British artist David Hockney turned 80 this year. For my money, no other artist has captured the rich experience of LA canyon living as completely and fully as Hockney.
My first encounter with the work of artist David Hockney was his painting of Nichols Canyon. I bought a framed print at the MOMA gift shop and hung it above my tiny two-seat table in my Brooklyn apartment. Like for so many others, the painting promised land of sunshine and bounty on some far away shore. Hockney’s depictions of life in the Hollywood Hills was as exotic to me then as Paul Gauguin’s Bali paintings appeared to his contemporaries. Like Gauguin, Hockney fled Europe in search of some distant Eden. And he found it.
It wasn’t until years later that I finally experienced the drive along Nichols Canyon myself. Although I’ve now made that drive countless times, it still feels exactly like that painting. To this day, I imagine Mr. Hockney himself behind the wheel of his cherry red Mercedes SL280, Wagner blasting away and the ever-present cigarette between his lips careening around Mulholland Drive on his way home from his studio.
Over his 60-odd year career, Hockney has explored dozens of subjects and mediums including painting, photography, collage, and computer art. He has produced eye-popping landscapes and piercing portraits. But the subject he returns to again and again is Los Angeles and life in the Hollywood Hills.
Museums around the world are joining in the celebration. Earlier this year, Tate Britain staged the most comprehensive exhibition yet of Hockney’s career, dedicating 13 gallery rooms to the show. In his hometown of Bradford, England, Cartwright Hall opened a new David Hockney Gallery.
Benedikt Taschen, publisher of Taschen Books and neighbor of David Hockney, published an enormous monograph, A Bigger Book, of the artist as part of Taschen’s SUMO series. These are physically massive volumes, each dedicated to the life’s work of a single artist. A Bigger Book measures 19.6 inches by 27.5 inches, which opened, gives it the wingspan of over 4 feet. The work covers Hockney’s entire career including his landscapes, portraits, photo compositions, video stills, and iPad paintings. It’s offered for sale in a limited edition series of 10,000 copies for $2,500. A specially-designed bookstand is included.
And Getty LA is also joining in with it’s exhibition “Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney.” The exhibition runs through November 26, 2017.
Beefcake and Architecture
Hockney first visited Los Angeles in 1964. Flying into LA, the contrast between the sparkling gems of backyard pools below and his native northern England could not have been more stark. The experience had a immediate impact on the young artist.
“I came to Los Angeles for two reasons. The first was a photo by Julius Shulman of Case Study House #21, and the other was an AMG (Athletic Model Guild) Physique Pictorial.”
It was those two themes, the cool modernist architectural geometry and the eroticism of the male body, that came to signify the Hockney brand.
Hockney bought a house on Montcalm Avenue near Runyon Canyon which he shared with his partner artist Peter Schlesinger for many years, and still maintains today.
“This is the place to be – the land of swimming pools.”
Swimming pools appear in Hockney’s work again and again. The swimming pool is the quintessential symbol of the Los Angeles lifestyle and, in the counter culture 1970s, the mise-en-scene for the casual sexuality of the times. Capturing a pool in acrylic paint also presented a formal challenge for Hockney.
On painting water, he says,
“Water in swimming pools changes its look more than any other form. Its color can be man-made and its dancing rhythms reflect not only the sky, but because of its transparency, the depth of the water as well. If the water surface is almost still and there is a strong sun, then dancing lines with colors of the spectrum appear everywhere.”
Much of Hockney’s work resembles the paper cut outs of Henri Matisse. In his later years, Matisse also explored the subject of swimming pools and like Hockney found a graceful sensuality of the human body in water.
Hockney was hardly the first artist to challenge the Renaissance notions of infinite perspective. But he may be the most well known Pop artist to do it.
Throughout his career, Hockney insisted that he painted only what he saw. While I take him at his word, it’s only natural that we bring our past experience and inner feelings to the present moment. The world that Hockney presented was fraught with shifting perspectives and psychic tension – much like his adopted home.
Sunshine noir has been a favorite genre of artists, writers, and filmmakers for as long as LA has existed. However, few have pursued it as cheerfully as David Hockney.
He used a number of mediums in his work, including photographs and later iPads. Polaroids were a favorite of his for a time. With a process designed for the ultimate ease of use, Hockney instead laboriously assembled photo collages from Polaroid snaps.
Whatever subject or medium he chooses, Hockney continues to create arresting images.
In his penetrating portraits, his subjects look back at the viewer with an often unnerving intimacy. Just last year, Hockney exhibited a new series of portraits that rival the best of his earlier work. In an age of largely meaningless selfies, David Hockney is proving that true portraiture can be as meaningful today as it ever was.
The delightfully subversive Hockney challenged artistic conventions and social mores as well. Long before gay marriage was even conceivable, Hockney often depicted idyllic scenes of domestic gay life. In his native England, homosexuality was still crime. (It was decriminalized in 1967 but it remained illegal until 2013.
Fortunate for us, Hockney is as industrious as ever. Besides the aforementioned portrait series, he has also completed a series of landscapes of his birthplace, Yorkshire. Today, he’s still spending time in his studio, painting in his favored Saville Row suits.
The Getty retrospective continues through November 26th at the Getty Center located at the corner of Sepulveda Blvd. and Getty Drive. For hours and details, visit Getty Center
Happy birthday, Mr. Hockney!