An Evolution of Style

David Hockney at the Met

A Bigger Splash, 1967. Acrylic on canvas.
The Metropolitan Art Museum
A Bigger Splash, 1967. Acrylic on canvas.
David Hockney

In a comprehensive retrospective at the Met, David Hockney examines what style means in modernism, and in particular what it means to Hockney, demonstrating the artist's originality as well as his vast influences.

The Metropolitan Art Museum

Mount Fuji and Flowers by David Hockney, 1972. Acrylic on canvas.

Hockney doesn’t abandon the academic as so much as transmute its concerns in terms of style and inspiration.

The pleasure of retrospectives is that they allow us to go deep into an artist’s singular development, but the danger is that arranging an artist’s work in retrospective sets that development out in such a neat, pre-ordained progression that the very nature of the arrangement separates an artist from his influences and the iterative process of making art in the first place. The limits of such a panoramic view of an artist’s work has the unintended consequence of flatting out the turns of influence and experience that shape what and how an artist sees and makes.

David Hockney is an extended meditation on what style means in modernism, and in particular what it means to Hockney. The vast span of his work demonstrates his utter originality as an artist and yet at the same time his various bodies of work bear traces of influence, not only from how he’s looked—and what he’s looked at—but how he has observed his own experience.

One theme of the show is Hockney’s sustained engagement with what he would call “the history of pictures,” which is the title of the book he co-authored with critic Martin Gayford in 2016. By pictures he means something distinct from art history—a history of images that includes high and low, from Disney to Caravaggio. In the pages of The History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen, Hockney writes that “Any picture is an account of looking at something.” One way to see David Hockney is as a chronicle of what David Hockney has thought worth looking at.

Like all retrospectives, this one begins at the beginning, with paintings Hockney made while a student at the Royal College Art in the 1960s, as he creates a visual vocabulary that navigates between British art and the rise of American abstract expressionism and Pop Art. What is most exciting to see is the way he moved between styles to create a coded, and then not-so-coded, visual style of his own inspired by Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock, to express gay desire at a time when homosexuality was criminalized in Britain.

Hockney’s move to California in 1964 shifted his field of vision outward, to angular mid-century modern architecture, and the reflective surfaces of glass and water. Hockney doesn’t abandon the academic as so much as transmute its concerns in terms of style and inspiration. On the one hand, the flatness of these pictures is the first sign of Hockney's engagement with cubism. On the other, in a variation on figure studies, his source for male figures in his paintings comes from the magazines published by the Athletic Model Guild as well as from his own relationships. And at the same time, Hockney credits the flattened perspective in so many of the poolside pictures to a crude kind of photo-realism that came from beginning to take photographs seriously.

Hockney has said that he decorated his Hollywood Hills house in the 1980s in “Matisse colors.” If he was decorating in a Matisse palette, then re-encountering Picasso’s work in 1980 in a major retrospective at MoMA inspired a deepening engagement with cubism as a way to render sight in ways that resist one-point perspective and photo-realism. Views of Los Angeles canyons, still lives, and views from Malibu explore the possibilities of representing movement, such as with driving, or interiors as seen from multiple perspectives, remembered as much as observed.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy by David Hockney, 1968.
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy by David Hockney, 1968. Acrylic on canvas.

Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott by David Hockney, 1968-1969.
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott by David Hockney, 1968-1969. Acrylic on canvas.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney, 1970-1971. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney, 1970-1971. Acrylic on canvas.

Flight into Italy - Swiss Landscape (Painting in a Scenic Style) by David Hockney, 1962.
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Flight into Italy - Swiss Landscape (Painting in a Scenic Style) by David Hockney, 1962. Oil on canvas.

Domestic Scene, Los Angeles by David Hockney, 1963. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Domestic Scene, Los Angeles by David Hockney, 1963. Oil on canvas.

California Art Collector by David Hockney, 1964.
The Metropolitan Art Museum

California Art Collector by David Hockney, 1964. Acrylic on canvas.

Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc by David Hockney, 1971. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc by David Hockney, 1971. Acrylic on canvas.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney, 1972. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney, 1972. Acrylic on canvas.

Large Interior, Los Angeles by David Hockney, 1988. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Large Interior, Los Angeles by David Hockney, 1988. Oil, ink on cut-and-pasted paper, on canvas.

A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March by David Hockney, 2006. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March by David Hockney, 2006. Oil on canvas.

Garden by David Hockney, 2015. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

Garden by David Hockney, 2015. Acrylic on canvas.

A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace by David Hockney, 2017. 
The Metropolitan Art Museum

A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace by David Hockney, 2017. Acrylic on canvas.

The Metropolitan Art Museum

Nichols Canyon by David Hockney, 1980. Acrylic on canvas.

Hockney has said that he decorated his Hollywood Hills house in the 1980s in “Matisse colors.”

The conventions of the retrospective inevitably group like pictures with like pictures, as is done here when it comes to Hockney’s double portraits, made in the late 1960s through the 1970s, as well as his drawings and photo-collages. The double portraits, which could be said to be the height of Hockney’s naturalism, are easy to look at because of their realism, but they are also deeply in conversation with Renaissance painting, particularly altarpieces and annunciations, and with the visual conventions of the stage. They are proof again that Hockney is always looking in a bifocal way—at what is before him, and the art historical precursors of how similar sights have been seen and rendered before.

The sketches and photo-collages might be better understood not so much as a display of two more of Hockney’s many oeuvres, although they are that, but as études in a more traditional sense of academic drawing. Hockney has long worked with photography as an aide-memoire for paintings. The photo-collages are a body of work in and of themselves and an articulation of his preoccupation with what it means to represent a three-dimensional world in the two dimensional picture plane. Even as the photo-collages are an experimental exercise, as Hockney explores his concerns with time, motion, and perspective (and their gridded layouts return in later painted works, as a way to convey vision as mobile rather than fixed), they also highlight the sense of intimacy that underlines all of Hockney’s work. His work, regardless of form, is consistently about his own experience and his relationships with friends, lovers, and family.

These concerns remain as the underlying motive for his pictures even as subject matter and technique change. Beginning in the late 1990s Hockney began to make paintings in various locations—Yorkshire, the Grand Canyon, and his Hollywood gardens among them. Some of these painting take on more of a bird’s eye view, looking from a fixed vantage point. These paintings are also deeply in conversations with his precursors: Thomas Moran, J. M. W. Turner, and Van Gogh. He has since turned to plein air painting in East Yorkshire, working in ways that evoke both that academic tradition and his entire departure from it—sketching, using an iPad to draw, and painting in and out of the studio, often assembling grid-like, multiple-canvas paintings that harken back to his photo-collages.

The order of the retrospective, imposed on the artist’s life, wants us to see progression, but in this show process is what to look at. The entirety of Hockney’s work can be explained as being absorbed with the question of representation and the perspectival. Writing in The History of Pictures, Hockney offered his account of the history of pictures, which he said “begins in the caves and ends, at the moment with an iPad. Who knows where it will go next? But one thing is certain, the pictorial problems will always be there—the difficulties of depicting the world in two dimensions are permanent—meaning you never solve them.”

About the Author

Andrea L. Volpe

Andrea L. Volpe is a cultural historian, essayist, and critic. She writes about photography, culture, and technology from Cambridge, Massachusetts. More at andrealvolpe.com and on Twitter @andrealvolpe.

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