Few contemporary artists are as popular as David Hockney. In a sweeping retrospective of his 60-year career, Tate Britain shows why. From his early pen-and-ink drawings, through to his witty portraits and epic pastoral landscapes, Hockney has always exhibited a striking stylistic versatility and a commitment to experimentation. He has expanded the limits of familiar forms by combining them with daring themes, bold colours and new technology.
Hockney’s early work is his most experimental in style and subject. His “Love” paintings from 1961 draw on abstract expressionist techniques, pop art and the raw style of Jean Dubuffet to picture gay desire, humorously and explicitly, at a time when sex between men was still a criminal offence. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1964, Hockney began to slide into naturalism, though this intensified rather than lessened his radicalism. Instead of imagining gay desire in the abstract, Hockney absorbed it into the texture of real life, depicting naked men in bed or beside swimming pools, in “Sunbather” (1966) and “The Room, Tarazana” (1967).
He has been testing conventions ever since. “Pearlblossom Highway” (1986, above) is a collage of hundreds of photographs of a desert track taken with a polaroid camera; he sought to capture within one picture frame the experience of looking at something from multiple perspectives. Recent paintings like “Garden 3” and “Two Pots on the Terrace” – both completed especially for this exhibition – use unexpected colours, like vivid reds and blues, to depict the garden of Hockney’s Hollywood home. These are experiments, Hockney has said, in how to “represent on a flat surface the lovely and wonderful experience of looking” – but only he would look at pots on a terrace in this way.
The last decade has been one of Hockney’s busiest. His experiments with video are impressive: “The Four Seasons” (2011) is an installation that shows a forest near his home in Yorkshire changing with the seasons over the course of a year. The exhibition also includes some of the thousands of drawings Hockney has made on his iPad. If at times these digital pictures lack the sheer visual exuberance of Hockney’s landscape paintings – the murky colours and flat shapes of “The Card Players” (2015) or “The Supper” (2016) seem bland in comparison – they nevertheless demonstrate Hockney’s artistic self-renewal. He turns 80 this year, but his work – by turns smutty, picturesque and mischievous – continues to depict reality in new ways.
“Play Within A Play” (1963)
Hockney’s early works are tricksy, none more so than this painting of his dealer, John Kasmin. Kasmin stands in front of a tapestry painted with abstract forms and colourful symbols. A sheet of perspex has been nailed to the front of the canvas, as if to imprison Kasmin in the painting. Hockney engages the viewer in all sorts of optical illusions: look at the chair and the space in which Kasmin stands suddenly appears more spacious than his squashed body and handprints suggest. It all contributes to the impression that Kasmin, as Hockney put it, is “trapped between life and art”.
“Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” (1966)
Hockney’s move to Los Angeles in 1964 heralded a major change in style. He started using acrylics to paint vibrant suburban landscapes infused with the white light of the Californian sun. In this painting, one of his most famous, he captures the flat façades and burnished surfaces of the home of Nick Wilder, a curator and gallery owner. Hockney was influenced by Julius Shulman’s black-and-white photographs of 1960s LA, which first captured on film the smooth lines and geometric shapes of the city’s minimalist architecture. Another inspiration was Physique Pictorial, a Californian “beefcake” magazine packed with erotic photographs of athletic men posing on sunny verandas in various states of undress. Here, Hockney’s gaze settles on the body of his lover, Peter Schleslinger. Red and white squiggles evoke the ripples in the water as it laps around his bare legs.
“Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968)
Hockney’s growing interest in naturalism culminated in a series of life-sized double portraits of close friends and acquaintances in California, including Christopher Isherwood, a novelist, and his partner, Don Bachardy. More than mere portraits, Hockney has said these works are an attempt to “paint the relationship of two people”. Isherwood looks sternly at Bachardy, who stares straight ahead, at the painter perhaps. Between them, Hockney has mischievously placed a banana and a cob of corn.
“Going Up Garrowby Hill” (2000)
By the late 1990s, Hockney had tired of naturalism and desperately wanted to break free of it. He found refuge in landscapes like this, which use eye-popping colour and play with perspective – note the way the road to York shoots out of the foreground at a vertiginous angle, before bouncing up the canvas and disappearing over the horizon. Hockney frequently drove over Garrowby Hill to visit his dying friend, Jonathan Silver, in East Yorkshire. This work evokes the sensation of watching the countryside from the window of his moving car, through which the undulating fields can seem both remote and near-at-hand, fixed and fast-moving.
“Woldgate Woods 6 & 9 November 2006” (2006)
Hockney left America in 2006 to return to his childhood home in Yorkshire. He soon began to take his easel out into the surrounding fields, painting what he saw onto huge billboard-sized canvases. Comprised of six panels, this work belongs to a series of paintings depicting the forest near Hockney’s home as it changes through the seasons. Delicate brushstrokes evoke a thinning forest canopy and the onset of autumn; a thick carpet of bronzed leaves decorates the shadowy forest floor. With their high-keyed colour and dramatic perspective, these woodland landscapes show Hockney’s talent for painting old subjects in new ways.
David Hockney Tate Britan, London, until May 29th
“Surprisingly revelatory”: The Economist’s Prospero blog reviews the exhibition