Hockney on the Mind

Painter David Hockney’s sunny and colorful work is experiencing a (figurative) revival.

David Hockney Self Portrait

Self Portrait, 20 March 2012 (2012), iPad drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond.

It is very good advice to believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work,” the British painter David Hockney has previously said. Judging by the octogenarian artist’s output, which shows no signs of slowing down after a six-decade-long career, he isn’t done yet.

The British painter is having a major moment in a career already full of them after recently celebrating his 80th birthday with exhibitions at LACMA, MoMA, and Tate Modern, as well as galleries like Pace. With figurative painting gaining more and more contemporary champions and practitioners in the past few years, many are looking back to Hockney’s pastel-colored dreamscapes to see where it all began. And as the global political landscape takes turn after unexpected turn, Hockney’s saccharine images might at first appear a sunny balm on troubling times—but under their brightly lit surfaces, his works offer potent messages. Hockney—known for dispensing the frequent bon mot—has said, “The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you’re an artist.”

Born in Bradford, England, in 1937, the artist was educated at the Royal College of Art in London, where he began to become associated with the arrival of British pop art. He grew up admiring master painters like Picasso, Matisse, and Fragonard—as well as American films. (He has joked often that he was raised between Bradford and Hollywood.) In the early 1960s, Hockney arrived in Los Angeles and began painting the city and the subject matter for which he would become most famous. Today, Los Angeles has become inextricably linked with his visual language, and Hockney counts himself a nearly lifelong resident, with multiple homes and an office. While still new in town, he took advantage of the relatively novel medium of acrylic paints, and became fascinated by the preponderance of swimming pools and upscale homes around him.

Jerry Diving Sunday

Jerry Diving Sunday Feb. 28th 1982 (1982), Polaroid composite.


Nicholas Wilder Studying Picasso

Nicholas Wilder Studying Picasso. Los Angeles 24th March 1982 (1982), Polaroid composite.

Such interests made him somewhat of an anomaly. Hockney emerged just after the era that produced New York’s abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Though Hockney originally dabbled in abstract work, his style solidified into flat, figurative canvases that made ample use of color, light, and shadow in traditional landscape and portraiture. At the time, it made him a renegade; today, his paintings have become part of Southern California’s cultural identity. He arrived just in time for the city’s cultural boom after the 1960s, as the city’s art scene flourished, launching the careers of LA artists such as Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari.

Hockney cuts a dapper figure, often pictured wearing round, professorial glasses and dandyish clothes. He is openly gay, and from the very outset of his career, he has explored themes of male love in his art. As early as 1961, he created now-regarded pieces like We Two Boys Clinging Together. In his emerging work, he often depicted men in such romantic scenarios—this, when gay rights activism had only begun to get mainstream attention. (His chief assistant, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, has been his partner for a number of decades.)

David Hockney Charcoal Self Portrait

Self Portrait Oct. 24th (1983), charcoal on paper.

Hockney’s swimming pool paintings are perhaps his best known, such as Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) or Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966). In these, Hockney captures the cinematic light of California dreamscapes and the people who live in them, imbuing each seemingly simple scene with a sense of mystery and drama. We wonder who these people are, what they’re doing, and why they came here—all of this achieved with a deceptively simple style.

“Perspective takes away the body of the viewer. You have a fixed point, you have no movement; in short, you are not there really. That is the problem,” he has noted in the past. “For something to be seen, it has to be looked at by somebody and any true and real depiction should be an account of the experience of that looking.”

Hockney is also known for his images of the leisure class—heiresses, art collectors, and intellectuals. He depicted the rich and famous in their fantastical surroundings with a keen sense of observation. His portraits of wealthy and well-to-do couples combine the tenets of traditional patronage portraiture with elements of humor. Images like Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-1) and American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968), immediately tell us who these people are and what they care about, giving subtle critiques of patrons.

David Hockney Homemade Print Self Portrait

Self Portrait, July 1986 (1986), homemade print on two sheets of paper.

His portraits combine the intimate and the familiar in tightly composed canvases with a controlled palette. My Parents (1977) renders his elderly parents alternately seated upright and hunched over a book—as much a portrait of their physical presence as it is of their behavior. The portrait, painted one year before Hockney’s father died, uses bright, flashy colors—aquamarine, fuchsia, lapis blue—in contrast to what is a domestic scene among an elderly couple. One can spot a Hockney for the practiced, precise, and yet totally natural way that he poses and paints his subjects—with a fair dose of humor, too.

But while Hockney made his name as a painter, what has sustained and defined his long career is a willingness to experiment. While his early work just out of art school tended toward the abstract, in his mid career he toggled between realism and fantasy. Though one certainly knows one of his paintings on sight, they have passed through various styles and schools of thought even while maintaining Hockney’s distinct voice and vocabulary. He is really only defined by how prolific he’s been.

“I was never much of a party boy. I didn’t mind being seen that way, but I am actually a worker,” Hockney told the Guardian in 2015. “An artist can approve of hedonism, but he can’t be a hedonist himself…I thought I was a hedonist at the time, but when I look back I was always working. I am always working. I work every day. I never give parties; I never gave them.”

The world’s biggest names in art have been quick to celebrate the iconic painter on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The Tate Modern mounted an exhibition in 2017 uniting some of his best-known works—which became its second most-attended exhibition in history, with about half-a-million visitors—only bested by a show of Matisse’s cutouts. The show then traveled in various forms to the Pompidou and the Met, which mounted its own exclusive iteration of the exhibit. As the New Yorker wrote of the Met’s presentation, “it arrives as a revelation, a retort to all the avant-gardist eye-rollers who dismiss the 80-year-old British artist as, at best, a guilty pleasure.”

David Hockney Paint Trolley

Paint Trolley, L.A. 1985 (1985), collage of chromogenic prints.


David Hockney Red Braces Portrait

Self Portrait with Red Braces(2003), watercolor.

While Hockney is perhaps best known for iconic paintings, his work spans across nearly every medium imaginable. In recent years, he has exhibited photo collages, such as at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for its birthday-occasioned show of the artist’s work in 2017. His work, however, isn’t even just confined to typical art objects. He has also experimented with the form of set design for theatrical productions as well as computer-generated imagery. Hockney has been using screens he paints onto directly since the mid 1980s—making him an early adopter of the touch-screen technology that has become commonplace today. Now he makes use of an iPad for his painting practice, creating images that are at once completely in keeping with his idiosyncratic style while also reflecting the quickly changing times. Hockney, even as a living legend, has no intention of being left behind.

Few painters have had a bigger impact on pop culture for such an uninterrupted period. Hockney’s sensibility inflects the contemporary world even in the subtlest ways: Luca Guadagnino’s first English-language film, A Bigger Splash, takes its title from the well-known Hockney painting of a diver disappearing into the otherwise flat surface of a swimming pool.

His work draws on a wide swath of influences. He is highly interested in how the eye functions and had has written many articles on optic technologies and color. In recent years, he has become interested in the 1920s concept of reverse perspective—that the history of painting is often based on incorrect visual cues, such as foreshortening, lack of shadows, and reverse images. One can even see, for example, the influence of Japanese prints on Hockney’s work—images that had almost no depth and no shadows and were solely composed of flat planes of color.

David Hockney Blue Terrace Los Angeles

Blue Terrace Los Angeles March 8th 1982 (1982), polaroid composite.

“The eye is always moving; if it isn’t moving you are dead,” he has said. “The perspective alters according to the way I’m looking, so it’s constantly changing. In real life when you are looking at six people there are a thousand perspectives. I’ve included those multiple angles of vision in paintings of friends in my studio. If a figure is standing near to me, I look across at his head but downwards at his feet. A still picture can have movement in it because the eye moves.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, Hockney has continued to show new work into his 70s and 80s. LACMA’s latest outing with Hockney focused on 82 portraits he did during a roughly three-day period of various friends, colleagues, and peers such as Frank Gehry, Larry Gagosian, and John Baldessari. (The exhibition originated at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and also traveled to Melbourne, Venice, and Bilbao, Spain.) The suite of paintings amply show off his sense of wit and irony; at over age 80, Hockney has lost none of the venerated talent that first set him apart.

“I don’t think that really good artists spend their old age repeating themselves,” Hockney has said.

David Hockney Oil Canvas Self Portrait

Self Portrait (1984/1986),
oil on five canvases.

He’s certainly also not afraid to speak his mind, particularly as his legacy grows stronger. A headline from the Independent once read, “Is David Hockney the grumpiest man in Britain?” Hockney has, at various points, called Jeff Koons, “a terrible painter,” ditto to Damien Hirst, and he has also claimed he doesn’t understand Gerhard Richter’s prices. He’s even penned op-eds in the Daily Mail, England’s juiciest gossip outlet, about smokers’ rights, an issue he takes seriously despite all evidence to its health risks. “I don’t believe the secondhand smoke stuff. How can you know? It is all highly exaggerated. I speak as someone who has smoked for 58 years and I’m still here (and I’m fine, thank you),” he wrote way back in 2012. For Hockney, despite the obvious ironies there, his habits are all about trying to stay young.

“You get energy painting. When I paint, I feel I’m 30. I do, actually. It’s only when I stop, I feel my age…I still smoke. And I smoke because it’s part of the work,” Hockney said in a TV interview. “When I’m painting, I don’t smoke, but when I stop to think about it, I’d always smoke then. Well, anybody who’s telling me not to, would be telling me to, at that moment, think about my body. That’s what I’d be asked to do, think about my body. Well, I don’t want to think about my body.”

The art world has seen a resurgence of figurative painters—not just of legends like Hockney, but in the new work of younger painters, as they rub up against a world that’s increasingly photographed and filtered and shared. Painting reverts back to a knowingly subjective experience, and many young artists are turning their gaze back toward the medium, in spite of—and because of—new technologies.

“We all get a lifetime. They’re different, but we all get one,” Hockney told The Telegraph in 2016. “Why is everything now geared to longevity? If everything’s directed at maximizing the number of years you live, you’re denying life itself.

Decade to decade, year to year, Hockney has varied his practice and continues using new and untested methods. And despite his status as a living legend, Hockney still has much more to say.

[© David Hockney, Photo credit Richard Schmidt]

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