The British artist David Hockney is probably best known for his vibrant, playful, attention-grabbing scenes of Los Angeles in the 1960s, with its ubiquitous sunbathers and sunlit swimming pools.
To me, Hockney’s name evokes the curving blue lines he painted on the bottom of the pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where I stayed during my first visit to L.A. several years ago. I marveled at Hockney’s blue curves, which formed an abstract, interwoven pattern when the water was still but appeared to undulate the moment someone jumped in, as if reflecting the pool’s rippling surface.
Hockney’s underwater artwork at the Roosevelt has been restored since he painted it in 1988, roughly two decades after he first arrived in Los Angeles from London in the mid-’60s and created his notorious poolside paintings.
Many of them are exhibited in a new Hockney retrospective at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art, which spans his six-decade career—from early works in 1960 referencing his not-yet-public homosexuality to acrylic paintings in 2017—and opens to the public on Nov. 27.
At the Met, some of the artist’s best-known pool paintings, including A Bigger Splash from 1967, are grouped together with other important works he made after moving to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s. Hockney became a naturalist master during this time, obsessed by capturing moments in time in his paintings. How does one depict sunlight dancing on pool water in a painting, or something as fleeting as a splash?
Hockney was amused by this tension. “I realized that a splash could never be seen this way in real life,” he says of A Bigger Splash in the exhibition’s audio guide, remarking that he labored over the the actual painting for two weeks with “small brushstrokes, rather painstakingly... There was a contradiction in that which interested me.”
Hockney, now 80, was playing with photography, drawing on an image he found in a book about swimming pools, and contrasting the naturalistic splash against a flat, almost abstract backdrop.
Hockney’s 1967 painting A Lawn Being Sprinkled also shows the artist depicting water in an innovative way. While his contemporaries were singularly focused on one-dimensional perspectives, Hockney punctuated the flatness of L.A.’s landscapes with liveliness and freedom.
The retrospective begins with a series of works from Hockney’s years at the Royal College of Art, including his provocative Cleaning Teeth painting, where tubes of toothpaste are stand-ins for genitalia.
Hockney described this 1962 work as “propaganda” for gay love (homosexuality was still illegal in Britain at the time). He made a name for himself with this and other early paintings that critics viewed as pop art, mostly because they referenced popular culture.
But Hockney is most celebrated for his technical skills as a painter and refusal to adhere to a single movement. His works vary from acrylic paintings to composite Polaroid collages and experimental, technologically advanced prints.
Throughout his career, Hockney has played with depth and flatness of architectural spaces and the objects within them. Even before he arrived in Los Angeles, he was evoking it in paintings like his 1963 Domestic Scene, Los Angeles: the image of two men showering is one of domestic bliss, but with no architectural context.
There’s no bathroom door or wall separating the bathers from a patterned arm chair, which gives the impression that they’re showering in the living room. When Hockney arrived in L.A., his work began to explore the imaginary colliding with real life and his own desire to depict relationships between men.
Another gallery in the exhibition features portraits of pairs, including Hockney’s friends and lovers.
In 1968, art collector Marcia Weisman commissioned Hockney to paint her then-husband, Fred Weisman (the painting is titled American Collectors). Hockney suggested that he paint both of them instead, working from photographs of the couple standing on their terrace and his own sketches of their sculpture garden.
Hockney continued to explore the tension between painting his subjects naturalistically within a plastic, stage-like scene: Fred Weisman stands rigid, mirroring a totem pole sculpture, and far from his wife. Hockney has said that his double portraits speak to the difficulty of relationships, everything spoken and unspoken between two lovers or spouses.
The exhibition moves along into the 1980s, when Hockney began working with photography in unexpected ways. He was critical of the medium (“Photography is alright if you don’t mind looking at the world from the view of a paralyzed cyclops for a solid second”), and decided the only way to make lively and interesting was to work with multiple images.
One work is comprised of 120 Polaroids arranged in a large rectangle, so that one bare-bottomed man swimming in one of Hockney’s painted pools (the pool in his own L.A. home was also streaked with blue curves) looks like many bare-bottomed men.
Some of Hockney’s paintings in the 1980s and 1990s recall the work of Picasso, but his most recent works recall Matisse. The retrospective’s final gallery shows Hockney embracing technologies like the Xerox and fax machines, and—later—making art on his iPad.
Acid-hued paintings of Hockney’s house in the Hollywood Hills are contemporary riffs on Matisse’s interiors and exteriors. You will also see canvases depicting the countryside of Hockney’s native Yorkshire.
The group ends with a work he finished this past March, which reveals his latest innovation: slicing the bottom corners of a canvas for a visual effect that makes the image expand outward toward the viewer.
Some critics argue that Hockney hasn’t painted anything good since the 1960s, his golden years. But to this viewer, Hockney’s body of work is refreshingly unpretentious and optimistic. At 80, Hockney remains an innovative and rare treasure, if not the best living artist of our time.
David Hockney is at the Met Fifth Avenue, opening Nov. 27.