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11.26.09

Hockney's Impressionist Period

Having left behind the swimming pools of Southern California for the woods of England, David Hockney’s new paintings capture the landscape of his youth. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

It seems that David Hockney, the British artist best known for his bright angular genre paintings of Los Angeles bungalows and swimming pools, has gone Impressionist. It’s the artistic equivalent of finding religion later in life, though the shift is fitting in Hockney’s case. The 72-year-old artist has experimented with many styles, genres, and media over the course of his career, and for this latest period, he embraces the color palettes, en plein air tendencies, and loose, wispy brushstrokes of late 19th-century European masters like Cézanne, Pissarro, Monet, and Van Gogh.

The paintings on view at two of PaceWildenstein’s three Manhattan galleries through December 24 were completed between 2006 and 2009. They mark Hockney’s first New York show of new paintings in more than 12 years—as well as a return to his geographic roots.

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Born in Yorkshire and trained at London’s Royal College of Art, Hockney famously decamped to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, lured west by Santa Monica beaches and the sort of buff, tanned macho men he pined over from across the pond. Throughout the decades, he maintained a residence in Yorkshire, but didn’t spend any significant amount of time there until the late-1990s, when he quickly became transfixed by the English countryside. (His eventual relocation wasn’t driven purely by aestheticism—the artist’s partner, John Fitzherbert, lost his U.S. residency earlier this decade when he overstayed his visa by a few days).

After re-settling in England, Hockney started producing watercolors of his idyllic surroundings. It was more of a side project, really, as he was still focusing mainly on portraiture at the time. But in 2005, the artist used these studies as a jumping-off point for a more ambitious body of work.

Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignLike his Impressionist predecessors, Hockney set up his easel outside. He worked quickly, capturing his surroundings as the nearly psychedelic colors of spring, summer, and fall dulled into steely shades of winter. With its tree-lined passageways and abundant shades of greens, the Bridlington, Yorkshire landscape is not unlike that of Arles, France—the site immortalized by Van Gogh and Gauguin in the late-1880s.

Hockney worked on small-ish canvases for the most part, some acting as standalone works and others functioning as building blocks for much larger pieces. I wish the larger works had been completed on single, giant panes but alas, and save for Monet’s Water Lilies, scale is one thing that the Impressionists weren’t particularly known for.

Most of the 28 paintings on view have at least one counterpart in the series: the skinny, barren trees shown on one wall are imbued with lush, leafy life on a canvas nearby; a severed tree trunk is bright orange in one painting, and deep bluish gray in two more; a depiction of a thick verdant forest hangs next to its winter-time doppelganger—a pointillist fury of branches and twigs. Hockney balances a mostly cool palette with neon shocks of pink, purple, orange, and blue. They lend a touch of the surreal to his otherwise straightforward canvases, hinting at an abstract, Wonderland-like landscape.

The paintings in these shows aren’t nearly as polished as Hockney’s earlier work, but it’s nice to see the former SoCal denizen embrace seasons. The sunshine that was so even in his slick L.A. exteriors is warped and sometimes hidden entirely in these works. Perhaps, at this age, Hockney is thinking more about the passage of time in both life and art. If that’s the case, his new, fertile surroundings have certainly given him fodder to do so.

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Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.