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Seeing the Big Picture

David Hockney’s recent work is huge—literally—but size is not all that matters in these vision-bending paintings.

David Hockney, More Felled Trees on Woldgate, 2008, oil on two canvases, 60 x 48 inches each, 60 x 96 inches overall

David Hockney, More Felled Trees on Woldgate, 2008, oil on two canvases, 60 x 48 inches each, 60 x 96 inches overall

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David Hockney is so prolific that a show of recent work can look as massive as any other artist’s full-career retrospective. That’s certainly the case with “David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition,” opening at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on October 26 and running through January 20, a survey of work produced over the past decade that is quite literally monumental. Not only will visitors be treated to a huge quantity of artworks, but many of those pieces are truly monumental in scale—oil paintings made up of as many as 30 connected canvases, digital “Cubist movies” showing on 18 screens simultaneously, and Polaroid photocollages that bring together hundreds of individual images into one gigantic, optical experience.

Chronologically speaking, the de Young show begins in 2002, when Hockney returned full-time to painting after a period spent on photography, “fax combines,” printmaking, and art-historical researches, among other things. “Oh dear, I truly must get back to painting,” Hockney would often say to friends and associates during those years. When he finally did get back to it, he did so with a vengeance, producing over 100 watercolors in six months, then proceeding to oil on canvas. In a sense, this was a return to origins, since it was painting, in oil and acrylic, that first brought him fame in the 1960s and made him England’s best-known and best-loved artist. But there was something new going on.

For a basically very accessible artist known for rolling landscapes, charming portraits of friends and depictions of a particularly pleasant lifestyle, Hockney had long been unusually preoccupied with philosophical questions about the nature of perception as it affects art-making. He had grown increasingly frustrated by the tyranny of one-point perspective, which he felt was typical of photography and that photography had inflicted on the rest of art. “Photography is all right,” he would often quip, “if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops, for a split second.”

He made this objection not as an outsider-naysayer but as an immersed participant; starting in the 1970s Hockney took so many photographs—first as studies for paintings and then as free-standing works—that he truly became a photographer. In a way, he became a photographer in order to find a way out of photography, to see again with the eye instead of through the lens. And when he returned to painting, his goal was to transcend traditional perspective, to broaden the horizons of vision, to widen the angle of view—or more accurately, too see things from multiple points of view at the same time. That is why his recent work is so large, and why so many of the works are made of up multiple compositions joined together into one.

This monumentality initially upset the de Young curators’ plans for the installation of the show. “When we realized how big some of the pieces are, we realized that we had to expand the space we were thinking about,” says museum director Richard Benefield, who is a longtime friend of Hockney’s and wrote an essay for the catalogue. “We ended up using a 10,000-square-foot exhibition space, plus five galleries of exhibition space from our permanent collection,” for a total of 18,000 square feet, the de Young’s biggest exhibition ever. One of the biggest hanging challenges was The Arrival of Spring in 2011, which Benefield describes as “an artist installation that creates a completely immersive experience.” It combines 32 oil-on-canvas paintings with 12 color drawings done on an iPad and printed large, to convey the impression the changing seasons made on Hockney’s perception of a slice of landscape in his native East Yorkshire. The iPad drawings were done on-site, while the oils were done from memory and imagination in his studio in California.

At this point it is almost unnecessary to say that Hockney is a fan of Apple products as art media. He was an early adopter of the iPhone’s Brushes app, which enables the (very skillful) user to paint in a pretty nuanced way on the tiny screen. No stranger to electronic technology (Hockney was using computers to paint back in the ’80s), he was old-school enough to unconsciously wipe his fingers on his pants after doing an iPhone drawing, as if he had been finger-painting. He took up the iPhone because he wanted to paint sunrises en plein air and couldn’t see the paper and colors he was trying to paint or draw with well enough in the dim light to capture the scene’s effects to his satisfaction. The glowing screen of the smartphone created its own light, solving the problem, and soon Hockney was emailing friends daily iPhone sketches in a sort of notebook art-correspondence. Eventually he took up the iPad, preferring it for its larger screen size.

The Arrival of Spring not only broadens the perspective in space but also in time, a point which Benefield emphasizes in describing the thrust of all of Hockney’s recent work: “He’s not just capturing images; he’s capturing time.” The multi-screen digital movies—which depict acrobats juggling, trees blowing in the wind, and dancers rehearsing, among other things—do this most explicitly, making the viewer see time pass through as many as 18 screens (assembled to make a 24-foot-wide ensemble), each of which is slightly out of sync with the others, and each of which is trained on the subject from a slightly different vantage point. However, even the still pictures manage to depict time. The Arrival of Spring does so by rendering the same scene seen at different times, while a selection of charcoal-on-paper portraits (also featured in the exhibition) by showing how the light on a person’s face varies over time. Hockney would subject his subjects to very intense sittings of up to eight hours, during which the shadows would visibly lengthen.

Another large-scale multi-canvas painting in the exhibition is A Bigger Message, which uses 30 canvases to pay homage to Claude Lorrain’s Sermon on the Mount, in the Frick Collection in New York. Hockney used the computer to “clean up” the age-darkened Baroque masterpiece, documenting the stages he went through in a series of paintings. The final version is unmistakably Hockneyesque—the Sea of Galilee’s pale greenish-blue looks like the water in a Los Angeles swimming pool, and the Mount itself is salmon pink and orange with purple stairs running up the side. The whole thing is abstracted, in a sense, while remaining completely figurative, and the slight spatial discrepancies where the canvases meet up with each other only add to that effect.

For Hockney to “do” an Old Master makes perfect sense, in light of the researches he has been carrying on since the late ’90s and that crystallized his ideas about the role of one-point perspective in European art history. In 1999 he came out with a book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which made some bold assertions that ruffled many a feather in academia. Essentially, Hockney had come to believe that very early on, in the 1420s to be precise, European artists started using optical devices to help them draw and paint. Since lenses weren’t sophisticated enough yet, Hockney surmised that artists such as Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer and Lorenzo Lotto used concave mirrors as substitutes. In a strong enough light, these mirrors would project an inverted image of the external world onto a piece of paper positioned in shade, so that the artist could essentially trace that image. Hockney was industrious enough to build the apparatus and test it for himself. A few charming page of Secret Knowledge are dedicated to photo spreads showing him hard at work making a portrait of his friend and collaborator, the physicist Charles Falco, using 15th-century technology.

Secret Knowledge was widely lambasted—in fairness, more by journalists than by scholars—for supposedly accusing the Old Masters of “cheating.” But that’s not what Hockney was saying, nor did he care about the ethical implications. If the knowledge in question was “secret,” it was only so in the sense of being a trade secret, a technological edge that one competitive professional might hold over another. Painters in centuries past weren’t embarrassed to use mechanical and optical aids to rendering and composition; far from it. They were confident in their abilities as draftsmen and simply sought tools to make their lives easier by increasing speed and accuracy. And it was already widely known, long before Hockney, that Vermeer used a camera obscura (essentially a filmless box camera that projects an inverted image onto a ground glass) to paint Girl With a Pearl Earring, and that Ingres used a camera lucida (a device, patented in 1806, consisting of a prism on the end of a rod clipped to a drawing board that seems to project an image directly onto the paper) for his rapid yet precise pencil portraits.

What was new in Hockney’s account was the idea that there is something about the artworks themselves, starting all the way back at the dawn of the classical European art tradition, something visible, a telltale, that bespeaks the use of optical devices. In other words, he was arguing that these artists were painting not what the eye sees and feels, but what a lens sees, something possibly distorted, certainly something limited. In Hockney’s mind, the rigidity, the oversimplification, of one-point perspective entered painting centuries before the invention of photography. While in no way denying the artists their greatness, to some extent he is accusing them not of laziness or cheating but of being “paralyzed Cyclopses.” In order to come to these conclusions, Hockney had to look at a tremendous number of artworks, which he printed out on the computer and pasted up on a gigantic board in his studio which he and his students called “The Great Wall.” Although not listed or shown in the catalogue, the Great Wall is on view at the de Young show, giving visitors a rare glimpse of Hockney’s thought process on this complex subject.

Hockney’s quest to decenter the perspective started with his investigation into the origins of that perspective. And yet, in rebelling against the Old Masters he has in some ways very closely emulated them. In Secret Knowledge, there is a page that places Hockney’s Polaroid collage Pearblossom Highway (on view at the de Young) right above van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. That may seem like a monumentally-scaled piece of boasting, but it’s actually very illuminating. The photocollage is an obvious attempt to create the effect of multiple perspectives; it has a shimmering, prismatic quality in which the scene before our eyes is shattered and recombined, and we seem to be in many places at once. In the van Eyck, foreground and background are equally detailed, and while all eyes are drawn to the Lamb of God at the center, there are other vanishing points, and the whole composition seems to contain multiple spaces. Even though van Eyck and his Early Netherlandish colleagues arguably started all the trouble, they also had a unique quality that may well have contained the antidote: Under the spell of their still-mediaeval worldview, they wanted to paint, so to speak, through both a microscope and a telescope at the same time, to see the world with God’s eyes, for which no distance is too vast, and no detail too tiny.

In describing his vision of the optical future, the staunchly secular Hockney waxes somewhat mystical. In Secret Knowledge, we read the following: “The photograph has lost its veracity. We are in a post-photographic age….What it means I do not know. There is a deeply disturbing side to all of this, yet also a thrilling one. There is a minimum of two sides to everything—and perhaps an infinity of side; exciting times are ahead.”

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: October 2013

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