The best thing about “David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts” is, of course, David Hockney. Now 80, the artist remains as witty, articulate, and engaging as he was half a century ago. That’s when the then-young Yorkshireman was painting canvases of Los Angeles like “A Bigger Splash,” which have become as much a part of the Southern California firmament as Raymond Chandler novels and the Hollywood sign. He’s remained a marvel of productivity, talent, and variation, offering a steady flow of paintings, drawings, photographs, opera designs, even images on his iPad.
It’s Hockney the painter that the documentary focuses on. He’s extensively interviewed on the occasion of two shows at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts: “A Bigger Picture” (2012) and “82 Portraits & One Still Life” (2016).
In both shows, the paintings were unobtrusively framed. If only that were true of the film, which is slick and vapid. During interviews, there are interminable cutaways to the rather preening presenter, Tim Marlow. Several other talking heads don’t have much to offer in the way of insight. There’s an overall sense of ooh-and-ahh that’s distant in spirit from Hockney’s shrewd and unassuming manner.
“A Bigger Picture” consisted of landscapes, large and mainly from Yorkshire. There are many loving views of the exhibition, and it’s a treat to see Hockney’s inebriate, post-Fauve colors in the sober-looking RA galleries. “I haven’t given up LA,” he says when asked if he’s returning to England. “In LA, I tell them ‘I’m just on location.’”
The views of the portrait show are no less loving. Adulatory may be a more accurate description of both, actually; and an excess of adulation adds to the general ooh-and-ahh.
Back in Los Angeles, Hockney started painting acrylic portraits of friends and associates. He set himself the task of doing the pictures in the same setting, in a uniform size — and in three days. “I wanted full length,” he explains, “and you can’t ask [subjects] to stand all that time.” Hanging at the RA, the portraits look like a single installation, with the galleries’ reddish-orange walls making for a nice contrast with the blue- and green-keyed palette of the paintings.
A few of the sitters are famous: the architect Frank Gehry, the conceptual artist John Baldessari, Barry Humphries (better known, when on stage or in front of the camera, as Dame Edna Everage). Two of the sitters talk about the experience of posing.
Hockney would begin by sketching in charcoal for about 45 minutes, then start applying paint. Other than Hockney himself, the best thing about the documentary is seeing the photographs of the portraits taken at various stages.
Hockney has many interesting things to say, and not just about his own work. He talks about Chinese scroll paintings, the role of space in Rembrandt’s drawings, being invited to the unveiling of Photoshop. That was in 1989. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the end of chemical photography.’ I was off by about 10 years.”
He makes acute observations about the iPad as artistic tool. “The great gain is speed. All the colors and textures are there in your hand. Any draftsman is interested in speed. . . . What do you miss? You miss resistance, which paper has. It is incredibly smooth. You’re drawing on glass, I suppose.”
The best remark comes when asked if he’s still surprising himself. Hockney’s eyes light up, something they do frequently. “I don’t mind boring others. But I’m not going to bore myself.”
DAVID HOCKNEY AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS
Directed by Phil Grabsky. At Museum of Fine Arts, March 2 and various dates through March 18. 79 minutes. Unrated.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.