, not all of Hockney’s early homoerotic work took sleaze as its subject. One painting, entitled The Cha-Cha That Was Danced In The Early Hours Of 24th March, shows a more subdued but still voyeuristic interest, which would later be expanded on in Hockney’s paintings of pools, showers and other features of Los Angeles. Portraying a dance performed by a fellow student of Hockney’s at the Royal College of Art, the painting shows just why Divine was hoping Santa would bring her “cha-cha heels.” Like Salome twirling her audience into a homicidal frenzy, Hockney was fascinated by his colleague’s dance, as he says in the wall text, “because although I didn’t know him very well he knew I thought he was stunningly beautiful.” Still fascinated with words as in his paintings of public toilet graffiti, Hockney inscribes the painting with the dancer’s name, as well as “penetrates deep down.” It’s a witty turn of phrase that, at once, recalls the affecting dance, the viewer’s yearning and, well, penetration.
This voyeuristic joy and glimpses of same-sex desire followed Hockney to LA where even the well-manicured lawns spurt suggestive geysers from lawn sprinklers and pools become a stand-in for desire, absence and play. Take, for example, Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, which again focuses on the shower. This time, though, rather than depicting a couple, Hockney places in the viewer in the place of voyeur, spying on the male figure as he bends over in the shower. It echoes Degas’s famously creepy series of bathers.
The absence of the body, too, becomes a representation of desire and lack in Hockney’s pool paintings, many of which star Hockney’s then-lover Peter Schlesinger. In A Bigger Splash, viewers witness the moment after Peter dives in the pool, sending a spray of chlorine-filled water through the air. The body, here, becomes more significant (and somehow more erotic) in its invisibility. The pool works similarly in Pool and Steps, Le Nic Du Duc, which conveys the disappearance of Peter from the scene (portrayed only by his remaining sandals) with a sense of longing. Knowing that their relationship was, at the time, deteriorating only heightens this sense of loss.
Despite the clear sense of longing in some of the pool paintings, Hockney’s LA paintings continue to symbolize the enormous sense of potential that LA represented in the 1960s (paging Don Draper)–affluence, sensuality, leisure and an unmistakable sense of “the new.” Even the somewhat dry and minimalistic Savings And Loan Building juxtaposes palm trees with the then-hip modernist architecture cutting through the luminous landscape.
In Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, David Lynch describes his experience of living in Los Angeles, which has been the setting–and often, character–of many of his films such as Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire:
“I love Los Angeles. I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness. But when you’re there for a while, you realize that each section has its own mood. The golden age of cinema is still alive there, in the smell of jasmine at night and the beautiful weather. And the light is inspiring and energizing. Even with smog, there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth. It fills me with the feeling that all possibilities are available. I don’t know why. It’s different from the light in other places. The light in Philadelphia, even in the summer, is not nearly as bright. It was the light that brought everybody to L.A. to make films in the early days. It’s still a beautiful place.”
Similar to Lynch’s reference to “all possibilities are available,” Los Angeles, for Hockney, is a city of pleasurable fantasy. It’s a halcyon vision of superficial suburban paradise–not the smog-filled traffic sprawl, the dark underbelly of Sunset Boulevard’s failed Hollywood glitz and glamour, or even the hustlers of Philip Lorca DiCorcia. It is an embodiment of the aspirational dreams of post-war families, moving to the suburbs, buying pools, installing showers and watering their lawns.
And he chooses to curiously romanticize the American dream at an interesting moment. The 1960s were a time of significant upheaval in America from the assassinations of RFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the Civil Rights Movement, the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement and Stonewall, anti-war protests, etc. And what does Hockney decide to zero in on? A largely white fantasy of the post-war American dream.
Now, I don’t think Hockney’s fixation on this suburban ideal is without some level of critique (or deserving of critique). Some of the paintings seem to poke fun at the maddening sameness of the Los Angeles landscape, while also hinting at its falsehood. Works like A Lawn Being Sprinkled are too droll not to slyly mock the drone-like monotony of LA wealth. The joke in these paintings is their unreality–in their flatness, they reveal their empty construction.
Looking at these works at the Met, I couldn’t help but wonder: what, if anything, is left of this LA fantasy today? Are the pools, lawns and chic houses still relevant as wildfires burn in Southern California and the upwardly mobile American Dream gets dashed for anyone but the very top of the tax bracket? There is a danger to falling prey to these unattainable fantasies, no matter how romantic and yet, they also continue to provide an alluring vision. As Lana Del Rey sings in “Bel Air”:
“Roses, Bel Air, take me there
I’ve been waiting to meet you
Palm trees, in the light, I can see, late at night
Darling I’m waiting to greet you
Come to me baby”