Los Angeles

David Hockney

David Hockney’s colorful persona has long served as a foil for the quiet understatement of his pictorial output. Throughout the 1960s, these two elements—the artist and his oeuvre—were consistently misaligned. On his emergence, Hockney the artist embodied the optimism that gripped the United Kingdom in the postwar years as rationing gave way to what Lawrence Alloway called an “aesthetics of plenty.” Registered in every detail of his carefully plotted social pose was a kind of content that forcefully mitigated the glacial ennui that permeated so many of his paintings, especially those he would make after moving to Los Angeles in 1964.

In recent years, the terms of that equation have been subtly skewed—if not inverted—and nowhere more so than in this latest clutch of watercolors executed in the Yorkshire countryside between 2003 and 2004. As with his last bravura turn at LA Louver, “Looking at Landscape/Being in Landscape” in 1998, these new pictures show Hockney returning to the land of his birth and finding there some affinities with his second home in the American West—most notably in their shared panoramic skylines. A work like East Yorkshire, Spring Landscape, 2004, for example, carries distinct traces of the artist’s paradigmatic Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, 1980. In both works, the way that the land has been used provides the artist with a compositional template that he subsequently fills out with brightly colored washes and a varied assortment of marks and gestures, a painterly écriture that ever more inventively breaks with its debt to naturalism. Yet the differences between past and present are just as acute.

Above all, it is the delicate effervescence of the artist’s touch that stands out here. These new pictures would be at risk of floating away like a train of brightly colored soap bubbles were they not tethered to the somewhat weightier concerns that Hockney has addressed in recent years. Two of these deserve particular mention: first, his scholarly excavation of the place of optical extension in art history that yielded the still-controversial tome Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters in 2001, the culmination of a long-term fascination with imaging devices of various sorts that renewed his desire for immediacy (which is precisely what the watercolor affords); and second, the illness and eventual death, in May 1999, of the artist’s mother, which brought Hockney back to his roots. One thinks here of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980), also recently bereaved, searching through old photographs for an instance adequate to the memory of his mother’s living presence and finding instead that the photographic project in general is shadowed by a deathly pall.

A related insight underwrites Hockney’s new work, though rather than recoil from the evidence (or seek to pinpoint that rare punctum), he pushes forward right through Barthes’s “image screen.” The title of this latest exhibition, “Hand Eye Heart,” sounded a seemingly sentimental note but in fact signaled a proactive formula that actually delivers. Roads run like blue veins; trees bristle or undulate, every branch a nerve ending. These Yorkshire fields, once painted, become sown with figures of memory and loss. Outwardly so unassuming, they enact a vast cosmic drama in which every turn of the earth takes shape as a wrinkle both on and in the body of the beloved, the last connecting back to the first.

Jan Tumlir