Why David Hockney Has a Love-Hate Relationship With Technology

A new retrospective highlights the artist’s two, seemingly opposite passions

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But what was most striking across the years of controversy that followed was the way people seemed intent on missing Hockney's main point: that (as had been the case with his Polaroid and other photo-collages a couple of decades earlier) his was a critique of the limitations of that kind of image-making. The "optical look," he now argued, had come into the world all the way back in the 15th century when painters began deploying single curved mirrors or lenses or prisms and surrendering to their perspectival imperatives. In that sense, the invention of photography in 1839 merely chemically fixed onto a surface (silver-plated copper at the outset, though presently paper) a way of seeing that had already held sway for centuries. And ironically that was the very moment, as Hockney would now be only too happy to show you, his hand sweeping to the far end of his Great Wall, when European painting began falling away from the optical. "Awkwardness returns!" he would announce triumphantly. Artists once again began looking with two eyes, trying to capture all the things a standard chemical photograph couldn't. Impressionists, Expressionists, Cézanne and the Cubists were no longer trying to aspire to "objective" truth, in the chemical-photographic sense; rather, they were endeavoring to fashion a way of seeing that was "true to life." And in that sense, in a world progressively more saturated (and by our own time supersaturated) with conventional photographic imagery, the Cubist project was by no means finished. "Picasso and Braque were right," he'd exult. "Wider perspectives are needed now."

And Hockney was ready once again to take up the gauntlet.


Looking Deeper, Seeing More "Oh dear, I really must get back to painting." How many times over the previous 20 years, after one extended side passion or another (those Polaroid photo-collages, the fax combines and the handmade prints, the prolonged investigations into physics or Chinese art, the opera set and lighting designs, the camera lucida drawings and now this all-consuming multiyear art historical excursus) had I heard that phrase from Hockney's lips? The fact is that the 20 years since 1980 had seen far fewer paintings than the two preceding decades. But now, in the first years of the new millennium, Hockney seemed freshly resolved. He returned to England for longer and longer extended visits on either side of his mother's passing, at age 98, in 1999, specifically to the somewhat dilapidated seacoast resort town of Bridlington in East Yorkshire to which she had retired, a few dozen miles from the mill town of Bradford where he had been raised.

Now he was really going to pour himself back into painting. Except that instead he took up watercolors—for the first time in his life in any serious fashion. In part, they allowed him to work in plein-air and to really explore his new Bridlington home base. But in addition, watercolors by their very nature, with the immediacy of their application, precluded any sort of "optical" approach. Furthermore, the unforgiving nature of the medium (the way one couldn't easily cover over one's mistakes) forced him to look deeper the first time (for example, at the profuse varieties of plant material making up a seemingly random roadside hedge, each genus specifically distinct, and each individual plant specifically distinct within the genus)—to look deeper and see more. Over just a few months from the late summer of 2004 through the end of the year, Hockney produced more than 100 watercolor studies.

He was just getting started. The year 2005 would finally see his return to painting in a big way, with a relentless outpouring that summer—sometimes a full painting a day, occasionally even two or three—retracing some of his favorite sites from those earlier watercolor excursions. All the while he kept trying to widen his vantages, contriving methods for mounting multiple canvases on easels, one beside the next, and then six at a time (two high and three wide), creating "combine"-vistas that were not just bigger and wider but that featured multiple overlapping vanishing points, pulling the viewer ever more actively into the scene. The effect was all the more striking in several of the paintings that featured the trope of a road receding toward the horizon—the very epitome of the traditional one-point perspective effect—only, in his versions, the roads would be veering slightly off-center, and the viewer's gaze drawn equally powerfully to all the vantages peeling off to its sides.

"How do you like my latest figure paintings?" he asked me, impishly, one day around this time, as I stood gazing at one of those combines on the wall of the big studio he'd established in the hangar of an industrial park just outside Bridlington. "But," I decided to take the bait, "there are no figures." At which point, smiling wryly, he corrected me, emphatically insisting, "You—you are the figure." Indeed, perusing some of those combines, you couldn't help it—your eyes would up and go for a walk—perhaps nowhere more so than with the 50-canvas winterscape, his vastest and most staggering combine yet, Bigger Trees Near Warter, which took up the entire far wall in the long hall of the Royal Academy in London, during the group invitational of summer 2007.

Throughout this period, Hockney took particular delight in how vividly his paintings (or for that matter most other non-optically produced images) read from across the room, in direct contradistinction to those fashioned under the more conventional "optical" approach. He'd enjoy tacking the color reproduction of, say, the detail from a Caravaggio still life on the far side of his studio, right up next to a similarly sized reproduction of a Cézanne, with the fruit in question exactly the same size. "Not to diminish the exquisite mastery of Caravaggio's rendering," he'd say, "but just look. From this distance, the Caravaggio just about disappears, while the Cézanne almost pops off the wall." This, he was convinced, was because the Caravaggio had a certain distancing, receding perspective built into its composition (the cycloptic recess, as it were, existing in an abstractly frozen present), whereas Cézanne's apples had been seen with both eyes and across time.

Indeed, time itself and its passage now began to take up more and more of Hockney's concern. Wider and wider vantages continued to be needed, but whereas in earlier visits to the Grand Canyon, for instance, Hockney had been after bigger and bigger spaces, around Bridlington he was instead becoming intent on incorporating greater and greater extensions of time, and not just the time involved in becoming the figure and taking those visual ambles all about the painting. Hockney was also becoming more and more sensitive to the passage of time between paintings, the play of the seasons with their very specific barometric shifts. He would return to the same sites over and over again—those intersecting paths in the Woldgate Woods, for example, which he ended up depicting no less than nine times in six-canvas combines across 2006; or the trio of trees near Thixendale, rendered twice the following year, the first time in August when they presented themselves almost like great green breathing lungs, the second in December, by which time they'd been stripped to an almost desiccated anatomical cross-section. The seasons had been something he'd nearly come to forget in Southern California, and their passage week by week now constituted for Hockney one of the special savors of this return to his boyhood haunts. Indeed he came to feel that it wasn't until you'd seen a tree winter-bare and all dendrite-spread late in the fall—and preferably across two or three such falls—that you could ever hope to capture its true essence come the following leaf-full, blowsy summer.

So it was painting, painting, painting virtually all the time from 2005 onward at l'Atelier Hockney Bridlington. Except that, in typical fashion, actually, it wasn't, at least after 2008, when he was seduced by a new technology, one that he now took to pursuing with almost as much verve and fascination.


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