date published: March 27, 2006

The Museum of Fine Arts brings David Hockney Portraits to Boston, by Scott Roberto; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, BostonWhat is it that makes a portrait memorable? Is it the skill of the artist? The subjects themselves? Or is it something undefinable, some nameless inner essence that is captured, connecting the sitter and painter for all time? Don't ask famed artist David Hockney, the subject of the comprehensive retrospective David Hockney Portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts.

"I know to make memorable images," he stated at a recent press conference at the MFA. "But we don't know how they're made. If they did, they'd be making a lot of them."

Yet make a lot of them he has. Perhaps the secret to the English-born California resident's success is his often intimate knowledge of his subjects.

"I've generally painted people I know quite well," Hockney revealed, "partly because otherwise it seems you might struggle a bit for a likeness."

The prolific Brit-one of today's best-known artists-appears to have done just fine in capturing the likenesses of friends, family, lovers and even himself in mediums ranging from large-scale oil paintings to intimate drawings to Cubism-influenced photographic collages.

The comprehensive show-the first portraits-only exhibition of Hockney's art to date-spans five decades of his groundbreaking work. But don't get the idea that the 68-year-old master has slowed down a bit. In fact, at an age when most people are contemplating retirement, it would seem Hockney has become even more productive, with more than three dozen of the 150-plus pieces on display having been completed in the new millennium.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-71)The literal and figurative centerpieces of the show, however, are several monumental double portraits from the 1970s. This includes the now-ubiquitous Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy from 1970-71. The work is a perfect example of Hockney's ability to encapsulate his subjects through the use of subtle staging and body language, unconsciously revealing through the figures' spatial relationship and poses a couple whose marriage was in decline. On loan from London's Tate Gallery, it was voted one of the greatest paintings in Britain in a national poll last year and was the only one by a living artist to make the cut.

Hockney himself seemed a little overwhelmed by his accomplishments. "I've never seen 50 years of my work put together before," he said in awe, before adding in typically dry English fashion, "I haven't been wasting my time."

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