Bigger is Better

November 8, 2013
David Hockney, Yosemite I, October 16th 2011. iPad Drawing printed on six sheets of paper (71 3/4 x 42 3/4 inches each), mounted on six sheets of Dibond, 143 1/2 x 128 1/4 inches overall. © 2013 David Hockney
David Hockney, Yosemite I, October 16th 2011. iPad Drawing printed on six sheets of paper (71 3/4 x 42 3/4 inches each), mounted on six sheets of Dibond, 143 1/2 x 128 1/4 inches overall. © 2013 David Hockney

David Hockney broke all previous attendance records at the Royal Academy of Arts last year, with his show A Bigger Picture. The RA tells us that 650,000 people crowded through those galleries to see a show largely devoted to landscapes of Yorkshire, the artist’s birthplace.

It sounds hard to believe, until one sees David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition at the De Young Museum of San Francisco (until 20 January).

The London show featured more than 150 works. This time there are 400 pieces on display, including a large collection of recent watercolours and drawings, mostly portraits and landscapes. It may sound excessive but the overall effect is anything but fatiguing. On the contrary, one feels exhilarated by these pictures. At the age of 76, Hockney is producing some of the biggest and boldest works of his career.

There are two aspects to this show that are worth noting: an extraordinary late-career surge in productivity that might be justly compared with Picasso; and the fact that Hockney has used only the most basic genres – landscape and portraiture – to create such a dynamic impression. This seems to go against the Zeitgeist, when one considers the avalanche of empty gimmicks and ‘innovations’ that clutter the contemporary art museums. Hockney demonstrates that one can create striking, memorable works of art without deviating from well-worn subjects painted in a representational style.

This doesn’t mean Hockney has stopped experimenting with different media. A large number of works were ‘painted’ on the iPad and transferred onto panels using ink-jet printers. There are multi-panelled videos of the shifting states of the Yorkshire landscape, and a set of short films he dubs “Cubist” – although that’s a title open to much dispute. There are even works made on the artist’s mobile phone.

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 26, 27 & 30 July 2006. Oil on 6 Canvases (36 X 48 inches each) 72 x 144 inches overall. © 2013 David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 26, 27 & 30 July 2006. Oil on 6 Canvases (36 X 48 inches each) 72 x 144 inches overall. © 2013 David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

It is the large landscapes that dominate this show, revealing an uninhibited colour sense and a taste for radical simplification. These paintings are grand decorations in the same sense that Nabis artists such as Bonnard and Vuillard understood the term: as refutations of all the polite conventions of easel painting, and attempts to create an all-encompassing environment. The first criterion may no longer be such a big deal, but the second is still relevant today. Standing in the midst of rooms with burgundy coloured walls, one feels enclosed by these vivid green paintings, as if embedded in a forest.

For this purpose, Yorkshire will do as well as the jungles of the Amazon.

In an art scene that loves to wallow in gloom, Hockney’s paintings are joyous. One feels his excitement at simply being in the landscape capturing his sensations with a piece of charcoal, a brush, or a deft twirl of the fingers on the iPad. These works seem to have been dictated by instinct, but there is also a guiding intelligence that incorporates references to artists as diverse as Claude, Ingres and Van Gogh. It’s rare to see a show that is so relentlessly affirmative, so confident that painting – whether it be made on canvas or touchpad – will always have the capacity to wrest us out of everyday life and set us dreaming.

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition
De Young Museum of San Francisco
October 26, 2013-January 20, 2014