David Hockney’s The Only One with Waves is emblematic of the artist’s virtuosic technical skill and unyielding curiosity. Completed during a period of intense creativity, the present work simultaneously speaks to Hockney’s past artistic breakthroughs, as well as developments yet to come. The Only One with Waves gives unparalleled insight into the artist’s development and process, capturing Hockney in a transition from mimetic representation to abstraction, illustrating the power of the ocean with myriad painterly techniques and the kaleidoscopic use of color for which is the artist is best known.
Between 1987 and 1992 Hockney had a fruitful period of creativity staging opera sets all the while still expanding his painterly universe. Executed in 1991, the influence of Hockney’s work on set design is abundantly apparent in the present work. The Only One with Waves debuted at Chicago's Richard Gray Gallery from January to February 1992, timed to coincide with the opening of Puccini’s Turandot at the Lyric Opera of Chicago which featured Hockney’s set design. Emulating the flatness of a stage set, the canvas squeezes the pictorial plane, blocking entry into the tumultuous landscape. Hockney also channels the music of the Opera in his composition; the landscape swells in a crescendo while evoking imagery of the canyons and valleys off the Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu’s breaking waves. It is not hard to imagine Hockney riding in his convertible with the music at full blast, peaking in line with the rhythm of the road he traveled. The present work with its vibrant hues evokes Kandinsky’s recognition of music’s ability to synthesize emotion in people, and his attempt to paint the sensation of sound into his works. In Kandinsky’s Composition No. 4, executed in 1911, movement and sound represented by color and line, become conduits for human emotion, just as the crest and fall of Hockney's waves and the rich colors of his landscape echo his own internal dialogue.
Few artists are as associated with a single motif as Hockney is with swimming pools. The staple of Southern Californian backyards, the pool not only afforded Hockney respite from the grays of England but also provided him with an opportunity to be an observer: of landscape, of people; of colors, of light. Hockney once remarked, “Here in California you see more things, you see differently. You see brighter colors. And I want to use color – I want to get some sunlight in” (David Hockney quoted in Jan Butterfield, “David Hockney: Blue Hedonistic Pools”, The Print Collector’s Newsletter, vol. 10, no. 3, 1979, pp. 73-76). When thinking about Hockney, it is impossible to divorce his interest in pools from his formal interest in depicting light. The present work highlights Hockney’s technique of depicting light learned from his years outside the pool. Light in The Only One with Waves is stronger, more direct, because of the abstracted landscape’s proximity to the water and is further enhanced by the bright bold colors.
While the landscape verges on abstraction, Hockney’s beloved water remains a key feature of the present work. Like Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hockney's wave rises and rolls forward across the canvas, the power of the ocean taking shape behind it. The artist's use of white space - or void - in his composition, is a further nod to Eastern art philosophy and the Japanese woodblock print tradition. Eschewing traditional Western perspective further renders the elements in the composition to an almost crude and distorted flatness. As Hockney remarked to Lawrence Weschler, it “comes closer to how we actually see—which is to say, not all at once but in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world” (Lawrence Weschler, “True to Life,” The New Yorker, 9 July 1984, p. 62).
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