Basking in the warm orange glow of the California sunshine, David Hockney’s California Interior from 1985-1986 embodies the dazzling painterly zest which characterizes his most beloved works. While Hockney has consistently revived the storied traditions of figurative, landscape, and still-life painting throughout his prolific career, nowhere is such a revival more evident than in his series of paintings based on the familiar interiors in which he lived and worked. Revealing an unprecedented representation of space that beckons the viewer into intimate acquaintance with the artist’s personal habitat, California Interior is a masterful example of the emotive power and bold compositional progress that defines his radically experimental works of the 1980s.
In California Interior, Hockney makes explicit the glorious oasis that Los Angeles represented to an artist born and bred in the harsh North of England. Setting the scene for a sun-bathed room, the painting depicts a table with two chairs set atop geometric expanses of electric orange, tangerine, and gorgeous magenta that indicate the woodwork of the floor and ceiling. Further breaking up the fluidity of the picture plane and creating a voluminous space, Hockney paints flat geometric sections of light and dark grays punctuated by a vista filled with luscious turquoises, speckles of lush verdant greens, and gorgeous yellow flourishes. Hockney has taken great care to leave his brush strokes visible so that the viewer is able to trace his movement across the expanse of the surface, instilling the interior space with a vivid immediacy. In Hockney’s own words, the present work encapsulates his desire to “create a painting where the viewer’s eye could be made to move in a certain way, stop in certain places, move on, and in doing so, reconstruct the space across time for itself” (Lawrence Weschler, “A Visit with David Hockney,” in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, David Hockney, 1988, p. 93).
Executed during a time of innovation in the studio, California Interior reflects a critical stylistic shift in Hockney’s production in the mid-1980s following his experimentation with polaroid photocollages. Although Hockney had long used photography as a source material for his painting practice, beginning in 1982, he embarked upon a period of radical experimentation with photography as a medium unto itself. Given the ability of his Polaroid camera to instantly reproduce pictures, Hockney conceived the idea to represent a space through dozens of photos taken seconds apart from slightly different angles. The resulting photocollages present time and motion as a fractured yet fluid experience of reality. As Hockney elaborated, “It seemed that these pictures had added a new dimension to photography. I wanted to put time into the photograph more obviously than just in the evidence that my hand pressed the shutter…A good painting has real ambiguities which you never get to grips with, and that’s what’s so tantalizing” (the artist in Meredith Brown, “A Bigger Photography,” in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain (and traveling), David Hockney, 2017-2018, p. 125).
In California Interior, Hockney is simultaneously the quintessential contemporary artist, who tenaciously embraces technological progress, as well as the staunch traditionalist, resolutely reliant on the weight of art history to inform and improve his style. Compounding the influence of his explorations in photography, in 1984 Hockney visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York several times, where he was first introduced to and immediately captivated by ancient Chinese scroll painting. That same year he serendipitously discovered George Rowley’s 1947 book The Principles of Chinese Painting, from which he studied alternate approaches to the Western fundamentals of traditional perspective. Hockney was transfixed by the intelligence of Chinese scroll paintings to incorporate the viewer into the scene—not outside of it—by sectioning the picture plane into multiple segments based on various viewpoints.
Taking the Chinese technique one step further, Hockney turned to the teachings of the Cubists, who not only sought to divide the picture plane but truly fragment and distort it. Visually similar to the flattened interior anatomy of Matisse’s Red Studio, the present work reveals Hockney’s break from an accurate architectural rendering of the space. Hockney collapses the planes and angles of the picture plane to give the suggestion of multiple vantage points. In a manner reminiscent of Cézanne or Picasso, Hockney’s cubist-leaning space in California Interior allows discrete moments to not only coincide, but to miraculously coexist upon the canvas in the truest expression of reality—in a manner that “comes closer to how we actually see—which is to say, not all at once, but in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build into our continuous experience of the world” (the artist in Lawrence Weschler, “True to Life,” The New Yorker, 9 July 1984, p. 62). In the present work we find the full exertion of Hockney’s quintessential playfulness and liberated gusto, revealing how the artist clearly delights in the spirited rendering of his familiar interior surroundings. Simultaneously recalling the work of mighty modernist painters while exuding an utterly contemporary feel, California Interior occupies a privileged place in the entirety of Hockney’s oeuvre.
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