David Hockney’s 1988 portrait of his critic/curator friend Henry Geldzahler is a likely summoning of Van Gogh’s 1889 portrait of his postman Joseph Roulin. Hockney is a known admirer of Van Gogh, so this is not shocking news; it just struck me how similar the subjects look — God’s template for people limited, each person another’s reincarnation. The men, weighed down by middle-aged bulk, look out over rosy cheeks with sky blue eyes. Their collars made from sharp triangles, the guillotine of fabric life.
A cynic will say it’s all about who you know, which might explain Hockney and Van Gogh’s respective ascent and descent in the art world. (Roulin unfortunately could only help with the mail, by which Gauguin’s heated correspondence was no doubt conveyed.) Van Gogh only had a set of brushmarks, and Roulin’s beard is described in the same fashion as the manic trees and clouds of Van Gogh’s dreamlife. Hockney’s less modernist brush work is cleaner, flatter.
“Yah, it’s all about who you know,” I hear myself say at parties to the spinach dip, “fucking system.” Cynicism is rationalism for losers, so hello. If there is a system, Gauguin left it when he moved to Tahiti forever, braising in the humid yellowed air with beautiful brown women. “I shut my eyes in order to see,” he once said, under a spell of sweaty Tahitian sun hinted by Henry’s tropical-themed shirt, which means vacation is either near or just ended.
The eye’s translucence is paradoxically noted with an opaque dab of white. Nothing so fake as painting can be so real. The great thing about art is every stranger, however long ago, has a chance to see and be seen. It’s all about who you don’t know.