David Hockney (b. 1937), now showcased and closing this weekend on February 25, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan -- is a whirlwind ying and yang of the Dao. The artist worked with simple opposites, contrasts, and even duos in order to make extreme contrasts into artworks simultaneously more powerful and more gentle than any argument-in-words or thesis ever could be. His paintings appropriate styles of surrealism, fauvism, and minimalism, and often times these paintings use techniques from genre painting, and navigate subjects that photographer Walker Evans and pop artist Andy Warhol used. Hockney is thus a strange contradiction of an easily accessible artist (pop artist; beauty that doesn’t need too much commentary) who also has much provocative food for thought (knowledge of art history; fun from picking out references to other artists; deep symbolism; philosophies of ease and fun).
In the paintings in the first rooms of this show from his beginnings as an artist, Hockney worked on paintings that appropriate vernacular and pop art. Certain items in these first rooms paint figures of people next to a giant Easter Island stone statue, or highway roads next to a native American in full headdress. These works comment keeping traditions that are on their way out. This resembles Andy Warhol’s works on pop art, because fashion is used and then discarded. Hockney’s work also is similar to Walker Evans, the photographer, because Evans photographed what he called, “the vernacular,” which is how fashion is both a set of objects (example: hand painted signs), and a way of viewing that entire set of objects (example: how hand painted signs existed in the entire 1930’s). In San Francisco MoMA’s show of Walker Evans’ works this year, that museum included Evans’ paintings that look remarkably similar to Hockney’s more minimalist paintings.
Hockney’s earlier forays of weird juxtapositions of symbols speaks to surrealism, particularly of Rene Magritte. It starts with the painting styles both employed. Hockney’s definite brush strokes worked to give his portraits of people ambiguous expressions (viewer’s choice: as in, it’s not clear what they want on the part of the viewer of the painting) and ambivalent (the subject’s choice: as in, the subjects of the painting themselves might go either way). In Magritte’s paintings that made the paintings themselves a murder-mystery, a whodunit -- sometimes this was a more straightforward painting of people in a room and a dead body, and sometimes this was more symbolic or intentionally confusing as just a bloody dead body with a blank expression on his face. In Hockney’s case, the latter artist dispenses with smaller symbols and narratives. Instead of Colonel Mustard, with a candlestick, in the living room, Hockney gives us a swimming pool in Los Angeles. If Magritte’s paintings ask, “Who did it?” Hockney’s paintings ask, “Yes, but what did they do?”
Hockney’s masterpieces without a doubt are his wall-sized portraits of his friends and family. In one of these paintings, Hockney painted his mother and father in old age. His mother looks ahead to Hockney and the viewer, while his father ruffles through a large book, which might be a photo album. This painting has several themes that also appear in much of Hockney’s work. First, his mother wears a deep blue formal outfit. Her face is one of forgiveness and her expression smacks of the archetype of an old woman. The reason why old people are always laughing in pop culture is everyone gets older, and most problems vanish because time destroys everything. Hockney’s father contrasts with his mother because he’s working so hard. In his hard work ruffling through the large book, Hockney’s father is too busy to realize Hockney is painting a portrait. Hockney’s mother here is any forgiving grandmother, such as Leia Organa Solo in the most recent Star Wars, and for that matter, the reason why Yoda is always laughing so strangely, and also the blind oracle in the Matrix Trilogy.
Hockney was a crack head junkie for color. His love for blue is a direct reference to Henri Matisse. Matisse’s school, Fauvism, is basically exuberant, huge colors. Matisse was a jailbreak of color. Some of Hockney’s bigger paintings have obvious connotations of Matisse, but the subtle lineage between Hockney and Matisse is Hockney isn’t afraid to saturate a painting in blues. These paintings are readily accessible to a large audience, because who doesn’t love a nice relaxing swim in the pool? They also represent what the color blue represents. Blue represents sadness, yes, as in the musical format, but blue represents cool emotions, like slowing down, and being a bit more skeptical of deceptive vanities. This is the intersection between Miles Davis’ “cool jazz” and his famous song, “All Blues,” whereupon the latter is in the style of the former.
Scientifically, blue doesn’t really appear naturally outside of the sky or water. These two – the sky and water – are large symbols of expansion, and a sort of existential harrowing optimism. This is clear in Hockney’s famous painting of “Mount Fuji and a Flower.” The deep blues create a contrast with the delicate white petals of the flower, and the slender shaft of the flower pushes down into the vase. The mountain is a symbol of work and challenges, whereas the flower is a symbol of beauty and enjoyment. Hockney’s offering a seductive trade here, based on perspective, that one doesn’t have to climb a mountain in order to realize greatness.
The troubling or easy part of the genre painters is sort of like rock music in the 1960’s, in that there were so many bands doing so much that their influence, under a certain critical perspective, can be hard to shake off and do one’s own thing. The tension between copying and originality was part of the game in the first place, because the genre painters freely copied and stole from each other in a strange sort of arms race. Vermeer was a lot like Ter Borch, and Jan Steen was a lot like Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and all four were borrowing-stealing from Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Is anything ever truly original? Yes, and, were they thinking that in the 1600’s in the Netherlands? These questions don’t have to be answered here, but there is a certain line of thinking found in Hinduism and Buddhism that every moment is truly original and unique. Hockney’s use of Los Angeles’ pools were absolutely a radical difference between the 1970’s and the 1640’s. Hockney can then go back and say if he’s painting the emotional conflicts, at least he has a pool. The Dutch only had canals, and one wouldn’t want to go swimming in them. Take it easy.
Here's myself at the exhibit!