David Hockney at the de Young, Part 1

[ed. note:  For the best photos of David Hockney’s work, check his official website which has both current work and paintings, etc. from the last ten years as well as those from throughout his long career.]

I have been a long-time admirer of David Hockney, although I’ll admit it was more an admiration of his thinking and observing than about his art, which I hadn’t seen in real life until January 15th, 2014.

I can’t remember the first time I encountered reproductions of Hockney’s work and thinking, but the one image that stands out clearly in my mind is of his collage of polaroid photos, Pear Blossom Highway, April 11-18, 1986.

In his polaroid “joiners,” Hockny took photos over time and space and then put them together to get the idea of what the subject looked like from different viewpoints and at different times.

hockney-pearblossom-highwayDavid Hockney, Pear Blossom Highway, 11-18th April, 1986. Image taken from AIUS.com, where a full description of Hockney’s “joiners” can be found

Here’s Hockney’s description of Pearblossom Highway, the scene at a crossroads in which, as he says,  there is “a very wide open space, which you only get a sense of in the western United States. . . . [The] picture was not just about a crossroads, but about us driving around. I’d had three days of driving and being the passenger. The driver and the passenger see the road in different ways. When you drive you read all the road signs, but when you’re the passenger, you don’t, you can decide to look where you want. And the picture dealt with that: on the right-hand side of the road it’s as if you’re the driver, reading traffic signs to tell you what to do and so on, and on the left-hand side it’s as if you’re a passenger going along the road more slowly, looking all around. So the picture is about driving without the car being in it.” (quotation from the Getty website).

Hockney’s work and talk and writing is all about how we “really” see, or better, how he really sees, as he changes viewpoints, or sits in a place for hours, or closes one eye or opens both eyes. He continues the Cubist tradition of collage art in his joiners; he says that our whole visual experience is a series of collages — that every instant that we see is collaged on top of the instant before, almost always from a different angle of vision, changing angles caused by eye and body movement which in turn changes memories and desires.

Another of Hockney’s ideas caused an uproar in the art world when he wrote in Secret Knowledge (2001) that some old masters, such as Van Eyck, Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Ingres, used a camera obscura or lucida to paint, the same way Andy Warhol used a projector to lay out his images. This discovery, validated by an optical engineer, Charles Falco, caused Hockney to think differently about how the camera has changed our way of looking — and not necessarily for the better. Here’s the Wikipedia article which lays out the thesis and its critics.

“An ordinary photo is okay,” as Hockney had noted as far back as the early eighties, “if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops, for a split second,” — quoted by Lawrence Weschler, whose article on Hockney was what first captured my imagination. A recent movie, Tim’s Vermeer, recaps what Hockney and Charles Falco worked out in detail.

Below is the Van Eyck that various art critics and scientists have discussed in terms of the Hockney/Falco thesis:

eyck2The National Gallery, London, captured from this site

But I digress. The deYoung exhibit in San Francisco (closed January 20, 2014) showed work from about 2005 to 2012, 20 to 30 years after Pearblossom Highway and 5 –15 years after the 2001 publication of Secret Knowledge. As was apparent in “A Bigger Exhibit,” at the deYoung, Hockney’s on-going studies about how he, and we, see haven’t stopped; he has built on his ideas and added to his quest for an understanding of how to translate the human vision of three dimensions into  two-dimensional space.

I will continue with my discussion of my experience at the deYoung Museum exhibit in the next post.

9 thoughts on “David Hockney at the de Young, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Not much new, but I’ve written some art blogs you might like | southeast main

    • HA! I did not notice that in Pear Blossom hgway, Clairan, although I puzzled over it. And he’d been in the states for some time, and learned to drive in LA. Oh my!
      But in the videos from 2011 or so at the de Young, the Brits right-hand driving makes for a nervous giggle from the Americans until someone in the viewing crowd notes that it’s a British driver.

  2. June, you are right about his colors having been bright all along. I was fooled by two paintings of his at the MOMA, NYC, which are more subdued in color.

    I do like his current stuff. I find it playful, funky.

    • Birgit, “playful” is a great word to describe H’s work.

      He’s a sly, subtle humorist, very gentle in some ways, which his colors belie. It’s part of what I like about his work — he doesn’t take it too seriously. Or at least that’s the way it appears in the exhibition. Given the amount of art he produces and the time it involves, of course, he takes it very seriously indeed:-)

  3. June, thanks for this great write-up for those of us who didn’t get to see the exhibition. I think one of my favorite things about Hockney is that he was worked – and is still working – in a variety of different media and styles. He doesn’t allow himself to be pinned down to a particular thing; he’s not afraid to try new things. Inspiring!

    • Thanks, Deidre. I have been delighted at H’s on-going researches and restless intellect. He’s my kind of artist. And I found that his work, in the “Bigger Exhibit” positively exhilarating.

      I’m working up a second part to this trip and was hoping to use a lot of images. However, they are on his website, and reproduction is forbidden. I’ve written to ask permission but suspect I’m too small a fish to get an answer. So I’ll publish my thoughts on the current work with links to his work. Soon, soon, soon — I’ll be publishing soon:-) Thank you for checking in.

  4. Hi hi, Birgit, so good to hear from you again. It’s been far too long, and I’m far too far out of the loop.

    In response to your comment: I would attribute Hockney’s color choice to his move from cold, dank, gray northern England to Los Angeles (via the east coast); he was using those colors (and much brighter ones) long before the iPad and iPhone were a twinkle in Apple’s eye:-) If you look at his website, under “paintings” you will see that he has moved from the primary coloration of the California pools period to the current secondary color wheel hues, which tone them down a bit.

    I have absolutely no objection to his sense of color — in fact, I find it a relief from my own neutral desert scenes. And they don’t seem “garish” in context — that is, when they are near one another on a bright California day such as we had in San Francisco. In one of his taped interviews, H. says that he watched Laurel and Hardy as a child and while the movies were in black and white, he saw the vivid shadows that they cast and he knew that he wasn’t in Bridlington (UK) any more:-)

    I’ll admit to adoring this latest batch of paintings, of which there were many many on exhibit, and I’m sure many many more in storage. In part, it’s his returning to the same place to look, over and over again, as opposed to the “tourist take” of most plein air painters (this is something you will understand as you do the same). And in part it’s because of his insistence that we put aside all kinds of preconceptions and paint as we see — and then that we look again — and paint again, as we see anew. And in third part:-) it’s his intellectual diggings (as I suppose I might have referenced in this post) that never cease; I know a lot of aged artists who began in their 20’s who are now a jaded and tired lot. You and I have the advantage of a freshness because we are relatively new to the field, but H. has been in there working away for years and years and years.

    So good to hear from you and to know that you are in no danger of becoming jaded. Thanks for checking in.

  5. June, the first image made me finally grasp the origin of ‘garish’ colors in Hockney’s recent work (so far only seen on my monitor). It is the influence of apps on the IPAD, Iphone. In painting, it appears that he imitated the limited color choices of apps!

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