The Hockney exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco,¬† October 26, 2013 to January 20, 2014, was all about the ways Hockney sees and depicts the world. Hockney uses oils, watercolor, charcoal, digital devices, digitals printed huge on paper, depictions with camera obscura and video cameras — every currently available visual tool under his command. His ideas about depiction and his art as displayed at the de Young sometimes disagree, gently but firmly, with the given guidelines and notions painters and picture makers have been following for centuries. The explanations and discussion of Hockney’s ideas about space, time, and the picture plane have always fascinated me. But after my visit to the exhibit, it is the David Hockney landscape paintings and allied work that I am in love with.
I made the pilgrimage to the de Young with some trepidation. It had been more than ten years since I last flew. I have medical issues that kept me from flying, but I am also philosophically opposed to the airlines’ abuse of people’s dignity. However, some of my medical issues have moderated, and my principles on this occasion had to be ignored. Terry Grant, a Portland friend with whom I have seen many a local and regional exhibit, joined me to view the exhibit. She agreed to act as my emergency back-up, just in case I humiliated myself. She also acted as a polite but careful corrective to my overweening enthusiasms; her dry wit was useful. For an overview of Terry’s and my trip to San Francisco, see her blog, “And So It Goes.”
This “Bigger Exhibition” thrilled me because of the varied mediums Hockney is using in his latest work — his digital and video images well as his paintings¬† — and in design of the exhibition — which I thought was brilliant; there was also the sheer delight of seeing how his 77 year old body continues to thrive in its chosen vocation, drawing ideas into his vision and executing those visions in fresh and exciting ways. The subject matter in the exhibit was divided into three major parts: portraits, landscapes, and large digital drawings that were reproduced on paper as if they were paintings. All these elements are linked, at least in part, by Hockney’s digital drawings, shown on monitors in a separate room in the gallery. The drawings showed sketches and paintings as they emerged from the artist’s hand, and had a fascination in themselves. But for me, it was the way the digital work illuminated the rest of the landscapes that was most compelling.
The opening painting, front and center as one entered it, was a typical Hockney understated joke. He designates these kinds of works as collages. This one consists of what one critic called a “labored” watercolor, a mash-up of copied paintings of earlier masters placed in the same frame as Hockney’s painting of an early photographer under a light-concealing shroud; the collage is called “The Massacre and the Problems of Depiction” (2003) and referenced Goya and Picasso and perhaps others.
David Hockney: The Massacre and the Problem of Depiction (2003)¬†image from Kenneth Baker’s review in the SF Gate.
Kenneth Baker, in his review in the SF Gate, comments that “Hockney’s main tactic in trying to break the complacency of vision and our thinking about it has been shifts in emphasis. These appear throughout the de Young survey.” It was only after I thought about it that I snickered at the joke about Hockney’s visual “massacres” of older ideas in his work in this exhibit.
Terry, as we walked through the exhibit, commented on the ways Hockney subtly refused European western guidelines of painting and photography — putting his trees or roads smack in the center of the painting or the horizon line right across the middle of the canvas (and I noted that he used brilliant secondary colors –green, orange, purples — almost exclusively). We both saw, in the few paintings of charming English rooftops, some gently skewed perspectives. Hockney greatly admires the earlier English landscape painters, from Turner on, but retains something of his sense of the brilliant colors from his California days. His videos, about which I’ll have more to say in Part 3, also reflect his love of color, a color that we seldom associate with the stereotype of¬† the gray dank British Isles.
The subtle defiance of conventions is even clearer in a painting that Terry and I both liked enormously: when you check the link, note the horizon line in the painting.
David Hockney, The Tunnel, Early Autumn , October 2005, oil on canvas 91.5×122 cm (36 in x 48 in) from the Annely Juda Fine Art Website
However, my interest, as usual, was focused on Hockney’s depiction of space.
Hockney’s avowed interest in space is in space and time, which he says are inextricably intertwined. He explains somewhere that we layer everything we see over everything we’ve seen before, including what we saw just a second ago. And of course, he sometimes jokingly refers to Einstein, just in case you needed an authoritative reference. In A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, Hockney says “you can’t have time without space…. It’s inconceivable to us to imagine that space might end….What’s there if there’s no space? And when you are looking at the furthest places in the universe, you are looking back in time. Your brain begins to burst when you try to think about it seriously; you could make yourself a bit mad.” ( Martin Gayford, 2011, p. 145).
See also, for example,¬† Woldgate Woods, 30 March-21 April, 2006¬† Oil on 6 canvases, 72in x 144in
So rather than think about it rationally, Hockney sketched and painted many pieces in one area, over time. He says of Bridlington, where the landscapes in this exhibit were mostly worked out, “Here the light might change every two minutes. You have to figure out how to deal with that. In fact, we came to the conclusion that every day was totally different in this part of East Yorkshire. There is absolutely constant change. Superficially, Bridlington and the country around haven’t altered much in fifty years. But when you are here, you can see how it varies continuously. The light will be different; the ground changes colour. In southern California, if you went out to paint, the only thing that would be fluctuating are the shadows as they moved. Here the shadows might not be there much of the time, but other things are constantly altering.” (as quoted in Martin Gayford’s A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, 2011 pp. 24, 26.)
See Late Spring Tunnel, May 2006, Oil on canvas, two parts, 48 x 72 in.
Many of the paintings and digital reproductions on paper in the exhibit were huge. My favorite oil painting filled an entire wall. Called Bigger Trees nearer Warter, Winter 2008, it consists of nine canvases, butted up against one another.¬† Bigger Trees Nearer Warter, Winter 2008, Oil on 9 canvases, 108 x 144]
Bigger Trees, Nearer Warter is typical of Hockney’s quiet defiance of conventional notions of proper perspective: the boldness of the grove of trees, which act as a single gorgeous block of color and light, beside which the smaller foliage on the right, closer, feels out of proportion, and the house on the left is oddly small for its placement. These seemingly defy the fixed traditional camera view (which Hockney describes in the 1980s as a one-eyed paralyzed cyclops viewpoint). It’s his painter’s eye that turns the natural scene into something more abstract; it’s his ever-searching eye and mind that refuses to be sucked into a mimicry of the camera’s perspective and viewpoint.
Bigger Trees Nearer Warter was presented on the far wall of the landscape section of the exhibit. It took up that entire wall. It was directly across from the door where the viewer entered the room, and its presentation was stunning. Did I mention that this was, for me, the most exhilarating work in the whole exhibit?
And¬†Bigger Trees Nearer Warter is by no means the largest painting in the exhibit.
A couple of other observations: Hockney’s titles, which he repeats with small variations, are amusing but they also remind us that we see are likely to see the same “named” scenes again and again, from different viewpoints, over seconds or minutes, or at different hours, or days, or months. Each time the scene is slightly — or greatly — different. His paintings are dated, which is also to say “this is what this scene looked like at this time; don’t count on it being like this at a different time.”
He has an earlier painting called Bigger Trees near Warter, and while Nearer¬† is big, it is not as big as¬†Near, which is 180 by 480 inches and took 50 canvases to compose: Bigger Trees Near Warter or/ou Peinture sur le Motif pour le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique, 2007
oil on 50 canvases, 180 x 480 in. overall
Near was presented with spaces between the canvases, while Nearer had to be inspected closely to see the seams.
Hockney keeps examining these woods or nearby woods, starting with simple looking, then sketching, then drawing, then painting small, and then going to these large scale paintings and, in the case of Bigger Trees Nearer Warter, getting a bit smaller again. The de Young exhibition showed his many “studies” and works depicting the same scene or the same place, done in various mediums like watercolor, oil, charcoal, and digital drawing.
The paintings mentioned and most of the other landscapes were done plein air (on site), sometimes tweaked in the studio. In the field, he would set up a station and use various methods to line up the paintings. According to Gayford, sometimes he brought the bordering canvases with him to line up the new one. At other times he used computerized photographs to see how to bring the edges of the large canvases together; his assistant took the digital photos and manipulated them on the computer as Hockney painted, so he could get an idea of where his edgings needed to be. In his chapter called “A Yorkshire Paradise” (A Bigger Message… p 12ff), Gayford has photos of Hockney working on the larger paintings. Gayford also includes many reproductions of the paintings mentioned here.
Another illustration of these elements of Hockney’s work is Woldgate Woods III, May 20 & 21 2006, (Oil on 6 canvases 72in x 144in.)¬† Woldgate Woods III has been narrowly and lightly framed and some of the branches of the paintings on separate canvases are not perfectly aligned, a element which I would say was deliberate, insisting that we look at the whole painting and its edges, just as we should really look at the scenes in front of us. Our eyes jump around when we look, and only our brains smooth out the jumps that our eyes make. The framing is also a bit jolting, since the canvases seem “normally” meant to fit perfectly together, without the frames (and without the jumps in alignment, of course).
In Part 3, the final part to this disquisition, I will talk specifically about Hockney’s video landscapes as well as the design of the exhibition at the de Young