David Hockney: A Retrospective in Review

02/01/2018     News and Film

It was easy to spend two full hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last Saturday, specifically within the eight rooms dedicated to the British artist David Hockney. Outside the museum, the sky was pitch black, the wind was blowing and the snow falling—a complete contrast to the sunny skies, jewel-toned landscapes, and azure swimming pools to be found within the Hockney exhibit. Comprised of 60 of his most iconic paintings, as well as 21 drawings and five photo-mantages, this major retrospective is a true celebration of Hockney 's long and successful career, his lifelong dedication to painting, and his many artistic accomplishments.The retrospective is cohesively and chronologically organized, so that visitors can achieve a true comprehension of Hockney 's artistic evolution from the start of his career to the present. The selection of paintings exhibited highlight the range of art movements and styles that fueled his experimentation, as well as the personal relationships and environments that inspired his continual development. Hockney 's success lies in his ability to fuse these influences together in order to create something entirely his own—the ultimate self-expression. This unique voice–often contradictory to the prevailing tastes and dogmas of the art world—is indeed the common thread that unifies the entire retrospective. The exhibit begins with the paintings Hockney created as a student at the Royal Academy of Art in London in the late 50s and early 60s. Clearly recognizable are the influences of gestural Abstract Expressionism, hints of Francis Bacon 's figuration and dark energy, as well as some precursors of Pop through his addition of product labels, text, and song lyrics. Particularly notable is the explicit homoerotic theme that characterizes these early works, painted at a time when same-sex relations were a crime in the U.K. In this light, one can appreciate the courageous nature of these works, which haven 't been seen in New York since the artist 's first retrospective in 1988.As the exhibition shifts chronologically into the mid- to late-60s, so too does Hockney 's style of painting. He traveled extensively during this time, to Italy, New York, and L.A. These new experiences inspired a concentrated period of artistic growth, during which he experimented with different modes of representation and perspective, as well as a more naturalistic approach to figuration. Evident too is Hockney 's preoccupation with minimalism and color field abstraction, elements of which he incorporated through large swatches of color that form the L.A. lawns and swimming pools in his compositions, and the grid-like patterns and shapes that compose his modernist suburban homes.These components come together in his 1967 painting, “A Bigger Splash,” now recognizable as quintessential of the artist 's style. Hockney depicts a swimming pool in the foreground, set in front of a long rectangular home with two palm trees on the lawn. The painting is composed of large flat blocks of color—the azure sky, turquoise water, burnt-red villa and the diagonal yellow diving board that cuts through the center—applied with foam rollers to achieve a uniform, even quality. Yet the subject of the painting is the dynamic splash of water exploding from the pool, an apparent point of contrast to the still, idyllic backdrop. According to the wall label, these splashes were meticulously rendered with multiple paint brushes of varying sizes and took the artist two weeks to complete. A personal favorite is his 1971 painting, “Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool,” which appears at first glance to be completely abstract, as it is composed primarily of large geometric shapes and blocks of color. However, once examined in conjunction with its title, the viewer 's perception of the work is immediately transformed.  This geometric phase evolves yet again into one dominated by intimate portraits of friends, relations, lovers and collectors. Set within their homes and often painted in pairs, Hockney 's portraits are imbued with touches of personal details unique to each sitter, and display acute psychological sensitivity and emotional awareness. Each canvas is life-size and expansive. This monumental size necessitates examination from  multiple vantage points, each angle offering an alternate perception. One must stand back to view the entire scene, the unspoken dialogue between the sitters and their relation to the environment in which they inhabit. Yet Hockney bestows in each setting such subtle and delicate details that the viewer is encouraged to step closer to appreciate the technical finesse of, for example, the finely wrought hard wood floor, or the softly rendered texture of the upholstery. After a room dedicated to his drawings and experiments with polaroids, the exhibition draws to a close with his more recent landscapes, whose energetic and vibrant color palette echoes that of the Fauvs. Still inexhaustible and ever-evolving, the artist continues his creative output at the age of 80 through technological means such as the iPad; examples of these drawings can be found in the very last room. The overall theme of the exhibition is one of positivity and not only does one exit with a better appreciation of his unique personality and contribution to painting, but with an overall feeling of joy, emblematic of mindsets  in which the paintings themselves were created.In the artist 's own words, “I paint what I like, when I like, and where I like, with occasional nostalgic journeys.”