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David Hockney, A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artist. © David Hockney, Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt 

The Met Proves That David Hockney Is More Than Just the Pool Guy

Paul Laster

David Hockney's blockbuster retrospective offers total immersion into the life and taboo-busting work of a British master. GARAGE asked the show's curator how he approached presenting the oeuvre of an artist who's still innovative at age 80.

David Hockney, A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artist. © David Hockney, Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt 

Arguably the most anticipated exhibition in New York this fall, David Hockney’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents nearly 60 years of the artist’s innovative work—from his Pop Art and Renaissance-inspired portraits to his rambling landscapes and vibrant iPad drawings. GARAGE spoke with Met curator Ian Alteveer for an insight into the 80-year-old British artist’s themes and methods.

GARAGE: How do most people think of David Hockney?
Ian Alteveer: I assume most people think first of the swimming pool paintings of the late 1960s, early 1970s. I’m really excited for a new generation to see the whole body of work—nearly six decades worth—for the first time in New York in almost 30 years.

Was Hockney famous from the get-go?
He was pretty famous by the time he finished grad school at the Royal College of Art in 1962. He was awarded a gold medal and wore a gold lamé jacket to the award ceremony. He was part of the stylish swinging London scene in the subsequent years, and his first solo show at Kasmin Limited in 1963 sold out. With that money he bought a ticket on a steamer to New York and eventually ended up in Los Angeles in 1964.

Is he truly a Pop Art artist or just considered one because he depicted commercial products in his early works?
I think it’s the latter. There are a few canvases—even in the exhibition—that speak to this moment of Pop Art in London. But it’s not the only thing happening in those paintings, particularly the toothbrushing one, where the two cartoonish figures are portrayed in a 69 position. Hockney replaces the genitals with tubes of Colgate toothpaste and a tube of Vaseline is tucked underneath the bed. So yes, these are commercial products in the space of painting, but not quite the same way one would see a Warhol soup can. Whenever Hockney apes a certain style—whether it’s Pop Art or abstraction—he’s always putting it in combination with something else and talking about the thing he really wants to discuss.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967. Tate, purchased 1981. © David Hockney. Photo: © Tate London, 2017

Was the subject of that 1962 painting (Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11) a bold one for the times?
It was certainly daring. While the very early pictures from 1960 to ’61 have the graffiti that he found in subway bathroom stalls, Cleaning Teeth is the most explicit. It was made years before the decriminalization of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, which didn’t happen until 1967, so sex acts like the one depicted were illegal at the time he painted the picture.

His 1963 painting Domestic Scene, Los Angeles captures two men in a shower. Is it true that he painted that picture before he’d even visited LA?
Yes, I love that part of the story! He had long fantasized about LA, partially through his access to magazines like Physique Pictorial, and he talks about how he thought that LA was full of movie stars and semi-naked people, and that when he arrived there what he found was not far from his fantasy. He had knowledge of LA through those beefcake magazines and had also read John Rechy’s City at Night—noirish stories about hustlers in Pershing Square. Domestic Scene, Los Angeles depicts a homosexual relationship in a domestic setting; Hockney was interested in normalizing that kind of sexuality while still acknowledging its erotic nature.

Once he did get to LA, swimming pools and modernist buildings also captivated him. What was it that he saw in the City of Angels that others hadn’t?
I like that question because it puts the finger on what makes those works from the mid-’60s so iconic. I think that we as viewers so deeply associate those works with Los Angeles that it’s hard to separate the two. I think Hockney gets LA. He gets the planarity of the architecture. He loves the bold brightness of the sun and the way that it makes lawns or the sides of office buildings into planar fields. Reyner Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies even featured Hockney’s 1967 painting A Bigger Splash, which is part of our show, on its cover.

David Hockney, Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, 1963. Private collection © David Hockney

What’s makes his double portraits, of which you have five big examples on view, so intriguing?
They’re grand in scale, but intimate in the way they draw us into the personal dramas between the two sitters, where we get triangulated into the situation. For example, in the 1968 painting Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, Isherwood looks at Bachardy who looks out at us and we look back. It creates a virtual triangle.

Hockney has said that the first great painting he saw was The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. The influence is evident in the double portraits, where the people are portrayed in their own living spaces, such as Isherwood and Bachardy in their living room or the Weismans [American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968] on their terrace. The subjects are staged, even if it’s a natural pose. He talks about how Isherwood would always sit with his legs crossed and he would always look over at Bachardy. He’s able to stage this projection of desire from one to the other and then outwards in a very sophisticated way.

You have a wall full of sketches in the show, which reveal another touch of the artist’s hand and stylistic abilities. How do his drawings differ from his paintings?
Chris Stephens—my co-curator from Tate Britain—and I were discussing this today and concluded that a lot of the drawings come from Hockney’s travels or the moments when he is not in the space of painting. Whether he’s on a cruise ship with Peter Schlesinger or going to Rome with Gregory Evans, he uses sketches as a way to record his memories along the way. As Stephens noted, there are a number of drawings in which a boyfriend or lover is drawn while they are asleep. Hockney is an artist who always wants to be doing things, so sketching is a way to keep that going while on the road. Sometime they get translated into paintings and sometimes they don’t.

You’re also showing his photocollages, which he made with combinations of Polaroid pictures, as well as 35mm prints. What’s the power at play in these pictures?
Hockney has long used photographs to record scenes that he wanted to paint later, but in the early ’80s he began to experiment with photography as a mode for picture making in its own right. That said, he’s long considered photography an unrealistic mode of portraying the world because we have two eyes and the camera only has one. His kind of innovation was to see what happened when you use that eye more than once—over time, moving across a field. Taking multiple views of the same subject and then mashing them together was a different way of seeing space—perhaps a more natural way of seeing space, one more akin to the way we actually look at something.

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968. Private collection © David Hockney

What about the artist’s later use of an iPad for making vibrant landscapes and still lives? Where do they fit in art history—particularly for an institution like the Met?
I love them in part because they show, again, how Hockney is a fearless innovator. He was one of the first to pick up the iPad as a serious means for art making. He kept the iPad on his nightstand in England and drew what was outside his window every morning and every night. The animation in the exhibition shows the process, as well as finished pieces. It’s really magical. You can see him layering color in the way he would when he’s using oil paint or acrylic.

The paintings of the ’80s and ’90s—often very large—bend three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional picture plane. What inspired this shift in his work?
There are a few reasons. In the late ’70s, Hockney discovered a different kind of acrylic paint—a new product that was packed full of pigment with very bold colors. He had also been working on opera sets and was inspired by French painter Raoul Dufy, who was also a scenic designer. And he was spending more time in the car going back and forth from his home in the Hollywood Hills to his studio in Santa Monica. He had to drive down winding roads from his house on Mulholland Drive to the studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, winding through canyons and hills. That passage becomes literally enacted on the surface of his paintings. He talks about taking people on what he calls the “Wagner Drive,” where you meet him at his house, get in his car and listen to a Wagner soundtrack. As you wind a spectacular turn there’s a crescendo in the music. It’s really thinking about the landscape as a place to pass through in a temporal way.

The paintings he makes when he returns to England in the 2000s sometimes pay homage to Van Gogh, both in brushwork and from the vantage point of man in nature. What do you think he was trying to convey in these vast landscapes?
They’re a lot about a love for particular place in the world. He had gone back to a countryside that he knew from his youth, but he was then emboldened by some 50 years of a career in which he’d experimented with painting. He created these large landscapes out of separate panels. He brought six canvases in his Land Rover out into the countryside to some of his favorite sites—like that tunnel of trees—and set up shop in the fresh air—it’s plein air painting.

It’s funny that you bring up Van Gogh because there was a recent story in the press about the discovery of a grasshopper in one of his paintings. As we were unpacking one of Hockney’s Yorkshire paintings our conservator came across a fly, which is embedded in a blade of grass that’s painted in one of the canvases. It’s proof that he was painting outside. Another thing to remember is that this was a moment, too, when he discovered Chinese scroll painting. If you think about the time that passes as you move across the landscape of a Chinese scroll and you understand the narrative as being a temporal one as you unroll it, it becomes an important aspect of these works.

David Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980. Private collection. © David Hockney, Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates

The final paintings in the show, including Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden—just finished in March—capture his home in the Hollywood Hills in vivid colors. At 80 years of age, do you think Hockney is making paintings that will inspire a new generation of artists?
Absolutely, I’m a huge fan of these new backyard paintings. In a way it goes to show how Hockney throughout his entire life has painted what’s in front of him and that that’s enough for him to find joy and meaning in. Yes, he’s travelled all over the place and there are marvelous things that come from that, but even his own backyard led him to this new innovation of cutting off the bottom two corners of this picture in order to force a reverse perspective. He came to the realization early on in his career that he was free to do what caught his eye and continually pushes the boundaries of his practice, even at this late stage in his career. I’m excited to see more.

David Hockney is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through February 25, 2018.