Hockney’s California Dream

By Drake's

2024년 5월 10일

Hockney’s California Dream

Until he arrived in Los Angeles in 1964, David Hockney had never driven a car. Within a week of arriving in California he had a license, a car and a studio to paint in. “Everyone wore white socks, and it was always sunny,” he would later recall. “It was the first time I’d seen so many shades of bright yellow and orange.”  

“‘When I first went to Los Angeles, it was really three times better than I thought it would be.”

Born in Bradford in the summer of 1937, David Hockney’s relocation to Los Angeles would prove to be one of the most influential decisions in the history of 20th century art. At the time it was a movie town and a show business town; a sunny, languid cultural backwater when compared to the thriving avant-garde scene that was mutating over in New York. "It was the first place that I started painting the city and places,” Hockney told Purple Magazine. “I’d never painted London. LA was the first city that I liked — loved, really — and painted. But then, I realised there were no artists. I mean, there’d never been artists here. I said one time: “It needs its Piranesi. And I’m it,” or something like that.” 

Compared to the cramped terraced houses of West Yorkshire and the rainy post-war dereliction of London, Los Angeles represented sunshine, freedom, and strong light. Inspired by old swimming pool cleaning manuals, palm trees, freeways and the space and scale of Southern California, the artist embarked on rendering the city and surrounding landscape in his own vision. Part observation, part fantasy in vivd acrylic. 

“One of the things that’s so interesting about David Hockney is that for many of us he taught us to see Los Angeles,” wrote The New Yorker art critic Lawrence Weschle. “I grew up in L.A. and for an awful lot of people all over the world but especially in L.A. he taught us how to look at things here — apartment buildings, street signs, swimming pools — that have become absolutely emblematic, iconic of L.A. But he was the one who saw them and saw them clearly for us.”

Many of Hockney’s definitive works centre around swimming pools. Places for respite and leisure, but also inquisition. 'A Bigger Splash'—source of a million gift shop postcards and Pinterest moodboards—shows Hockney at his economic best, a minimalist burst of colour, angles and architecture. “I was painting something that lasts one second,” he said of the painting’s creation, “but it took me seven days to paint the splash itself, all in single lines.”

“It’s one of the most iconic images of the 20th century,” says Emma Baker, Head of Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s. “He almost single handedly defined an idea of an image of what California looks like to us today.” 

Under the surface of all of that sunshine and spare time, the swimming pool could also contain pathos; a barrier between two worlds. In 1972’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),’ an autobiographical work that depicts the slow break-up of Hockney’s relationship with fellow artist Peter Schlesinger, a man in a pink jacket (Schlesinger) stands on the edge of a pool and gazes into the softly broken water as a figure swims beneath the surface; Hockney is on the outside looking in.

It took the artist months, and several abandoned attempts, before he was happy with the end result. In 2018 it sold for $90 million at auction, a then-record for a living artist; a fact that Hockney often responds to with an air of faint bemusement whenever it’s brought up.

Despite being based on photos taken in the South of France, the painting builds on Hockney's California era and his mastery of double portraits; his meticulous approach to a work’s geometry and light. Few artists have ever been so adept at making a beautiful afternoon look, and feel, so sad. 

Now 86, Hockney left California for Yorkshire, and then Normandy, years ago. His work now mostly focuses on the changing of the seasons and an occasional collection of portraits. The California of easy driving licenses and empty pools exists only on the canvases that he created. 

“I’ve always wanted to paint, ever since I was tiny,” he said. “That’s my job, to paint, I think. 

“The world is very, very beautiful if you look at it.”

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