Exhibition view of David Hockney: Ways of Working © The Lightbox

by Carla Scarano D’Antonio 

“I prefer living in colour” David Hockney

The different ways of working of David Hockney are extraordinarily displayed in the main gallery at The Lightbox in Woking. The artist’s development and experimentation in diverse media and techniques over six decades is brilliantly summarised in artworks and captivating captions. Examples of his first landscapes and prints when he was a young student in Bradford school of art are near to his graffiti and linear paintings of the Royal College of Art period (1959-1962) and his works of the Californian period when he was influenced by American Abstraction and Pop Art.

Hockney has experimented in a variety of artistic techniques, always curious and open to new perspectives. He used to work on several preparatory drawings and took several photos of his subjects, then reworked these materials in his studio. This kind of art construction is realistic and imaginary at the same time.

Throughout his artistic career, Hockney has explored traditional techniques from oil painting to acrylics, all kinds of printmaking, from homemade prints to lithography, etching, aquatint and drypoint and later digital reproductive technologies, such as C-type print, digital photography and Photoshop drawing on his iPad. This experimental approach and reworking gave the artist the opportunity to change his view and create complex and inventive products in a constant tension between traditional techniques and breaking the rules. Thus he showed that art was not made redundant by the Industrial Revolution, as Eric Hobsbawm claimed in Fractured Times, but it can still be meaningful in an approach that combines technical progress and manual skills, as Hockney successfully did in his work.

When Hockney was a young boy and started to be attracted by painting, he did not believe that he could make art for a living and later that he could be accepted at the Royal College of Art in London. Nevertheless, he was there in the 1960s together with a group of talented fellow students such as Frank Bowling, Derek Boshier, RB Kitaj, Peter Phillips and Allen Jones. They all became outstanding artists in the contemporary environment of British art.

Exhibition view of David Hockney: Ways of Working © The Lightbox

From an uncertain start influenced by American Abstract Expressionism and Jean Dubuffet’s graffiti technique, Hockney opted for a more autobiographical and personal approach that expressed his life as a young gay man, at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in Britain. In the different phases of his ever-changing career he was influence by major artists such as Dubuffet, Paolozzi, Frank Stella, Matisse, Picasso, Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon. He reinvented the style of these painters through his personal interpretation of colours and lines, content and form, which need to flow one into the other according to him, through his technical experimentation. This method allowed him to be both loose and accurate, to simplify and make his work unique.

The main themes of his work are relationships, love, loneliness and the transience of life. He was fascinated by the naked male body and the transparencies of water that he studied deeply in his Californian period. Sex and art were his main interests and concerns when he moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. The US was for him a freer space both sexually and artistically. Glamour, sexual freedom and marketing opportunities opened his career to new perspectives that made him internationally successful both critically and financially. At the same time, his personality changed; he dyed his hair bottle-blond, wore thick-framed glasses and eccentric clothes. This new life was also expressed overtly in the shower and swimming pool series that celebrate the homosexual environment in LA. California represented an escape from British conventions and the restriction he had experienced in his homeland. Compared to Bacon, Hockney’s pictures of erotic male bodies are less dramatic and physical; they convey a sense of freedom and innocent pleasure.

In California he became successful, a pop star of sorts like Andy Warhol, with whom he shared the crossing of boundaries between popular culture and high art. His studies of water and transparencies reveal his approach that was both controlled and abstract-looking in depicting what he called the shimmering, squiggly water. The swimming pools reflected light in dancing lines, celebrating the sunlight and clear Californian atmosphere and were symbolically connected with his life in LA. In California he also painted the urban landscape in simplified forms that reflect its lifestyle – for example in ‘Californian Bank’ (1964) – in an apparently naturalist way, analysing, at the same time, the illusory space the picture created. His playing with the trick of illusion is a recurring approach that the artist experimented with in landscapes, portraits, photography and in the combination of painting and photography. He assembled the composition of his artwork in his studio after recording the subject with drawings and photos, adding details such as still life in portraits. Therefore, he created a mixed image of life, photographs and artistic creativity where the personality of the sitter merged with the artist’s individual interpretation, as in the ‘Portrait of Sir David Webster’ (1971). A similar approach is in the way he reinterprets perspective in his landscapes where “action, movement and excitement of living” are emphasised, as he wrote in his letter displayed at the exhibition. The Renaissance one-point perspective is therefore undermined while the clarity of the line and full colours of the Italian Quattrocento, in painters such as Beato Angelico and Piero della Francesca, are preferred.

He was a slow painter, not an impressionist, paying attention to small details such as face features, folds of fabric, the naturalistic rendering of furniture and still life minutely executed with accurate brushstrokes. At the same time, he celebrated the movement of life in bold lines and bright colours in his digital paintings of the Yorkshire Wolds and forests, enlarging the perspective to a boundless horizon as well as in the composition of the Grand Canyon made of 96 canvases. Examples of these works are displayed at the exhibition, such as two canvases of the Grand Canyon big picture, different kinds of prints, ‘Winter Road Kilham’ (2008) from the Yorkshire series, some water studies and photo collages.

A video (a black and white film by James Scott made in 1966) shows how Hockney experimented with aquatint, adopting a traditional artisanal approach and then carefully checking the first print to see how it could be improved. He paid close attention to the thickness of the black lines on white paper that expressed the texture of the drawings, which were illustrations for a collection of poems by CP Cavafy. Hockney’s interest was in the right combination for an effective use of aquatint technique in the rendering of the content of his drawing. It is a challenging experimentation that testifies to the artist’s great versatility, the pursue of personal interests and market-oriented awareness.

At a certain point of his career he grew particularly interested in photography which became the instrument utilised to record his subjects from different viewpoints and to analyse his own work in order to create new products. He made ‘graphic collages’ of photographs assembling different pictures in a cubist style where the subject is seen from all sides at the same time as in ‘Nude, 17 June 1984’. He called these pictures ‘joiners’; they revealed their fractured but also illusionary reassembled quality. Similarly to the ‘Bigger Splash’, in which the effect of the diving was depicted by Hockney with slow paint brushstrokes, in his photocollages the fraction of a second of a photoshoot is diluted in multiple images. In this way Hockney represents in a technical way the illusory effect of art that creates a subjective reality through a visual language that he uses to explore the world around us.

Throughout his life Hockney has embraced artistic movements and bohemia. He has never worked in isolation and was always involved in engaging conversations with fellow artists and friends. His career is one of the most fulfilling and astonishing creative achievements of contemporary art. He proposed a new synthesis of form and content including new technologies that he merged with traditional methods. The exhibition at the Lightbox well presents these aspects of Hockney’s career with a comprehensive display of his different works and approaches.

David Hockney: Ways of Working, The Lightbox, Woking, 25 January – 19 April 2020