Throughout his remarkable career, David Hockney has demonstrated both a profound passion for the great avant-garde traditions of the past and a voraciously creative vision for his own, category-defying artistic practice. Exemplifying this enigmatic balance in his oeuvre, Gauguin’s Chair from 1988 powerfully fuses an eloquent tribute to post-Impressionist masters Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin with the striking subversion of traditional perspective that defines many of Hockney’s masterworks. Painted in the same year as the artist’s first, critically acclaimed U.S. retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gauguin’s Chair is a truly exceptional example of the rich color palette, complex compositional structure, and intimately significant subject matter that characterize the very best of his output; testament to the caliber of the present work, Gauguin’s Chair has been featured in a number of international surveys of Hockney’s oeuvre, including the 1999 exhibition David Hockney: Espace/Paysage, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the 2001 survey David Hockney: Maleri 1960-2000, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek. Widely renowned as Britain’s greatest living painter—a sentiment decisively affirmed by the recent opening of his comprehensive career retrospective at the Tate Britain in February—Hockney’s remarkable output is predicated upon a unique ability to absorb, execute, and contribute to the greatest avant-garde movements of Twentieth Century while simultaneously defying strict categorization. In its seamless fusion of art historical homage and highly particularized artistic sentiment, Gauguin’s Chair encapsulates the indisputable vitality, innovation, and enchanting charm of Hockney’s inimitable painterly oeuvre.
Hockney’s enthusiasm and appreciation for Vincent van Gogh, so profoundly imbued in the luminescent canvas of Gauguin’s Chair, significantly predates his creation of the present work. Describing his engagement with the Post-Impressionist master, Hockney remarked, “I’ve always had quite a passion for van Gogh, but certainly from the early seventies it grew a lot, and it’s still growing. I became aware of how wonderful [his paintings] really were. Somehow they became more real to me…it is only recently they’ve really lived for me.” (David Hockney cited in Marco Livingstone, David Hockney, New York, 1997, p. 149) In his 1972 painting Chair and Shirt, Hockney offers an early indication of van Gogh’s influence upon his practice; in that fiercely poignant painting, which shows the discarded shirt of Hockney’s ex-lover, Peter Schlesinger, draped over a solitary, empty chair, Hockney emphatically demonstrates the evocation of human presence which distinguishes both his and van Gogh’s paintings. Several years later, Hockney declared his allegiance to van Gogh outright, among three other painterly masters, in his celebrated painting Looking at Pictures on a Screen, one of the last two canvases the artist painted in London before leaving for New York in the summer of 1977. In that work, now on permanent loan to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Hockney depicts his close friend, the art historian and critic Henry Geldzahler, as he considers four paintings by the artists Vermeer, Piero della Francesca, van Gogh, and Degas. Prominently displayed in pride of place, directly to the figure’s right, hangs a talismanic reproduction of van Gogh’s riotously glorious Sunflowers, the vibrant yellow petals echoed in the muted pastel hues of Gelzahler’s suit. The following summer, Hockney would dedicate himself to producing his own series of Sunflowers, rendered in the richly tactile medium of pressed color paper pulp. Indeed, in its vibrant homage to van Gogh’s iconic canvas, Gauguin’s Chair is itself a poignant counterpart to the artist’s earlier rendering of van Gogh’s Chair, which the artist was invited to create in celebration of the centenary of van Gogh’s arrival in Arles. Upon donating his van Gogh’s Chair to the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, Hockney turned to van Gogh’s infamous homage to his artistic comrade—and fierce competitor—Paul Gauguin. Summoning the saturated jewel tones of van Gogh’s sublime Arles canvases, he sets the plush emerald cushion and burnished mahogany frame of Gauguin’s abandoned armchair against a richly textural background of animated brushstrokes, echoing the variegated emerald wallpaper of the 1888 composition in the saturated, variegated green of his own vibrant canvas.
Even as he offers a vivid homage to van Gogh’s revered painting, Hockney infuses the present work with his own characteristic playfulness and highly personalized aesthetic, effortlessly straddling the parallel modes of art historical precedent and a pioneering contemporary practice. Breaking with the original composition, he radically collapses traditional single-point perspective to depict each side of the chair, not as it would be seen through a window or doorframe, but as if the viewer were within the plane of the picture, consciously and simultaneously connecting multiple vantage points. In a manner reminiscent of Paul Cézanne or Pablo Picasso, Hockney’s flattened space allows discrete moments to not only coincide, but to miraculously coexist upon the canvas in the truest expression of reality. The altered perspective of the present work renders it a uniquely powerful tribute; here, unlike in van Gogh’s original painting, Gauguin’s empty chair faces the viewer, Hockney, and van Gogh. This warping of traditional perspectival space, which characterizes Hockney’s output of the late 1980s, stems from the artist’s desire to paint 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.” (David Hockney cited in Lawrence Weschler, “True to Life,” The New Yorker, July 9, 1984, p. 62) Replacing the flickering candlelight of the 1888 painting with a radiant, all-over luminosity, Hockney infuses Gauguin’s Chair with the warm, ever-present sunshine of Los Angeles, filling the painting with the dazzling, liberating zest which characterizes his painterly oeuvre. Reflecting upon Gauguin’s Chair and its sister painting, Hockney reveals, “I’ve always loved chairs: they have arms and legs, like people…There is a presence in the two paintings – van Gogh and Gauguin. They’re not just empty chairs.” (Martin Bailey, “What Hockney Thinks of Van Gogh,” The Art Newspaper, October 9, 2015, n.p.) A remarkably intimate engagement with his art historical predecessors, Gauguin’s Chair emphatically demonstrates Hockney’s ability to merge the painterly techniques of the past with his own distinctive, inventive, and remarkably intimate experience of reality.
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