For David Hockney, arguably Britain’s best-known living artist, thinking big has never been a problem.
In A Bigger Exhibition, opening Saturday at San Francisco’s de Young Museum and on view through January 20, 2014, the artist used a variety of media to create his work: an iPad, iPhone, video camera, as well as watercolors and charcoal on paper. One work, Bigger Yosemite, consists of five iPad drawings of the mountains, trees, and waterfalls of Northern California’s national park. Blown up into 12-foot high prints that direct the eye upward, the piece shares gallery space with Hockney’s 30-canvas reworking of Claude Lorrain’s Sermon on the Mount, which he says fascinated him because of the unusual perspective of the mountain in the middle and the landscape off to the side.
Known for his brightly-colored Los Angeles swimming pools and palm trees in the 1960s and Seventies, Hockney has recently explored the landscapes of Yorkshire in England, near where he grew up and now spends much of the year. In a series of 25 charcoal drawings, The Arrival of Spring in 2013 (twenty thirteen), Hockney, who only started working with charcoal on paper last year, said in an e-mail to the exhibition’s organizer, Richard Benefield, that he wanted to capture “the bleakness of winter and its exciting transformation to the summer.”
Introducing the show, Colin Bailey, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, talked about its monumentality and grandeur. “It’s an extraordinarily brave, frank, and revealing exhibition,” Bailey said. “You cannot but be struck by the scale and exuberance.”
A Bigger Exhibition, made exclusively for the de Young, builds on a show organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2012, which was primarily comprised of landscapes. It offers a comprehensive survey of the 76-year-old artist’s work since 2002, and consists of more landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of Hockney’s friends and assistants. The show in England had only 10 percent of the works that are now on display at the de Young.
Hockney’s adoption of iPhones and iPads as tools for art-making also greatly added to the work in this show. “I would get e-mails from him on a daily basis of drawings he’d made on his iPad,” Benefield said. “It was an amazing way to be a part of the artist’s process. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for him and the way he sees the world so intently and encourages people to look. I started looking at the world differently because of him, and I’m enormously grateful.”
“I would get e-mails from him on a daily basis of drawings he’d made on his iPad,” the exhibition organizer says of Hockney.
The sheer scale of the show is testament to Hockney’s work ethic: there are nearly 400 works on display, with almost 80 of them made this year. Bailey added that no matter what medium he’s working in, the importance of drawing to Hockney remains evident.
“Some people say landscape is a dead art form. I have a different opinion,” Hockney told Bailey. “Drawing is an ancient thing. It’s 30,000 years old. Why are they saying we’ll give it up?”
Hockney says his love of drawing attracted him to the tablet. He started out using the iPhone’s Brushes application, accustomed to the tiny scale after drawing in small sketchbooks, and then switched to an iPad in 2010. “It’s much more interesting than Photoshop because it can pick up a color quicker and you can work very fast,” he said. “Working fast is something most draftsmen are interested in.”
Hockney has been famously dismissive of photography and its singular point of view. He counts Pablo Picasso—who was interested in displaying multiple perspectives in one painting—as one of his greatest influences. (Also on view in the exhibition is Hockney’s film Cubist movies, for which he used 18 digital cameras to achieve multiple perspectives.)
With this, as with all his art, Hockney says he just wants people to actively see the world. “People don’t look very hard,” he said. “I do, and I do something with it.”
Bailey talked about the “sublimity of nature” that he believes Hockney communicates in his pictures. The artist says that after seeing the show in London, people told him they noticed the trees in the park when they went outside. He hopes the same thing will happen in San Francisco when visitors to the de Young go out into Golden Gate Park where the museum is located.
“I remember when I first arrived in L.A., I painted palm trees,” he said. “Palm trees are exotic because we don’t have them in England, and I remember a lady said to me she’d never noticed the palm trees. That’s why you need artists.”