© David Hockney b. 1937 Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy 1970-71, Acrylic on canvas, 2134 x 3048 mm Photo by JSB from The Met

David Hockney’s 1971 striking portrait of fashion designer Ossie Clark and the textile designer Celia Birtwell in their Notting Hill apartment is one of those paintings that radiates a clarion intensity.  The work from 1971, a wedding gift to the modish couple, is part of the traveling retrospective of the artist’s work celebrating his 80th birthday.  It was short-listed for the greatest painting in Britain’s history in 2005.  Roughly 7′ x 10′, it envelopes you physically and spiritually if you happen to have the rare moment to sit in front of it without distraction.  The Germans have a word for this kind of absorption, “einfühlen,” which is the process of projecting yourself into something, like music, poetry, or painting.  T.S. Eliot nailed it in “The Dry Salvages”

                             music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

Spend some time with this painting and you can’t help but become a part of its twisted psychology.  Its pathos is palpable, beckoning the viewer into a soft magnetic field of underlying tension.  Hockney was Mr. Clark’s best man, and perhaps lover.  Cecilia was pregnant, talented, and beautiful.   The pair were designers to The Stones and The Beatles, part of the flower power Sixties.  Illusion and inspiration are often hallucinatory but the real qualities of this brilliantly charged but relatively subdued painting are worth examining.  I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s opening refrain from “I Shall Be Released,”

They say ev’rything can be replaced
Yet ev’ry distance is not near
So I remember ev’ry face
Of ev’ry man who put me here

The portrayal captures so completely the couples complex relationship within a beguiling simplicity.  The care Hockney took is evident in the equipoise.  He toiled over the paintings composition, making photographs, studies, painting in situ and studio sittings from 1969-1971.  All elements are balanced masterfully.  The intimacy painted on their faces.

Hockney uses classic framing devices with flair and originality, many of which he learned at the Royal Academy or from other artists such as Kenneth Noland and Francis Bacon.  The coffee table slanting in the foreground leads you in.  Upon a coffee table (of Phillip Johnson importance) is a lemon yellow cloth bound book, which leads into a turquoise vase of lilies, representing humility and devotion.  Above, a light shimmers on a gold frame of Hockney’s series of etchings, The Rake’s Progress, from 1961-1963.   Your eye stops to look further into this painting within a painting.  A small figure looks up at the phallic, obelisk that sprouts like a modern-day emoji.  A face with glasses behind this figure, perhaps Hockney’s,  is part of the foundation of a building.  The thirsty look of Mrs. Percy, a frequent model whom Hockney admired, is almost plaintive, her hand on her hip, proud, in three-quarter profile.  With a twist on tradition, she stands above her husband, between them the light green shutters center the eye and measures the distance between the two young lovers.  Sinuous tree trunks snake up the balustrade outside rising upwards to fuzzy treetops and architectural windows completing the vista.   Ossie Clark sits in a tenacious slouch, with an imploring man-pout, a white cat balanced backward firmly on his lap gazing out the window, the only element not looking at you.   His chair askew, the hand casually holding a cigarette, slung over a Breuer tubular chair with a cane back.  His feet dug into a shag carpet.  To the right, almost like afterthoughts but equally important, lies a rotary telephone and lamp with the beaded shade.   The incredible flatness of the lamp balances the flatness of the painting on the left-hand side.  The light brown walls and carpet mixed with shades of blue mute everything except the white cat.

© David Hockney Study for Mr and Mrs Clarck and Percy, 1970, Courtesy of The Tate

Percy, the white cat, is like a McGuffin in this story, sparking the plot with its shocking whiteness.  You can see in the drawing above from the Tate Museum that Hockney is trying to work out something on the right side of Mr. Clark’s body, revealing its essential aspect to the composition.  Facing the window, perched on the Ossie Clark’s lap, the cat’s awareness is focused out the open window.   The cat acts as negative space, the only solidly white element in the middle ground of the painting.  It’s angled position transposes the angle of the coffee table and lead you further into the whiteness of the background.  It is almost like the cat could be cut out of the negative space of that railing and placed of Clark’s lap.  The direct correlation between the compositional device of the cat as negative space and its subjectivity of looking out a window expands our understanding of domestic space.  Take away the cat and suddenly everything is looking at you, facing the viewer, painfully aware, leaving considerably less tension in the painting.  The cat acts as the buffer between the imaginary world and reality.  And in reality, the cat’s name was Blanche, not Percy.  Hockney thought Percy was better sounding for the title of the painting.  This is Hockney’s commitment to artifice, in a nutshell.  Everything carefully constructed to his aesthetic taste.

Hockney mastered the dichotomy between simplicity and complexity by depicting flatness in astounding perspective.   Clearly, there are many things going on in this painting yet the perfect balance among them brings the whole into a pleasant focus befitting of a marriage portrait.  Underlying this marriage is a world of emotions we can only pretend to know.  Hockney’s gives a glimpse into there world.  Unfortunately, this marriage did not end well.  The couple divorced in 1974 and tragically Ossie Clark was murdered by a former lover, 28-year-old Italian Diego Cogolato on August 6th, 1996.  After taking decades off Celia Birtwell continues to work in fashion.  The couple’s star-crossed love affair and artistic partnership forever documented.