Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Private Collection, New York
Private Collection, Florida
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007
Guest House Wall was painted while Hockney was living in London in the summer of 2000, working on completing his book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. The book is an ontological examination of forgotten drawing aids used to create the masterpieces of centuries gone by, such as the camera obscura and the camera lucida; drawing aids that Hockney himself had emulated in his reliance on unexpected technologies in art-making, from the Polaroid camera, through fax machines, to the iPhone and iPad.
One might argue that Hockney’s contemporaneous preoccupation with historic drawing-aids, which were specifically designed to translate the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image, informed the overt sense of flatness in the present work; perspective and recession are conspicuously absent from its composition. However, this lack of depth was actually a technique that Hockney used to imbue his work with a greater degree of phenomenological truth. In flattening his representation, he assumed that the viewer was not located in front of the picture, but within it – that their point of view was not behind his own, but in front. Ever since his forays into photography in the 1980s, Hockney had maintained that stereoscopic human vision does not formulate a landscape image in the same way that a camera does. Hockney thus developed his idiosyncratic mode of perspectiveless depiction in order to imbue his works with a greater degree of sensorial voracity: “I realised that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see, which is to say, not all-at-once but rather in discrete separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world” (David Hockney cited in: Lawrence Weschler, Cameraworks: David Hockney, New York 1984, p. 11). Thus, in the creation of this work, we understand that Hockney was not interested in a momentary snapshot of a specific garden scene, but rather in conveying his own view of a garden wall that he knew extremely well.
The flatness of the present work may also belie another of Hockney’s contemporaneous preoccupations: stage-set design. In the 1990s, he had designed numerous sets, particularly for operas, such as Tristan und Isolde, shown in the Los Angeles Music Center in 1997, and Placido Domingo’s Operalia 1994, which was broadcast live on Mexican television. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that the bright blue sky and hot pink wall are presented flush, as if stacked on top of each other in frieze-like layers on an auditorium back drop. In this context, we can even imagine the pebbled path and verdant grassy verge as a short buttressed stage, with the three trees positioned as players, deployed at differing depths so as to intimate dialogue. Hockney’s predilection for flatness in painting as inspired by set-design is best demonstrated in his 1963 painting Play-within-a-Play; it features a plainly depicted stage and backdrop curtain, and speaks directly to the manner in which Hockney allowed his other creative endeavours to influence and impact upon his painterly practice.
As with all of Hockney’s most important works, art-historical influence is rife in the present picture. The work of Edvard Munch provides worthy precedent for the depiction of trees in this work, not only for the left-hand clump, whose branches and leaves devolve into an amorphous ovoid of deep mottled green, but also in the central, bare-branched trunk, which zags across the composition in a manner that directly recalls the striking style of Munch's works such as The Garden in Asgardstrand. Meanwhile, in the warped palette of hot pink and red, we are reminded of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who allowed his paintings to saturate into hypnagogic scenes of chromatic melodrama in a directly comparable manner. We might even ascribe some more contemporary influence to the work: in the use of a tri-partite planar composition presented flat against the picture plane, as well as in the flat brick wall and sensitively depicted, almost characterised trees, this work puts the viewer in mind of another master of contemporary British painting, Peter Doig, whose works make use of all of these specific pictorial devices.
This painting is further significant for its role in charting the machinations of Hockney’s own painterly style. Executed at the dawn of a new millennium, it can be viewed as an early example of the artist’s fascination with the English landscape. Although it was completed in Hockney’s London garden, its bright tender depiction and warped saturated palette both seem to prefigure the glorious series of paintings of the East Yorkshire Wolds that the artist worked upon with unstinting devotion from 2005 until 2013. Prior to the late 1990s, Hockney’s investigations into landscape paintings were dominated by the sunny vistas of his adopted home in Southern California, or his journeys through the great American West and the storied topography of southern Europe; even by his farflung voyages to more exotic lands such as Japan, Mexico, and Egypt. However, in 1997, Hockney was drawn back to the United Kingdom with increasing regularity owing to his mother’s advancing age and the ill health of his close friend Jonathan Silver. From this point onwards, he immersed himself further and further into the English landscape, particularly glorifying his home country of Yorkshire, as he went on long drives into the countryside around his mother’s house. The present work seems then to represent a milestone within Hockney’s praxis. In its flatness and its architectural detail, and even in the predominance of its bright blue sky, it seems to look back to Hockney’s Californian past, and yet, particularly in details like the purple boughs of the trees, it looks forward to the celebrated series of Yorkshire paintings. The critic Marco Livingstone has summed up the significance of that group of works: “the paintings [Hockney] made of the Wolds are in purely technical terms – but also in their observational accuracy and evocation of space – the most commanding he has ever made” (Marco Livingstone, ‘Home to Bridlington: Routes to a Private Paradise’, in: Exh. Cat., Schwäbisch Hall, Kunsthalle Würth, David Hockney: Nur Natur/Just Nature, 2009, p. 188).
Guest House Wall is a transcendent work: compelling evidence for the manner in which Hockney called upon lessons learnt in photography and stage design in order to achieve his artistic goals, and absolute proof of the massive influence that art history has had upon his work. This work hovers between abstraction and figuration, exemplifying the manner in which Hockney playfully explores and intellectually scrutinises the formal issues of contemporary painting with unprecedented invention and confidence.
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