Skip to main content

David Hockney: A Return to Painting


ISSUE:  Fall 2008

He is painting again. Aye, is he painting.

With a zest and a passion and a confidence I haven’t witnessed in the nearly two and a half decades that I’ve been dropping over to visit with him, David Hockney has returned to the wide empty canvas and the oil-laden brush.

Granted, there have been moments, intermittent phases, over those twenty-five years when Hockney did dabble in oils (for decades before that his preferred and preeminent medium). There were, for example, the regular suites of portraits of his friends, including those lovingly rendered pet dachshunds; there were the cubist experiments such as the Visit with Christopher and Don (1984), and the operatic still-life flower portraits; there were occasional vantages on his homelife and the immediate surround, and several epic stabs at the Grand Canyon, and that thrilling (if somewhat short-lived) survey of some of the more intimate sweeps of the East Yorkshire of his youth.

But other passions always seemed to draw him away from such bourgeoning reinvolvements with oil paint—toward the operatic stage, for example, or photocollage, or various photocopying technologies, or watercolor, or Chinese scrolls, or late Picasso, or high Rembrandt, and then, especially over the past several years, toward inspired speculative scholarship, pure and simple: that elaborately compounding (and compoundingly controversial) theory of his about the Old Masters and their lenses.

Throughout those years Hockney would insist that all the other work was just as valid and just as privileged as oil painting, that he really didn’t give greater priority in terms of significance to any of the various media he was deploying in what he saw as a consistent path of inquiry and exploration. And yet, as he concluded each fresh frenzy of alternative creation, he would seem to sigh with an exhalation that became almost a refrain: “Oh, dear,” he would tell me once again, gazing upon a Cézanne or some other masterwork along some museum walk. “Oh dear, I truly must get back to painting.”

But now he has—almost with a vengeance—regularly, over the past few years, e‑mailing his friends ever-vaster JPEG caches of fresh work: dozens, scores, and presently hundreds of enthrallingly vivid plein air landscapes, once again of the East Yorkshire vistas of his youth, pictures that taken together may someday, say fifty years from now (if there is a fifty years from now), command the same sort of scholarly interest and besotted devotion that van Gogh’s similarly concentrated renditions of the paysages around Arles do today.

Several months ago, on the train up from London to visit Hockney at what have now truly become his principal digs in Bridlington, I’d been riffling through a file of recent Hockneyana when I came upon Ken Johnson’s March 17, 2006, New York Times review of the Hockney Portraits retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, parts of which, clearly, he’d liked a whole lot and other parts of which he’d apparently liked a whole lot less. Johnson began:

Around 1966, when Pop, Minimalism and Color Field painting were the preferred options for a serious artist, the British painter and Los Angeles resident David Hockney embarked on a daring exploration of what was then thought irretrievably retrograde: realist painting. Over the next decade, he created full-figure portraits of people, alone or in couples, that were as intimate as they were monumental and as poetically thrilling as they were visually lucid. The best of them can still be counted among the most memorable artworks of the postmodernist era.

Johnson noted how, “In the 70’s, Mr. Hockney’s realism intensified, but it never looked overworked, and though he used photographs as references, it did not turn into Photorealism. Nor did it ever appear stuffy or old-fashioned. Looking at the paintings of this period . . .  you get the exhilarating feeling of an artist on a roll who can do no wrong.” And he continued:

Then, sometime after 1977, Mr. Hockney abandoned his time-consuming, painstaking commitments and, like a man recently divorced or released from prison, plunged into a period of restless promiscuity that has continued up to the present. The turning point is marked by a 1979 portrait of the transvestite actor Divine. Painting in garish colors with a wide brush, Mr. Hockney achieved a cheery Fauvist immediacy but left behind the hallucinatory illusionism of the realist paintings.

At length Johnson concluded, although Hockney had admittedly in the meantime been engaged in other sorts of enterprises as well, “Judging by this exhibition alone . . . it is difficult not to feel that some time at the end of the 1970’s Mr. Hockney lost his way.”

A few moments later, Hockney, there at the station to pick me up, noticed the clipping spilling from my folder and surprised me by judging it quite fine. “Not bad, that review,” he declared, leading me over to his car and presently easing the car into the mild late-afternoon traffic. “And he is onto something. I mean, I think he’s wrong about the Divine portrait, because the thing you do see with that one is how, suddenly, it reads completely clearly from all the way across the room, you feel close even from far away, which hadn’t been the case with the other, earlier, and more conventionally popular ones—you know, Celia and Ossie with Percy the cat, or Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, or Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” or any of those sorts.

“The fact is, though, that Times guy is right: I did reach a crisis with my painting there in the late seventies—partly one of sheer boredom. I mean, I knew how to paint that earlier sort of image, I’d cracked that code, and while I could have gone on quite happily making more images like that—and a lot of people, especially including a lot of dealers, would have been very happy if I had—they were no longer presenting a challenge to me. But the crisis was in fact more serious than that, because I began to notice that there was something wrong with those paintings, something which in retrospect I now realize had to do with the strait-jacket asphyxiation brought on by the one-point perspective of their photographic source materials and the similarly optical vantage to which they themselves likewise aspired. This became devastatingly clear to me with that painting I kept trying to complete of the view across the street from my studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. Yes, precisely around that time, in the late seventies, the one I never was able to finish—because I couldn’t seem to bring it alive. It kept feeling dead. Where that Times fellow is wrong, though, is in his notion that thereafter I was promiscuously flitting from one thing to another. On the contrary, the past twenty-five years for me have been a consistent struggle through all sorts of other media with that single fixed problem of how to depict an image in a lively way—one, that is, that is true to life.”

I reminded him, though, that he always said he had to get back to painting.

Having left the car in his courtyard, we entered the compound and right away were walking upstairs to his airy attic studio. “Well, yes,” he agreed, “and now as you will see, I have, though I’ll be the first to admit that it did take a bit longer than I thought it would.”

This particular visit of mine took place in the summer of 2006, and the current surge had started about a year earlier—in late July 2005 to be exact, when Hockney launched into a prodigious outpouring of three-by-two-foot canvases, revisiting the sites of many of the watercolors from an immediately prior sequence so as to recast the scenes in vividly luminous oils. Each vantage was fresh and clear and fast (he’d record the exact times of each painting’s composition and he seldom took longer than two hours to complete them), sometimes two or three a day, thirty-two of them that first month. Ripening wheat fields, lazy meadows, treelined country lanes, hollows falling away, hills rising up in the middle distance. Skies of crisp blue, cloud-mottled horizons, gauzes of lavender haze, the orange raking light of late afternoon. In one bravura performance, he painted, from 6:30 to 7:20, a country lane receding into the morning mist and then painted the same scene from 7:30 to 8:30, but now (the mist having burned off) in gleaming clarity.

The frenzy of productivity continued unabated into the autumn, with images of the harvest being gathered in, puddle-rutted lanes after morning squalls, and trees starting to shed their leaves. By early winter, when I went up to visit Hockney in Boston, on the occasion of the opening of that Portraits show, he’d been showing me his latest innovation, wider two-panel vistas of blustery skies and groves stripped bare, the trees gone stark and skeletal.

All of which is to say that I had some sense, climbing the stairs to the third-floor studio that afternoon, of what to expect, but nothing quite prepared me for what, rounding the corner, now greeted my eyes. Over the past several weeks, Hockney had apparently made a further quantum leap, embarking on a series of yet vaster combines (bigger panels, three by four feet now, arrayed in grids of six at a time, allowing for vistas six feet by twelve)—wider and yet wider perspectives, indeed.

“I’ve been looking at Constable a lot recently,” Hockney declared as he fumbled for a match to light his cigarette. “There was that show at the Grand Palais in Paris a few years back. And then just at the beginning of this month, the Tate opened its exhibit of his Great Landscapes. Superb. Wonderfully moving. I mean, Constable had already made a great impact on me back during my student days, freshly arrived in London from Bradford, as how could he not have? He was after all the first English painter ever to really engage the English landscape in an authentic manner. With Gainsborough, for example, you merely get a generic backdrop. But Constable is clearly out there traipsing through the Suffolk countryside, you can almost sense the mud on his boots. Granted he is not yet fully painting in the open air, though he is one of the first to go outside painting with his little box. He was still having to make due, though, with paint bladders—remember, the collapsible tube doesn’t come on line till several years later. Let’s see, Constable dies in 1837, just before the invention of chemical photography—for that matter, he and Turner constituted the last generation of English painters not to have to contend with the full onslaught of chemical photoreproduction—and collapsible tubes don’t really start appearing until the 1850s. Without those tubes, impressionism, for example, would have been a lot more difficult, if not impossible—van Gogh could carry the tubes with him out there into the fields around Arles, and with them all that pure color. Constable, by contrast, would mainly sketch, working up a whole series of studies on-site before returning to his studio to paint the actual canvases, especially of course those Great Landscapes.

“Even as a student, though, I think I was more struck by those studies, actually,” Hockney continued, taking a drag on his cigarette. “With them you could see the work of his hand, the sweep of his arm, you could see him groping. No doubt at first, as he set out on each new painting, you would have been able to see those marks as well, although then, as was the fashion at the time—and for that matter as it had been for several centuries before—he’d apply that meticulous finish, effacing all signs of the labored mark, which is to say all sign of the history of his own working of the image. A few years later, Cézanne’s paintings would allow you to see both, the mark and the scene that the mark was bringing into being, the two joined together, as it were. Meaning you were deeply aware of the surface, which paradoxically then added to the illusion of spatial depth. Late Picasso was also working that vein.

“Which in turn, in a way, is the opposite of what happens with a camera obscura. I realized this all over again last year when we went to Harewood House, very near to where I was brought up actually, to study how Thomas Girtin would have done it—I’d spotted one of his drawings of the house, from 1798, which I was fairly certain must have involved a camera, since it featured those two distinct vanishing points so characteristic of refocusing, and I wanted to check my hunch out. So we set up a camera obscura there, and then later we did the same thing at Sledmere House, closer to here.

“Incidentally, I’m sure that Constable there in Suffolk would likewise have been aware of cameras obscura. Remember: his father was quite a rich man, owned two big water mills, in fact steel mills, rather than wood. Constable is painting just before the invention of the steam engine, his is still the era of wind and water power, another reason perhaps that his countrysides look so much older than they actually are. Anyway, Constable was of a class that would regularly have been exposed to cameras obscura, and I’m sure he would have found the projected image fascinating.

“Because it is—I realized that all over again there at Harewood and Sledmere. You set up the apparatus, which can be fairly elaborate: the table, the lens-housing above it in its armature, the thick black cloak draped over both the table and you there in your chair, with your back to the thing you are looking at, which in itself of course is very odd. You are sitting there with your back to what you will be drawing! And there in the dark this incredibly beautiful world swims into focus, the colors all harmonized—on top of which everything is moving! This would have been like cinema for them. It would have seemed the height of reality, especially at a time when such projections of nature were so relatively rare, whereas for us today in a world where we are surrounded by such projections, we tend to focus on their artificiality. But in either case, artificial or real, the point is that the moment you put your pencil down onto the page and you begin to draw, you realize your eyes are no longer looking through space but rather onto a flat surface. Afterwards, when you lift the curtain, any sense of space or spaciousness completely evaporates, something that becomes all the more evident when you now turn around again and gaze upon the actual place you have been attempting to capture.

“No,” Hockney concluded, stubbing out his smoke, “in order to convey space and spaciousness, rather than mere surface—and this is what I have been realizing with greater and greater force these past several months—you have to be out there, in person, en plein air, facing out into all that space.”

Meanwhile, he went on to explain, over the past few months he’d been nursing an ever more powerful hankering to be painting at scale—at the scale, that is, of Constable’s paintings, a scale that could envelop the viewer, as it were, and draw him in. Although to do that was going to present problems. For starters, how might one transport a canvas that size out into the wild, and how then erect a solid enough armature such that the wide canvas expanse wouldn’t start flapping about like a sail in the wind? And then how to transport the painting back to the protection of the studio between sessions, especially since the oils would now be wet and glistening? Beyond that, how would one be able to see past the expanse of canvas itself to all the plein air scenery one was attempting to capture? One would constantly have to be traipsing over to the side of the interfering canvas, catching a glimpse of subject matter, and then rushing back to the appropriate spot on the painting so as to lay it in (along with all that intervening sense of spaciousness) before it dissipated from consciousness.

“It took a while to figure things out,” Hockney now related. “On the way back from Boston, in Pembroke Studios in London, I’d had David Graves mount several of the earlier paintings, along with some of the two-panel combines, in a grid along our studio wall, and I got to thinking, hunh, maybe one could do it like that. Broken into panels like that, one could achieve a real sense of scale. I ordered up some larger canvases and, back up here, I had Jean-Pierre [Goncalves] mount a grid of six such blank canvases on the wall over there, and for several days I’d just come up here and stare at that grid, thinking about how we might do it. I’d drive out to that place in the Woldgate Woods, off the side of the paved road, where three paths converge, the place we call the Tunnel because of the way one of those paths slices perpendicularly across the road and seems to recede endlessly into the distance. I’d portrayed that spot several times in the single panels, so I knew it quite well, but I’d go look at it again, and then come back here and stare at the six empty panels. And then one day I got up and laid in the horizon line, approximating where the paths would go and some of the more defining trees. Then we packed those canvases into the car and went out there. This was still in winter so we premixed some of the paints we’d be using—we didn’t want to be out there in the cold spending an hour mixing up the subtle grays. In any case, I’d already developed the technique of anticipating colors like that with my watercolors. I had a pair of easels in the car, and we’d set them up, put them side by side, could rejigger the cross-strut so as to be able to lay one canvas above while leaning another below, that way we could have four up at once, though as time passed I got to the point where I really only did one or two at a time. In any case, at first we had to go out with several cars so that, returning, we could lay out the wet canvases on the back seats without smudging them. Eventually we built a sort of rack in the back of the van with six shelves, so we could transport all six canvases at once, even if all of them were wet. It’s like I always say: You’ve really got to prepare if you’re going to try to be spontaneous.

“Anyway, each night when I’d come home, I’d have Jean-Pierre mount the six-panel grid once more, so that I could get a sense of the evolving whole. Sometimes I would have him take a digital photograph of the entire combine and then print that photo out on a piece of paper, upon which I could then trace over possible approaches to the next day’s work, in any case using those photos as reference the next day when I was out in the field and had only one or another of the panels on the easel before me.”

It occurred to me, as Hockney described this aspect of the process, that he was now using photography in exactly the opposite way from how he had been doing thirty years ago, as for example in the case of those stacked photostudies of Peter Schlesinger for the painted figure by the painted pool. In those days he had taken a vertical series of photographic snaps as a way of preparing to paint a single figure. Now he was taking a single snap to encapsulate the entirety of a grid of paintings. When I pointed this out to David, he replied, “Well, I’ve always said that the only thing a photograph is good at capturing faithfully is another flat surface.”

Continuing, Hockney averred as to how it had taken some time to get the hang of the process—that is, to get to the point where he could fashion a finished grid that didn’t simply fall into a pell-mell jumble—and he’d had to draw on lessons from many of his other excursions from over the past several decades. For example, the way he’d learned, with Pearblossom Highway (1986), to create a single overarching vantage out of a series of separately distinct mini-vantages. But like a boy on a trampoline, he got better and better, more and more self-assured. Pointing over to the side of the studio, he showed me the first of the ones that he really felt had been working. A summertime gaze down that arboreal tunnel at Woldgate.

“And see, look,” he now said, walking me over. “You can see the marks, and you can see how—whereas with the watercolors I was using my hand, with the earlier oils I was using my arm—here I am painting from my shoulders, I am painting with my whole body. And the painting itself is addressing you in your entire body. It is big enough to be doing so. You can feel it. And that’s the point: out there in the world but here as well, space is a feeling.

In addition to the feeling of space, the combine evinced a marvelous sense of the peripheral—another aspect of the experience of looking and seeing to which David had been attending for many years (all the way back, at any rate, to the Luncheon at the British Embassy photocollage from 1983): the way that a tree trunk coursing down the far left side of the two leftmost panels was far and away the biggest single incident in the entire grid, taking up the most acreage, as it were, of paint, and yet it almost disappeared completely from the viewing experience. That tree, while closest to us, wasn’t what we were looking at; it was off to the side and experienced as such. Unless, turning, we now turned our attention to it, at which point the lovely surface textures in the rendering of the paint itself shone through.

“That’s what I mean about surface mark and spaciousness,” Hockney concurred as he walked me over to the other grid along the central wall facing his easy chair. Here was his current project: the image, only just recently mapped out and barely begun, of a farm field falling away into a hollow and rising back up in the middle distance—a cozy grand canyon. “And here’s something else,” he said. “Because you see this patch of grass over here to the lower left side, that and the hedgerow next to it. That’s what I’m going to be working on tomorrow morning. Tomorrow we’ll get up and drive out there, I’ll take this lower left-hand canvas and spend a few hours working in the detail of that foreground patch along with the hedge, and when we come back in the afternoon, you’ll see, working that in like that will have the effect”—he now ambled over to the other side of the canvas—“of pushing back the sense of space all the way over here in the upper right-hand canvas. Without my touching so much as that part of the painting.”

And he would indeed prove right: he hadn’t and it did.

The next morning, Jean-Pierre loaded up the van with easels, sliding the six canvases into their slat shelves, and the three of us piled in for the drive out to the hedge and the grass tuft overlooking the cozy grand canyon.

Backing out of the driveway, we were less than half a block from the bluff-edge overlooking the North Sea, all spangly in the morning sun. I asked David if he ever thought about painting the sea. “I did paint the sea some once, in Malibu, but you can see for yourself how the land is so much more interesting.”

We banked inland and quickly out of town (Bridlington is small), the van’s dark shadow racing headlong before us. “I love driving like this in the morning, the sun low behind us, for we are far north here, lighting everything ahead. The clouds racing by up above. You realize that Constable did stunning cloud studies. Now, clouds are difficult, especially in a place like England—small Northern European island subject to barometric pressures on all sides. When you start trying to paint clouds, you quickly realize how much they’re moving, how much the whole sky is moving—unlike in Southern California, say, with its strong, even light and barely ever a cloud anywhere in the vault above. Here, in painting the sky, you’ve somehow got to capture all that movement and changeability, so you have to work very fast—unlike in the San Gabriel Mountains, for example, where I often felt like I had all the time in the world. Wasn’t it Cézanne, though, who said that you have to hurry up if you’re ever going to see?”

Presently we arrived at the hollow and Hockney pulled the van over to the side of the road. Jean-Pierre unloaded an easel, set it up by the grass tuft, and slid the appropriate canvas out of its shelf, along with a tray of paint tubes and brushes. Hockney pulled out a collapsible chair, positioned it just so overlooking the scene, checked his watch and the sun behind him, lit up a cigarette, and took a seat, steadying himself, taking it all in. A few minutes later, he set to work, laying in the grass, blade by blade.

We left him to it. Jean-Pierre grabbed his laptop from the back seat and motioned me over, and we sat on a little outcropping at the side of the road. Jean-Pierre revved up the laptop and presently opened a file of digital snapshots. “Here, I’ll show you something,” he said. It turned out that while Hockney may have sworn off photography, vowing never again to squeeze his eye up to a viewfinder, his assistant appeared to have caught the bug in spades, and on several occasions he’d meticulously documented every stage of the coming into being of several of David’s recent paintings, a snap seemingly every ten or twenty seconds. Thousands of images, which he was in the process of editing and ordering into evenly paced slide shows. He selected one such file, and the show began to unfurl. It proved uncommonly engrossing, in fact much more so than those famous movies, say, of Pollock slathering paint over an outspread canvas or Picasso whipping a flashlight about through the dark surround. This may have been due in part to the advantages of the medium. With the even flow of standard, real-time movies featuring artists painting, the mind is given to wandering, slipping in and out of focus; whereas Jean-Pierre’s approach was more akin to something like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a film made up almost entirely of stills, stills over which the mind is continually being required to focus, reconstituting each new vantage as if from scratch. That formal advantage was no doubt enhanced by Jean-Pierre’s own inspired sensitivity, for he was hardly serving as mere docu-slave, his camera trained on the canvas alone. Rather, his gaze would wander, from the canvas out onto the vista Hockney himself was surveying, back a few steps for a shot encompassing artist, canvas, and vista together. Some shots of a teacup, the paint tubes, the jar of brushes, and back to the canvas, then out again to the vista. A remarkable thing would happen in the midst of the interplay between canvas and vista. You might be guided to look at the vista for a few seconds then back to the canvas, where Hockney would make a stab at a particular detail, say a bush or a shack that you yourself had not noticed a few moments earlier when you had been surveying the same scene but now, surveying it again, sure enough, there it was, Jean-Pierre homing in for a detail of his own. (Two intelligences were at work, and a third as well, if you counted your own as it, too, gradually became honed to these novel rhythms of awareness.) David and Jean-Pierre had not yet decided what, if anything, they were going to do with these trills of images, but sitting there I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to have been vouched similar documentation of Cézanne at work, or van Gogh, or Constable . . .

A couple of hours had passed, and now another car pulled up, and out popped John Wilkinson (another regular from the Hockney compound, in fact the very young friend whose ridiculous American visa troubles a few years back soured David on California in the first place), bearing tea and sandwiches. David continued daubing for a few more minutes: the pelt of grass blades had now been worked well in, the hedge worked in as well, and he was beginning to turn his attention to a tree in the middle distance. Presently he laid down his brushes and came over to join the rest of our déjeuner sur l’herbe.

“I’ve been looking at this landscape here in East Yorkshire, Bridlington, and environs, for two years now rather closely, day in and day out, and I’ve never really done that before anywhere else,” he said. “And I realize that you keep seeing more and more, actually. Because you see with memory. Meaning, when I’m looking out over this vista—well, I was here last summer, in fact this is one of the first places I painted, but I hadn’t yet seen it in winter. But now I have, and this time I am watching the summer with the winter in mind. For example, that tree I’ve just started working on. Trees are notoriously difficult to paint: they fall so easily into stylized generalization, and to combat that you have to be rigorously attentive, capturing the particular and individually specific nuances of each separate plant. Now, this one here, it’s all filled out with leaves again, but back in winter it was bare, and I was able to study its structure more closely. For that matter, speaking more generally, in winter things are so much more alive. The bare trees, you notice how the branches are all straining upward toward the light, up and up! Later, come spring and now the summer, the canopy of leaves will fill in and weigh the branches back down, but in winter you can grasp that life force full-on. A knowledge which in turn, preserved in memory, can’t help but inform how you see the tree now.”

Hockney paused, reaching for another sandwich and refreshing his tea. “I’m sure this winter I will see more as well, informed as my memories will have been by yet another summer. And then the same for next summer. In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine truly painting landscape without staying put for a long while. Constable hardly ever left Suffolk, and just think of everything he saw!”

Later that afternoon, on the drive back into Bridlington, Hockney was still rhapsodizing on the glories of winter. “One night last January,” he recalled, “we watched from the window as snow was drifting straight down, which meant no wind at all. After a few hours we loaded into the car and headed out into the forest, where, owing to the absence of wind, everything was coated just so in a layer of soft white, like you would never see it otherwise, completely magical, a crystal palace in the canopy. We came back home, warmed up some tea, and on the radio the weatherman was describing it as a bad night.

I returned home the next morning. The months passed. The paintings kept coming. Presently eleven separate six-panel seasonal variations of that arboreal tunnel at Woldgate Woods, five of which would come to grace the great staircase at Tate Britain (stairs that in turn led up to an exhibition featuring Hockney’s own selection from and commentary on the museum’s holdings of Turner watercolors). Elsewhere in London, the talk of the Royal Academy’s riotously various summer 2007 exhibition was Hockney’s sixty-canvas combine, his vastest ever, a staggering winterscape, Bigger Trees near Warter (2007), which took up the entirety of the far wall in the long hall; indeed, when the rest of the show came down, Hockney’s crew mounted a pair of uncannily precise, identically sized photocopies of the original combine to either side along the hall’s flanking walls, and the confines of those walls seemed to vaporize completely, so commanding was the sense of airy space receding in all directions.

Standing there before the capacious spectacle on a return passage through London, considering once again the distance Hockney had been traveling over the past twenty-five years on his flight from the merely optical—and beyond that the stakes for which he still seemed to be playing—I was put in mind of a passage I’d recently encountered in Rebecca Solnit’s marvelous River of Shadows, her meditation on the transformative significance, as the book’s subtitle would have it, of Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. At one point, Solnit points out how during five years to either side of 1835, three great inventions—the train, the telegraph, and chemical photoreproduction—appeared virtually simultaneously, to compoundingly reinforcing effect. That effect being, and so it was seen at the time, nothing less momentous than “the annihilation of time and space.” Train, telegraph, and photography: everything since, Solnit suggests, has been mere commentary, an elaboration (albeit an increasingly frenzied elaboration) of that initial aspiration. For, as she herself elaborates:

“Annihilating time and space” is what most new technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome. Annihilating time and space most directly means accelerating communications and transportation. . . . What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.

Surface supersedes space; immediacy supplants consideration. Whereas presence and the local—that is, time and space: taking time, precisely, so as to be able to savor space—are with growing insistence and increasing assuredness what Hockney’s recent work, and especially his buoyant return to painting, have been all about.

I crossed town to visit the Woldgate Woods seasonal variations banked along the stairwell of the Tate Britain one last time. They’re all pretty terrific—leaf-lush greeny high springtime, pink-misty barren late fall—but the one that kept drawing me back was an especially vivid late afternoon scape from early November, tree-trunk shadows diagonally zebra-scored across the orange forest loam, the arboreal tunnel receding into the far distance. And here I was put in mind of an earlier signal achievement from Hockney’s career, this one among the most brilliantly realized canvases from those years (so prized by Ken Johnson of the New York Times, among others), when he had been maximally in thrall to the optical—Le Parc des Sources, Vichy (1970). Virtually the same image, come to think of it: trees receding relentlessly into the distance, although in the former instance, they’d done so as disciplined colonnades to either side of an impeccably manicured lawn, two men seen from behind seated on plastic park chairs (a third chair to their side, presumably Hockney’s own, empty while he steps back to take in the scene), the two men gazing ahead, down the very barrel of the meticulous one-point perspective. The distance Hockney had traversed between the two compositions could hardly be more starkly revealing. The gazing gentlemen of the 1970 canvas seem strait-jacketed, veritably squeezed in the vice of the composition’s perspectival grip. (One is put in mind of the moment in Star Wars where Harrison Ford’s embattled Millennium Falcon starcruiser suddenly vaults right out of its own skin, sucked into hyperspace—talk about the annihilation of time and space!) For my own part, recalling that canvas, I was in turn reminded of Hockney’s characterization several years ago of his drive through the eighteen-mile tunnel under the St. Gotthard Pass (with the tunnel’s opening a pinprick straight ahead in the far, far distance) as what it must be like to live in “one-point-perspective hell.” The Woldgate Woods combine, however, more accurately recalled Hockney’s experience of his emergence from that St. Gotthard Tunnel into the sudden heaven of reverse perspective: the viewer no longer being sucked anywhere, free instead to lounge in the fullness of being. Note how one can gaze at a side angle deep into the woods to either side of the main vista. Or look at those zebra-shadow stripes cutting diagonally across the central arboreal tunnel (for that matter, recall suddenly how often Hockney himself has referred to this particular copse in the woods as “the Tunnel”); note how the shadows positively defy one-point perspective. Either one’s head is moving, swiveling on its neck joint (no longer gripped in the strait-jacket vice of the optical), or else the sun is progressively sinking behind us. Or maybe both. Time, at any rate, is passing: true to life and the living. And one thing’s for sure. We are no longer experiencing the world from the point of view of that paralyzed cyclops for a split second.

I returned home, the JPEGs kept coming. A particularly sweet matching, later in the year, of the three trees in the middle of a farm field (spread this time across a rectangular grid of eight canvases), the first vantage lung-lush in August, the second spare-barren in December.

Hockney himself, meanwhile, decided to take a break, climbing into his Roadster for a jaunt through the Chunnel, past Bruges and Ghent, to Baden-Baden (where he and his friends spent a week taking the waters) and then down through Florence and Siena and onward to points farther south. One afternoon he phoned to check in. He’d been spending that morning in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church, transfixed before Masaccio’s spellbinding (and, indeed, spell-weaving) Crucifixion of 1427–28, famously one of European art’s earliest instances of deep perspectival artifice. “One can’t help but notice,” he pointed out, “how unusual and excruciating a form of execution crucifixion is. There is no action: no arrows pierce the air, no axe plunges toward the neck. In fact you die precisely because you are prevented from moving.” A few days later he called from Siena, positively crowing, “God how I love Sienese art, the painting when there was still light, when there was still space, before all the shadows came flooding in as Florentine perspective conquered all before it.” A few days after that he was phoning from Palermo, recalling a canvas he’d seen a few days earlier in Naples: “A nineteenth-century painting of the archaeologists digging up Pompeii. I call it Nineteenth-Century Primitive. Where else you see that way of depicting space nowadays is on tv, flipping through the channels. The Simpsons are real, but then you flip the channel: more of that Nineteenth-Century Primitive.”

The trip was beginning to wear on him, though. He’d reveled in all that was fresh looking, but it was time to be heading back to Bridlington so he could take up his oils once again. “I’ve taken to thinking of these recent canvases of mine as figure paintings.” He waited, two beats, until I obliged him: “But they’re all just landscapes,” I pointed out. “There are no figures in them.”

“Ah,” he corrected me triumphantly, “but you the viewer are the figure in them.”

He paused for a moment. “Instead of holding you relentlessly at a remove, as ordinary perspective pictures do, they draw you in. That’s why I am so excited by all this. Really, it’s completely rejuvenated me. I was seventy in July, but I feel thirty, frankly—or, all right, maybe forty. In any case,” he continued, “I know this is hardly the end of things. In fact, things are barely the beginning.”

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading