Drawing from nature – David Hockney art exhibition
David Hockney returned to Los Angeles. For now, anyway. “No, I’ve been here for over a year,” he said when I called him the other day. I said I thought he still lived in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, England. “No, William, I’m in LA, I work.
Hockney is a Yorkshire man, born near Bradford in 1937, his Yorkshire accent is still very present. Bridlington, a small resort town on the North Sea, is where he has made his home in recent years in a beachfront villa – with a 10,000-square-foot former factory as a sprawling studio just minutes away.
The surprisingly unspoiled East Yorkshire countryside around Bridlington was the driving force behind his artistic inspiration during the early years of the 21st century. Hockney’s return to landscape painting fueled numerous exhibitions including “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2012, a massive exhibition featuring massive pieces and a tribute to Hockney’s tireless energy. , intact during its eighth decade.
Rightly so, it turns out I was calling Hockney to talk about his latest exhibition, also of landscapes, titled “The Arrival of Spring,” which opens at the Pace Gallery in New York on September 5th. The exhibition consists of works produced on his iPad. in the form of a series of prints, some very large, of his favorite places around Bridlington and, more importantly, a collection of charcoal drawings, five sets of five drawings each (all 22 x 30 inches), showing , in elaborate monochrome, the eponymous arrival of spring in the woods, alleys and paths of East Yorkshire.
“So,” I asked him, “is this some kind of farewell to Bridlington and the countryside?” Yes, he admitted. “It’s a bit finished.” This last exhibition is therefore the coda of a distinct “period” in Hockney’s work, like Picasso’s blue period, but in this case, an intense, almost obsessive concentration on the landscape that changes with the seasons, an intensity of examination which has perhaps been matched in our time only by Lucian Freud’s obsession with the nude.
IPad prints are remarkably colorful. “They took me two or three days to do it,” Hockney said. “And they were made to be printed, knowing that I was going to print them bigger.”
Hockney, perhaps a rarity among contemporary artists, is a techie. We think back to what he did with the Polaroid photo or the fax machine when it appeared. It has also engaged with the iPhone and iPad and their software as a new visual medium. “I think the iPad is a new art form,” he said. “Much better than a lithograph. The inkjet print is brighter, the color stays exactly the same. The prints use a lot of pigment. But the bigger they get, they don’t fade, don’t pixelate . “
I am fortunate to have seen Hockney’s mastery of this new art form emerge. When the software was finally able to “follow the artist’s hand without delay,” as Hockney put it, he started doing quick sketches on his phone and sending them to a few friends and associates. Most often these were small still lifes, usually flowers in a jar, but gradually, over the months, the artist’s hand was seen to become more and more confident. With the switch to the iPad, the images sent to our computers were almost indistinguishable from the beautiful colored pencil drawings Hockney made in the ’70s and’ 80s.
This confident acquisition of a new skill reminds us that Hockney is one of the great designers of our time. While we were talking about drawing on the iPad, the conversation turned more generally to the drawing itself and the talent, the innate gift, that it requires. I happened to see in a gallery a few days earlier two drawings by Hockney from the mid-1970s, ink on paper, incredibly precise. The pen he was using had a small, sharp point and the hatching was almost microscopically precise. I asked him what kind of pen he had used. “A Rapidograph,” he said – a pen that architects and engineers use for blueprints and engineering drawings. I would challenge – I would challenge – any artist of any era to draw with a Rapidograph too. Directly on paper? I asked. “Oh, yeah, right on paper,” he said. “You can not be wrong.” I quoted Ingres to him. Ingres said: “It takes 30 years to learn to draw and three days to learn to paint.” Hockney recognized that there was something in there. Do you think you are improving yourself? I asked. Better than those 70s drawings with the Rapidograph? Hockney thinks a bit. “I think I’m doing better,” he said. “I think so.”
Proof of this modest assertion can be found in the charcoal drawings of “The Arrival of Spring”. Charcoal is a difficult medium, as difficult in its own way as the Rapidograph pen. “It’s pretty tough, charcoal,” Hockney said. “I pointed out that you cannot get your hands on the drawing. You will stain it. And there is a scale limit. These 25 charcoal drawings of Hockney are probably as large as they can get, drawing in the open air, as Hockney did, face to face with the scene he was depicting. The results are amazing: in a simple black and white charcoal you see snow, blackthorn with white spring flowers in the hedges, a bright sun casting harsh shadows, trees reflecting in muddy puddles. Stand close and marvel at the poise and bravery of the technique. Once again, the pure virtuosity shown by Hockney poses an unacknowledged challenge: can another painter of any reputation today do this?
We spoke later about drawing and the technical requirements it imposes on the artist. “They don’t teach drawing in art schools anymore,” Hockney said. “It’s criminal. Teaching drawing teaches people to look.” So who is in your pantheon of the great masters of drawing? I asked him. “Ingres, Degas and van Gogh. And Rembrandt,” he said. And Picasso, I added. He agreed. “And Toulouse-Lautrec,” he continued. I said, and Egon Schiele? Better than Klimt, I say. “No, Klimt can be really good,” Hockney said. “I once saw a naked Klimt, drawn with a green pencil and a red pencil, very soft. Unbelievable.”
I said it was very obvious when an artist, even acclaimed, even valued, couldn’t draw. Hockney agreed – yes, you could tell right away, it was very obvious indeed. I had a list of names I wanted to pass on to him, famous and fabulously wealthy artists who had absolutely no talent for drawing, but I felt he wasn’t going to pick anyone. Hockney is truly her own man. Any argument on merit, on preeminence, is ultimately useless. The proof is there in front of you: on paper, on canvas, on iPad.
The almost forgotten ancient Greek poet Archilochus (c. 680-645 BC) invented an enduring adage during his lifetime. He wrote: “The fox knows a lot of things, but the hedgehog knows a great thing. It’s a fascinating exercise to apply this distinction to important artists and to see how the world is divided into hedgehogs and foxes. Among the hedgehogs, with their only “big” thing, there are Proust, Brahms, Lucian Freud, Ibsen, Francis Bacon and Braque, for example. Among the Foxes, who know a lot of things, there is Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, Picasso, Goethe, Dickens. Hockney is one of those surnames – the immense variety and remarkable accomplishment of his work is unmatched in our time. David Hockney is a fox.
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