Famously stating “whatever your medium is you have to respond to it,” Hockney’s Chair and Marinka are as much responses to the qualities inherent to drawing, as they are the artist’s personal life and experiences (David Hockney, That’s the Way I See It, London 1993, p. 48). Superlative of the naturalism that preoccupied Hockney’s work throughout the 1970s, the subject of the present works originate from the artist’s life, be it the people he met, places he visited, or media he consumed. Hockney stated, “we can’t all be seeing the same thing; we are all seeing something a bit different” (David Hockney, That’s the Way I See It, London 1993, 14). As both Chair and Marinka come from autobiographical sources, they give unparalleled insight into Hockney’s perspective on the world, underscoring the artist’s ability to make the mundane appear extraordinary.
The personal nature of Hockney’s source imagery, particularly his portraits, lends his work a distinct clarity and intimacy. Throughout decades of debate over the primacy of figuration and abstraction in the art world, portraits, such as Marinka, have endured as a central tenet of Hockney’s oeuvre, and the artist has mastered the form as a means of expression. In fact Hockney’s drawings of Marinka Watts were completed at a time when Hockney, in unity with his friend and fellow artist R.B. Kitaj, began taking a more public stance on the case for the figure in art. Marinka and Hockney were introduced through Hockney’s longtime assistant Mo McDermott, and immediately became friends despite their fifteen-year age difference. The drawings of Marinka, such as the present work, include the only female nudes Hockney created, other than those of Celia Birtwell, one of the most prominent models in his work. As Marinka recalls “We modelled on Sundays. I’d go over there very early and we’d have breakfast and he’d read the papers. The he would start drawing and he wouldn’t stop until he’d finished. He did five drawings, three clothed or semi clothed and two nude. He was very meticulous. I remember he used to peer over his glasses. That was a very particular look” (Christopher Simon Sykes, David Hockney: The Biography, 1975-2012, New York 2014, p. 52)
A passionate student of the canon, especially that of European Modernism, Hockney’s drawings such as Marinka give new context to a lineage of figurative portraiture. In the present work, the subject lies in various stages of completion. Her body is delineated with thick outlines of vibrant turquoise and muted pink, leading up to her face which is built up and amplified with additional contours of orange and red. Despite the lack of naturalistic color in the composition, Hockney’s subject radiates an effervescence and vitality that mimics lived perception. Captured in a state of repose, the subject’s eyes stare out of the picture plane with an assuredness and ease that attests to the trust between the artist and model. Consistent with the artist’s career-long study and use of art historical precedent, Marinka pays homage to the color relationships first employed by the Fauves, and the geometric framework of Cézanne.
Executed in 1976, Chair explores an equally rich arena in Hockney’s oeuvre. As a still life, the composition lacks a corporeal presence, yet the artist treats his subject with the same attention and care he would take with a person in a portrait. Empty chairs are a prominent motif in Hockney’s body of work, and, as Paul Melia writes, that they “are among his favorite subjects does suggest that Hockney is disposed to metonymy” (Paul Melia, David Hockney: A Drawing Retrospective, San Francisco 1995, p. 20). The impression on the cushion and roped backing of the chair act as negative space, implying a former presence that can be perceived without being viewed directly. Rendered with an uncommon pictorial intensity, the empty chair evokes endless narrative possibilities, taking on a spirit and character more commonly associated with portraiture than still life.
Hockney’s drawings from the 1970s are uncompromising in their immediacy, recontextualizing seemingly quotidian scenes so that they overflow with an indelible sense of life. The present works offer access to Hockney's creative process and conceptual framework, synthesizing his range of influences and experimental approaches into fully resolved images. Acting as testaments to Hockney’s superlative draftsmanship, Chair and Marinka are records of the artist’s lived experience, affording the rare opportunity to see as the artist sees.
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