David Hockney at the de Young, Part 3

hockneypainting1David Hockney David Hockney working on The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), Version 3, 2011

The Exhibit Design

I mentioned the design of the Hockney exhibit earlier. I don’t know if Hockney was personally involved in the placement of the works although he has sometimes, as with the Royal Academy exhibit in 2012, accepted exhibit invitations because of the presentation possibilities.

In any case, it was a huge exhibit, 398 pieces of art, and according to the de Young website, was under the curation and design direction of Gregory Evans.  Beginning with the sly confrontation of The Massacre: The Problem of Depiction, the exhibit seemed to be designed to walk the viewer through the problem of what Hockney calls “pictures.” It was not chronological in any sense; it placed pictures painted in the same place, sometimes together, and sometimes not, but, at least in the landscape section, the viewer was moved inexorably in the direction of larger and larger depictions.

It wasn’t until the third day of my return that I noticed the exhibit’s layout. Exhibit goers were led through the pictures — watercolours, oils, digitals both large and small — in a very specific sequence.  After the initial presentation of portraits (continued upstairs, beyond the landscapes and digital room), the landscapes began with small watercolors, perhaps 15 x 22.

I have no notes on the size of the watercolours, but Martin Gayford, in A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (pp 18, 19), has a two-page spread of thumbnail-sized reproductions. They are “stacked” on the pages in the book, much as they were stacked in the museum. In the museum, they were placed too high to be examined closely, just as the book thumbnails are too small to be seen properly.

GayfordWatercolorsDavid Hockney, Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004, 36 watercolours on paper, each 15 x 22.5 in as depicted in Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message. Photo credit for the paintings: Robert Wedemeyer

From this small and somewhat puzzling presentation of the landscape pictures, the paintings grew in size, from around 36 x 48″ to the astonishing piece seen here in the de Young catalogue, which I believe was the largest in the exhibit (I didn’t note the size or the title and can’t find it online):

newcatalogue2The work shown above, along with being the biggest in the exhibit — it took up the whole of a quite large wall — was perhaps the most stylized of the landscapes. The leaves in this painting sweep diagonally from the right top side of the canvas to the bottom center and, also diagonally, from the left top to the bottom center; they meet in the middle. I suspect this is another of Hockney’s joking commentaries on conventional notions of depicting nature. For me, the painting borders on sheer abstraction, with its flat picture plane, truncated perspective, etc.

For a sense of the scale of his work, see the installation video of the exhibit in the La Louver Gallery,  in Venice CA.

On another wall, 90 degrees to the huge painting, not quite as large but still enormous, was a reproduction on large panels of a digital painting that Hockney did on his iPad. Lots of discussions among viewers questioned how he got the resolution high enough on a tablet drawing on to make an inkjet print that is perhaps 15 feet high. Some said that technically it was possible; others wondered if he charmed Steve Jobs into making him a special tablet. This was not the only digital reproduction of his digital work, but it certainly was a match for the “surreal” one 90 degrees from it. Another of Hockney’s little jokes, I’m sure.

A side note: the first day I was at the exhibit when there were fewer viewers, I found myself listening to the comments, which were free, loud, and ranged widely, from admiration to disgust. There were arguments about whether the paintings were “gimmicky” or “used old techniques” (this last was uttered by a 20-some to her mother, who was trying to defend Hockney). People corrected one another and refused to act as if they were being confronted by sacred objects: it was great fun and something of a relief from the usual hushed reverence one tends to feel in big name exhibits.

The Moving Videos

I have saved the most impressive, to me, part of the exhibit for a final commentary. This was the room in which each of the four walls showed projected moving videos. Each video “screen” was composed of 9 views stacked like a nine-patch quilt, 3 x 3 x 3, lined up vertically but not necessarily horizontally.

Here’s a still photo from the moving videos:

HockneyWoldgateWoodsWi_680webDavid Hockney, Woldgate Woods, as seen in the blog, Toast Travels

[Toast Travels is describing a different exhibit, so the writer’s description of how the videos are presented is quite different from what is seen at the de Young exhibit].

The scenes were recorded by 9 cameras mounted on a vehicle traveling slowly down a country lane. The movement was were then slowed even further through computer manipulation, to a walking pace. The panels showed sky, grass, the rutted road in front and to the side, and most of what was in-between. The front 3 vertically mounted cameras were, as I remember, in focus, although the side ones, not always so, although to notice that one had to be analytic rather than immersed. The individual panels of the scenes were large enough that the eye could see only see what was in front of one’s eyes; the other panels were somewhat at the peripheral of one’s vision, just as would be the case if you were walking slowly. You had to move your eyes and sometimes your position to capture other parts of the wall’s projection, and in the meantime, everything was rolling gently rolled off screen on the sides, bottom, and top of the panels, just as they would if you were walking.

For a recorded sample of how it looked, although the scenes are not the same and, to my eyes, not as striking as the ones in the de Young, check out this link. Hockney narrates these videos and explains a bit of what he’s doing. It’s instructive to see the web versions after viewing the de Young ones; the artistry involved in the decision-making about how and what to do with the cameras, how many cameras to use, and how to join the screens to make the most striking impact becomes clearer with the comparison. It reinforces the artistry involved in computer manipulation and presenting the material.

Gayford explains something of the processes in A Bigger Message. He quotes Jonathan Wilkinson, who was in charge of the high-definition cameras and the computer programs that run the films:

“Every camera is set to a different zoom, and a different exposure. This one directed at the sky here will have been ten times brighter than this other one up there, looking into the leaves. It’s like high-dynamic range photography, but that is done by software, where as we are doing it in a camera.” (p. 231)

As Martin Gayford explains, “Using nine cameras overcomes quite a few of the differences between how a human eye sees and how a camera sees. It’s moving, and flexible in exposure. An eye can adjust more rapidly than a camera — to different lights, for example.” (p 231).

Gayford goes on: “Hockney’s role was to adjust all the nine images so that, rather than a fragmented jumble, they made up a roughly comprehensible scene, with a fairly consistent line going along the road. This was in fact an illusion; the cameras might be several seconds out of sync in time, and were painting in widely diverse directions. But it worked…’ (231).

Hockney says this is a kind of drawing: “…There’s a drawing base to this….These cameras are all pointing in different directions, some upwards. But you’ve got to think of all the images relating on a flat surface. After a while, I realized that with this technique you could not only draw in space, you could draw in time. That is, you could take an individual screen and move it on five seconds. Sometimes bit of cars appear, disappear, appear again, and you realize that there are maybe seven seconds between two screens…. You see through time. I think we see that way anyway — we do see in bits, and link one bit with another bit and another bit. The time makes the space somehow.” (as quoted by Gayford, p 234)

Then, asked an oblique question, Hockney says, “I’ve no idea whether they are art, or something or not. But they are certainly depictions of the visible world, and not quite like any we’ve seen before. I think we have made something new, that has only recently become possible…” (p. 325).

Immersion is the only word I can use to describe the effect of these videos on me. The most breath-taking one was of winter, with snow falling in clumps off the trees in a brilliant sunlight that made the snow shadows widely varying colors. An older woman with whom I spoke while I was standing gazing at the snow scene said she had been back five times and thought she might have to come back again.There was no music, no drama, just a stroll down a rutted, snow-covered country road. And if you turned 90 degrees on the wall to your side, there appeared another view of the same road in a different season. Four walls, four seasons.

This is not like the ordinary video camera’s eye view where your eye has to go with the camera. In the ordinary video view of the single camera, you can’t look around at different parts of the scene as you are walked through it. Hockney’s panels allow you to experience almost as you really see, through time and space, with varying focal lengths and with the changes that our eyes and bodies (but not a single camera-eyes view) are capable of making almost instantaneously.

I told Terry, as we were looking at one of the videos walls, that I thought this was the only (or maybe I said “the biggest”) advance in landscape painting since Turner.

She responded, “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.”:-)

So perhaps my enthusiasm is over the top. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen anything like this except when I’ve been incredibly alert and awake and interested, walking down a country lane. I would have had to repeat that same walk, through different seasons, to see it as it is depicted in these nine-part pictures.

In an interview with PBS News Hour, Richard Benefield of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco  says: “There have been people who have said, who’s painting landscapes anymore? Landscapes are dead.

“But David has said, it’s nature and it’s always changing, so how can you not want to paint it? And, you know, with his landscapes, spring is always coming at some point, no matter where you are. So I think in some ways the landscape is a really life-affirming sort of choice for him.”

Makes sense to me. At 76 one might just want to affirm life.

For a good overview of the exhibit (and a glowing review) of the Hockney exhibit, see Roberta Smith’s New York Times article of December 23, 2013. Her conclusion is different from mine, but equally satisfying.

“As many people in the art world did, I resisted [Hockney’s work] for years, finding it ingratiating and illustrative, more drawing than painting and (O.K., snobbishly) seeing its very popularity as a sign of weakness.

“But after a while his art was just doing too many interesting things to be resisted….But it’s hard not to think that one reason Mr. Hockney has included [the videos] is to make you see that the paintings hanging near the videos provide a more satisfying experience.”

Re: the videos — to each her own. For me, I see enormous possibilities for such videos — city streets, desert scenes, New Mexico mountains, suburban-scapes — all captured as some of us yearn to be able to do. As “picture” artists we are all intimately aware of the limitations of the flat surface on which we work; some have escaped it through projections of objects into the space in front of that surface (think Rauschenberg), some have worked large surfaces of buildings that have indentations and rough surfaces (Bosquiat comes to mind), some have played with wonky perspectives to mimic the human view. But Hockney has made a leap into a different way to manipulate the flat plane of the “canvas” and turn it into another way of using it — not just bigger but quite different from anything I’d ever seen before. And not just a gimmick but a whole new way to solve the problem of depiction.


hockneyYosemite1Oct162011iPadDavid Hockney, Yosemite I, October 16, 2011, an iPad drawing as seen on the NY Times Blog

For a charming interview with Hockney before his exhibit at the Royal Academy in London (2012) which includes some photos which show, again, the scale of his work check here.

And to be fair and balanced, for a very different viewpoint of the Royal Academy’s exhibit, check Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian. He doesn’t like what Hockney does and doesn’t hesitate to pan the work, fully and wholly:-) I don’t agree with the reviewer but then I wouldn’t, would I?;-)

Note: I have disabled the usual sidebars in this post because I wished for the paintings themselves to have a greater impact. I’ll go back to showing you the comments, etc. in further posts.

7 thoughts on “David Hockney at the de Young, Part 3

  1. Your comments about space and time are interesting. In my musical world, we deal with the conjecture of space and time frequently. I never applied these concepts to visual art probably because the concept of time stands still and forms more of a snapshot moment in most forms of visual art. Thanks for the insight. I would have liked to have seen this exhibit, I think. Rich and I will have to watch out for an exhibit in Philadelphia or New York City.

    • Hi Tani,

      I suppose the equivalent to stopping time in music comes through the titles: “A Little Night Music,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” “Morning Mood,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The general attempts to cross over into other disciplines is an attempt to broaden the art, and/or to enhance the reception of the art itself. In the visual arts, the dioramas of the 19th century, and the cubists of the 20th were working hard to extend the range as was that grand old man, Papa Cezanne .

      Of course, painters often talk about rhythm in painting and gestural painting as well as showing space. The latter became most evident in the 50’s when the cult of the flat canvas (the loss of perspective almost entirely within the abstract expressionist work) arose. But time is a whole different kettle; musicians have conquered that one, for sure, while artists have struggled and often given up, except for depicting history in its various visual manifestations. Hockney, though, seems to have taken an interesting step forward.

      I hope you get to see his work. He’s not much for east coast exhibits — his heart and work leaps over the east as he goes back and forth from California to Europe. But maybe he’ll run a correction on that one day.

      What results perhaps is not so much a real crossover as a tantalizing glimpse of another world, and an extension, really important, in the ways we experience our own discipline.

  2. That last analysis of yours about the video landscapes and those that don’t agree with your take on them put me in mind of that article about dismissing some modern art because “anyone could do it.” Maybe some people are thinking that about the videos but, as that article said, no one DID think of it til Hockney and it’s probably much more difficult to pull off than most would think. I like your fantasies of the possibilities.

    And thanks for sharing that last picture. It’s his ipad renditions of Yosemite that I think I like the most.

    • Sheila, the funny thing is that people have such different loves in this exhibit. I guess given the variety of modes and methods he uses it’s not too surprising, but in fact I’ve seen and heard a large number of different “really like” comments. And I didn’t even talk about the charcoal drawing or the portraits, which are a whole ‘nother area of exploration. I very much like his self-portrait, a detail of which is in part 3, although for the most part I found his portraits a bit off-putting.

      I was surprised that Terry and I agreed on the ones we liked most among the landscapes. She liked them for different reasons than I did, but we both had to buy postcards with those images on them:-)

    • oops, I thought I had put up a detail of his self-portrait but obviously didn’t. You can see it if you google David Hockney Self-portrait. It’s worth looking at; it will make you smile.

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