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Trees of Life: David Hockney’s Tour De Force

A retrospective on the English artist opens to much fanfare at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Here, Hockney looks ahead

“David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” is just that—bigger. The intensely personal retrospective spanning fourteen years of work opens October 26 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum and fills 18,000 square feet of gallery space with the artist’s drawings, paintings, digital “Cubist movies” and the results of his experimentation with the iPhone and iPad. In all, the exhibition includes 398 works, of which seventy-eight were completed in 2013 alone. That’s almost one work to represent every year of Hockney’s life—he’s a spry 76.

Many of the monumental works on display are comprised of multiple floor-to-seiling canvases, like the 30-canvas oil painting A Bigger Message, which spans an entire wall. Paying homage to Claude Lorrain’s Sermon on the Mount, which resides in the Frick Collection in New York, the sheer size of the work dwarfs anything else in its presence. The presentation, assembled and designed exclusively for the de Young, is derived from works that were on display at the acclaimed David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, organized by the Royal Academy in London. On the eve of its opening, Hockney sat down with DuJour to answer a few questions about the explorative nature of his work.

The great English countryside and the sunny sprawl of Los Angeles couldn’t possibly be more different, yet you’ve chosen these locales for so much of your work. How has your return to L.A. impacted your most recent work?

Color. All I’ve done since I’ve been back in L.A. is portraits, actually. I thought they couldn’t be painted in England because of the color. But that’s the immediate impact, and I’m going to go on doing them. I’ve done twenty already [eighteen are in the exhibition], and I’m going to do 40 or so because everybody who sits down sits down differently—we’re all different, everybody is different, and that’s my project for the next few months.

What fascinates you about multiple views of the same scene? Some of your landscape videos, such as The Four Seasons, uses nine different cameras.

I’ve always known there’s something wrong with perspective. Most painters know that. Perspective is an architectural idea, really. I think the camera, of course, is the ultimate “perspective purveyor.” I’ve always known if you put a few photographs together you can get some interesting things. I did it with Polaroids 25 years ago. Perspective is not something that’s been thought out much by photographers—they accept it.

What first inspired you to use an iPad as an art medium?

I was drawing on an iPhone first, and [before] I had been drawing in very small sketchbooks, so I was quite used to drawing on a small scale. But the moment the iPad was announced, I thought, “Well, it’s a bit bigger,” so I got one straight away. I worked on it for about eight months before I began on the big [works] you see now. I found it much more interesting than Photoshop computer drawing because it’s quicker. You can work very fast, and working very fast is something most draftsmen are interested in.

Some of the small drawings you did on an iPhone or an iPad ultimately became these massive prints, like the “Yosemite” series. What’s your process when envisioning the scale of some of these works?

When I began drawing on the iPhone, all I did was send them out to friends. I just drew flowers and things. I didn’t think of printing things then—this is four years ago—but when Jonathan, my technical assistant, came to work for me, we started printing. They’re not for mass printing, but they are for fine art printing. Then when I was in California we got a method to print them big without pixilation. So I realized you could print things bigger, then I began to draw on the iPad much more carefully.

Throughout your career you’ve done portraits of your closest friends and family. If you were to paint a few subjects you don’t know, who would they be?

I can’t paint people I don’t know. I mean I did do some drawings deliberately of people I didn’t know for an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. I drew the twelve guards from the National Gallery. And all I did was what Ingres had done when he drew people he didn’t know—he invited them for tea first, and then drew them next day. So, I did this: I asked them for tea, and I just looked at them and things, and next day they came and I drew them. And the likenesses are very good I think.

There’s huge variety in your work. What do you consider the goal in your art?

To live. I don’t know whether I have an aim. Aim is for the future; I live now. Maybe to show people the world? People don’t look very hard at the world, but I do.

Where do you see art moving in the future?

I don’t know where it’s going really—but it will be there in the future. There’s always art. Every society makes it.

What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?

I know in London, people said they started looking at trees again. When they came out of the Royal Academy, there were trees in the green park not far away. Well, here there are trees in the park, and maybe people will notice them. I remember when I first arrived in L.A. in 1964 and I painted palm trees. I mean, palm trees were exotic—we don’t have palm trees in England. A lady said to me that she had never noticed the palm trees before. That’s why you need artists, isn’t it?

 

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