can david hockney save my marriage?: one overly opinionated wife and her quieter husband

by nikki meredith

a bigger splash 1967 by david hockney

a bigger splash 1967 by david hockney

When I first discovered David Hockney a couple of decades ago, his paintings thrilled me. I found the cobalt cerulean hues of his swimming pools irresistible and his particular rendering of the southern California light evoked a longing in me for my childhood. He once called that light extravagant and said it was one of the lures that drew him to Los Angeles in the first place. It’s a light that owes some of its magic to air pollution and the skies under which I grew up were much smoggier than they are now. Often it was difficult to catch my breath without it hurting but those violet particulates permeated more than my lungs; when I left L.A. my heart missed that lambent glow.

This is not to say I considered Hockney a great artist. His images were so tinged with nostalgia for me, I couldn’t judge.

I recently attended a block-buster Hockney show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco – an exhibit The New York Times called a “sprawling romp.”  It featured room after room of eye-popping color and included portraits of friends and family, still lifes of fruit and flowers and dazzling, giant images of the East Yorkshire landscape where Hockney grew up and returned to a decade ago.   I went to see it with a friend who is an artist. I don’t usually go to art museums with friends who are artists. I don’t have anything against doing that it simply doesn’t come up very often. It came up this time when we discovered over dinner that neither of us had been to the exhibit and it was soon closing. A week later we were standing at the entrance.

“How long do you need?” I asked, looking at my watch. “Should we meet in the café?”

She shook her head. “No, no, let’s stay together.”

I’m not the kind of person who “stays together” in art museums. Actually I don’t “stay together” in any museum. I wander solo, lingering over some items, but speeding past quite a few.  I’m the kind of person who meets in the café post-experience. But I’m also not the kind of person who is able to say, “I’d really rather go it alone.”

One painting in, I realized it was going to be a little more complicated than two friends sharing an art experience. She was to be the teacher. I was to be the student.  I felt a migraine coming on. When I was an official student I did okay with official teachers but I’ve never been too enthusiastic about self-appointed ones.  But, Wait, I said to myself. She’s an artist. A good artist.  This is an opportunity to transcend my usual, I love it,  like it, admire it, hate it routine. Maybe I’ll learn something. And I did.

wolgate woods 2006 by david hockney

wolgate woods 2006 by david hockney

I learned that in several of Hockney’s massive mind-blowing mural-size paintings, his use of green was hideous. I learned, as we stood in front of a series of portraits, that he doesn’t know his ass from his elbow about perspective.

“I kind of like that…uh…naïve look,” I said meekly.

“You do?” she said, turning to look into my naïve eyes.

“Yeah,” my inner wimp continued, “I suppose that’s why I like outsider art.”

She moved us along to a series of plein d’air depictions of fall.  The shimmering, neon colors were unlike any fall foliage I’ve ever seen. She approved. Her enthusiasm dimmed when we stopped in front of a series of enormous Yosemite paintings Hockney had drawn on his iPad. In the foreground of one image, scrubby pines sparkle green with a backdrop of Bridalveil Falls tumbling down a cliff side. The familiar granite crest of Half Dome looms in the background. In another vista, heavy mist cloaks a stand of giant sequoias.

“You have to admire him for embracing new technology at 76,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s courageous for a man of his age?” I asked in a voice far too wimpish for a woman of my age.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, shrugging. “There’s an app for that.  You could download it on your iPad. You could paint those,” she said pointing to the massive images.

winter timber 2009 by david hockney

winter timber 2009 by david hockney

Well, she’s right. I not only could, I did download an app called “Draw This” on my iPad. The point is to get people to guess what object your image depicts. No one hardly ever can, so I don’t think I’m quite ready to tackle a giant painting of Glacier Point.  Perhaps my future lies in abstract iPad painting.

There were many more notes, observations, opinions – too numerous to list here.  The last one, however, pretty much summed up what came before: she declared that no one will know who Hockney is in 100 years.

At home that night my husband asked me if I liked the show.

“I have absolutely no idea.”

My friend’s opinions still reverberated in head. I wasn’t able to retrieve a single authentic, from-the-gut or from any part of my being response. I could only retrieve her reactions. This really bothered me but for reasons having nothing to do with art. I couldn’t help thinking about my volubility and how it affects my relationships, specifically, my marriage. I have opinions about everything – good, bad and indifferent – and I’m not shy about expressing them. A few recent examples come to mind:

— It’s Sunday night. My husband and I are watching a profile of Malcolm Gladwell on 60 Minutes. Gladwell is a writer whose ideas I find interesting, even, occasionally, a tiny bit thrilling but I happen to know that the way he synthesizes material, the way he wrestles even, on occasion, tortures, facts so they fit his theories annoys the hell out of some experts who know something about the topics he popularizes.  For the most part, I assume, this tendency is benign but several years ago in a New Yorker article: “The Estrogen Question: How wrong is Dr. Susan Love?” he mocked gynecologist Susan Love for her concern about the risks of estrogen replacement, making her look foolish and unscientific. (Stick with me. Gladwell isn’t the point. The point here is that I’m yelling at the TV. ) Within a couple of years the research would completely validate her. Women stopped HRT wholesale and the breast cancer rate started to drop.

“Really?” I yell at Anderson Cooper, whose only mention of opposition to Gladwell is a parenthetical: “He has his detractors.” It was an annoying piece of puffery — something 60 Minutes seems to be doing more of lately.

— Pick almost any night Charlie Rose has a celebrity “at this table.” Ten minutes in, I can’t take the fawning any more. “Oh, come on,” I yell as he salivates all over his subtly patterned double-breasted suit, splashing the excess on the likes of Tom Cruise.  On the other hand, there are times I can’t believe the caliber of the guests and the quality of the discussion and I swoon, audibly, swoon. Much of his series on the brain, for example.

— Take any time Carli Fiorini is on the screen. I cringe with every coquettish flip of her Republican hair, and every passive-aggressive supercilious Republican smile. After I cringe, I ooze bile, audibly.

But it isn’t just TV. I flood our shared air space with opinions about everything and everywhere.  The Grand Canyon was transcendent; in Yellowstone Park the juxtaposition of turquoise pools and flaxen meadows made me cry, audibly; the first time I set foot in Manhattan I felt at home in a way I couldn’t quite explain but it didn’t stop me from trying, persistently, while riding the subway, walking in Greenwich Village, eating lunch at Katz’s Deli.

One time a friend asked me how my husband felt about turning 60. I said I didn’t know because I was too busy talking to him about how I felt about the fact that he was turning 60.

Except when he’s watching hockey games, my husband rarely yells at the television and I’ve never heard him call anyone on TV a shithead. I don’t understand how anyone can get through the Sunday morning political talk shows and not call anyone a shithead, though he recently called Paul Ryan a prick but he didn’t yell it and I only remember it because it’s such a rarity. That, and because Paul Ryan is, in fact, a prick.

So now I have arrived at the main point.  All these years I’ve accepted the fact that I’m the more opinionated and more verbal about said opinions than is my husband. But it honestly never occurred to me that he’s less verbal and less opinionated because I’m so verbal and opinionated. When I fill the air with my voice, does it prevent him from figuring out how he feels and what he thinks?

Isn’t this, more or less, what the chilling effect is?  No one is censoring you because it isn’t necessary.

I’ve always assumed most couples have this sort of division of roles, except, perhaps the lucrative dog and pony show performed by James Carville and Mary Matalin and those couples who are always fighting each other for air time. Who wants to be around that kind of tension? But maybe that kind of tension is okay.

I feel the need to clarify what I’m saying about my husband. I’m not talking about a man who is silent or repressed. Hardly.  In his own realm, away from me, I’m told he has no shortage of thoughts, feelings and opinions. It’s when we’re sharing band width.  But isn’t that precisely the kind of thing men complain to their mistresses about? “When my wife is in the room, I don’t even know what I think.” That, and, “she doesn’t understand me.”

But I do understand him, sort of.  When I ask him why I yell at the TV and he doesn’t, he smiles. I know what the smile means and it’s not a compliment. That smile means that I have to and he doesn’t. But maybe he does and he doesn’t know it. Maybe there’s a boisterous, opinionated person in there trying to get out but it’s never quiet enough for him to devise a break-out strategy. My David Hockney experience helped me see this. Now I have to figure out what to do about it.