Hetero-normalizing Hockney?

In a New York Times story on artist David Hockney, the reporter describes Hockney’s life in bucolic England as an inspiration for his current work.  She offers this transition to discuss an upcoming show of his latest paintings.

In 2005 Mr. Hockney — temporarily, he says — left Hollywood, where he had lived full time since 1978, to transform the manicured green and golden slopes, woods and farmland of the East Yorkshire landscape into spare, quickly worked compositions charged with pink, orange and violet.

I read the story–I’m a big Hockney fan who once risked driving in Los Angeles traffic to see a Hockney retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during a business trip–and was struck that the only description of Hockney’s sexual orientation is relegated to a short paragraph near the end.

Mr. Hockney now occupies his mother’s house with a group that includes his longtime partner, John Fitzherbert, and Mr. Gonçalves de Lima, known as J. P. (His sister lives two streets away.)

But arts journalist and prominent arts blogger Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes found something even more unsettling about the story: the failure to explain why Hockney and Fitzherbert found themselves back in the U.K.

That’s not true. Hockney did not leave California because the East Yorkshire landscape romantically called him home to England. Hockney left because the United States government would not allow his partner, John Fitzherbert, back into the country. In order to be with Fitzherbert, Hockney returned to the UK.

Green complained that glossing over the political realities of why Hockney left Los Angeles was an example of trying to “hetero-normalize” Hockney, something he also raised in blogging about the de-gaying of Robert Rauschenberg when that artist died.

The question that is unanswered is whether the  NYT writer knew about the specifics of Hockney’s move to the UK.  In an addendum to his original post, Green responds to the question I (and apparently others) raised with him over email: what proof is there about the Hockney immigration story. Green says that the facts behind Hockney’s move to the UK is well known in art circles and that Hockney talks about it. But he also notes that the angle has never been discussed in U.S. media.

The immigration angle has, however, been highlighted in stories about Hockney in the UK press.  In a June story in the Independent, the reporter says:

He first came back in the aftermath of 9/11 following twin personal setbacks. First, a beloved dog died. Then his partner, John Fitzherbert, was effectively banned from the US for overstaying a visa by a couple of days.

“I wasn’t going to stay here,” he said, of the countryside around Bridlington. “But as things changed, and the corn got golden I realised there’s a fucking good subject here. So why should I go back to LA?”

Similar versions of the immigration angle were reported by the Independent, which seems rather obsessed with Hockney, before.

Ultimately, it appears this is not a folk legend like the assumption Annie Leibovitz went broke because of taxes on Susan Sontag’s estate. Instead, it seems to be an example of the unasked question or the question that is just glossed over.  It doesn’t fit into the narrative of inspiration for Hockney’s art to ask questions about why the couple live in the UK.  But to not ask the question of why the couple remains in the UK is to deny a reality of their lives.  Andrew Sullivan, himself caught in an immigration struggle, said of Green’s blog:

I think that many straight people find it so impossible to understand how they could be treated this way that they simply don’t see what their gay friends deal with every day. If heterosexuals were treated this way, there’d be a revolution.

One Response

  1. I really find that the sexual orientation of artists is totally irrelevant. You have some great gay artists and some awful ones; you have some good hetero artists and some bad ones. It makes not a jot of difference whether they are gay or hetero. I liked Hockneys early work but the later work leaves me cold and seems repetitive.

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