New York, Landau-Alan Gallery, David Hockney New Paintings and Drawings, 1967, no. 2
Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, David Hockney, 1970, no. 38
New York, William Beadleston, Inc., David Hockney in America, 1983, no. 11, illustrated in colour; illustrated in colour on the front cover
Los Angeles, County Museum of Art; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; London, Tate Gallery, David Hockney: A Retrospective, 1988-89, p. 156, pl. 35, illustrated in colour
Tokyo, Takashimaya Art Gallery; Kagawa, Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art; Fukushima, Koriyama City Museum of Art; Chiba, Chiba Sogo Museum of Art, Hockney in California, 1994, p. 57, no. 7, illustrated in colour
Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, Made in California: Art, Image and Identity 1900-2000, 2000-01, p. 201, illustrated in colour
“There is something jarring about the apparent depopulation of Los Angeles… Unconsciously, perhaps, a sense of isolation emerges, not so much the sombre melancholia of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings as a feeling of aloneness as indiced by Edward Hopper’s pictures of deserted American city streets.” Marco Livingstone, David Hockney, London 1981, p. 108
Without question the most significant painting by Hockney to come to auction, the present work is one of the iconic images of the 1960s. Cleansing the air of the previous decade which had seen Abstract Expressionism gradually suffocating under its own earnestness, David Hockney’s Splash paintings saw him tackling the age old problem of how to create an illusion of light, space and volume with unprecedented vitality and innovation. Executed towards the end of 1966 whilst he was living in Los Angeles, The Splash is the second largest of the three paintings in the series and is regarded as being amongst his greatest achievements. Together with A Little Splash (Collection Steve Martin) and A Bigger Splash (Tate Modern, London) (fig. 1), this painting first established Hockney’s international reputation as the leading artist of his generation and revealed his singular ability to absorb and resolve the disparate aesthetic and technical concerns of Minimalism, Modernist Abstraction and Pop Art in a style entirely his own.
Even by the time of his graduation from the Royal College in 1962, Hockney had already made a name for himself as enfant terrible of the British art scene although it was not until he settled in California two years later that he developed the more mature, naturalistic style for which he is renowned. Los Angeles was a place he had been admiring from a distance for years through magazines, books and movies, and actually moving to live there in 1966 had a profound impact on his art and sense of identity in a manner comparable to Gauguin’s trip to Tahiti. The foreign beauty and liberal culture of Hockney’s new surroundings prompted a stylistic as well as personal rebirth. “California did affect me very strongly,” Hockney explained. “As I flew over San Bernadino and looked down – and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I’ve ever been… I thought it was really terrific, I really enjoyed it, and physically the place did have an effect on me.” (‘David Hockney: An Interview’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, The Whitechapel Art Gallery, David Hockney, Paintings, Prints and Drawings 1960-70, 1970, p. 11)
The clarity of the light and landscape inspired his eye whilst the ‘California Dreaming’ life provided the hedonistic escape he had yearned for back in England. It was everything he had hoped it would be: a land of possibility, sun drenched houses, deep-blue pools, palm trees and beautiful bodies. The liberal culture of Los Angeles had been one of the main reasons for him visiting, and in 1966 he fell passionately in love with an eighteen year old boy named Peter Schlesinger. It was his first great romance and it brought to his work a previously absent assurance and visual directness. The Splash announced this new style of painting and it embodies all that he saw as attractive about the place: the warmth, the affluence and the pursuit of pleasure. “I began to paint California as it really appeared to me,” Hockney explained. “In 1965 for instance, I had been in Colorado when I did that picture of the Rocky Mountains. But I invented it. It wasn’t how they appeared. It was how I thought they might appear, in a Geography book or something. The ideas were really still artistic in that way and I just felt at times they should become more… instead of being inward I just wanted them to become outward a bit, and become more about life as it was. That’s when the paintings began to get more realistic, I began to be interested in light and things like that.” (ibid., p. 9)
Since the beginning, Hockney’s creative urge had been driven by a desire to explore the intricacies and ambiguities of perception and the swimming pools of Los Angeles presented him with a fresh challenge - that of depicting a substance in motion that is essentially transparent to the eye. It also involved another of his most-loved paradoxes: that of freezing in a still image something which is never still. He had attempted this previously in a series of ‘Shower’ paintings as well as in several portraits of his friends in pools such as Portrait of Nick Wilder. In the Splash paintings he responded to the challenge with even greater innovation and commitment, banishing the human presence altogether and replacing it with a dramatic post-dive aftershock.
The inspiration for The Splash came from a photograph he saw when browsing through the pages of magazine on how to build swimming pools on a Hollywood news stand. In the image, he immediately saw the great possibilities in having an active rather than flat pool surface and painted The Little Splash in just less than two days. Showing the corner of a Modernist glass-fronted house with a curved pool, in this preliminary version measuring just sixteen by twenty inches, although there is a clear relationship between A Little Splash and the larger two paintings, there is not the same sense of horizontality or abstract flatness. In The Splash which he painted next, he elaborated the composition on a much larger, square format of seventy two by seventy two inches and painted it using rollers, this time in his favourite acrylic. As well as devoting greater level of detail to the naturalistic elements and adding a distant hillside in the background, he continued the pool right the way across the picture surface this time in an unbroken horizontal plane whilst also extending the sky upwards. With the vivid blue sky and ultramarine pool taking up most of the canvas and neither giving no indication of perspective or tonal recession, Hockney ensured the composition remains assertively flat. “It was just about a striped painting.” (David Hockney cited in Nick Stangos, (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1984, p. 126)
The seeming insouciance and conscious naivety of execution is underwritten by Hockney's skill as a draughtsman and his remarkable facility in making paint do precisely what he wants. “The splash itself,” Hockney explained, “is painted with small brushes and little lines; it took me about two weeks to paint the splash. I loved the idea, first of all, of painting like Leonardo, all his studies of water, swirling things. And I loved the idea of painting this thing that lasts for two seconds; it takes me two weeks to paint this event that lasts for two seconds. Everyone knows a splash can’t be frozen in time, so when you see it like that in a painting it’s even more striking than in a photograph.” (Cited in Nick Stangos, ed., David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1984, p. 124)
The disparity between the appearance of the splash of water and its execution acts as a beacon for Hockney’s masterful ability as a painter and also as for the tension between illusion and abstraction. It recalls a theme which he had first examined in Picture Emphasizing Stillness (1962): that of the time taken to make the picture being offset against the instantaneous nature of its subject. Through the splash’s plume of white pigment, he similarly reveals the thin seams of perception underlying representational modes of painting. It is this dramatic play between tranquillity and intensity, between surface and depth that enhances the visual freedom of the white splash against the formal linearity of the grid-like composition. This also gives a whimsical nod to Abstract Expressionism and to the Action painting of Jackson Pollock (fig. 2). However, unlike the emphasis of emotional expression within the brushwork of his Pollock and de Kooning, Hockney’s splash is decisively flat and masks a painstaking process of stylised execution - similar to that of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Brushstroke’ paintings (fig. 3).
The purported objectivity and sense of distance from the subject reveals Hockney’s growing interest in photography which had sprung from the synthesized, superficial impression of reality he had seen presented by glossy American magazines. This is further suggested by the thick white border around the image which stresses the absolute artificiality of pictorial representation whilst creating the impression of a ‘picture within a picture’ similar to the theatrical illusion of his earliest works like A Play Within A Play (1963).
One of the most distinctive features of Hockney’s best work is its gentle direction of the way in which it is perceived, and The Splash is amongst his most carefully planned and inventive pictures. Through a combination of formal means, the illusion of space and Californian life is broken down to its distilled Minimalist essence. Although fundamentally representational - as well as figurative in the sense that a figure has just disappeared beneath the surface of the pool - his construction of the scene, stacking strips of colour like a house of cards, is conspicuously abstract. This reduced, highly stylised language shows a playful acknowledgment of the contemporary avant-garde as he simultaneously draws on time-suspended notions associated with Modernist abstraction, the flatness of Minimalism and the bold language and subject matter of Pop.
Leapfrogging conventional pedestals that had previously been considered essential for the creation and contemplation of art, Hockney here playfully explores and scrutinises the formal issues of contemporary painting with unprecedented invention and confidence. The geometric order of the composition is almost too still, too refined and too composed, and this enhances the drama of The Splash as it erupts out of the canvas to momentarily break the tension. There is a suggestion too that the coherence of the rest of the surface is on the brink of collapse - trembling with a similar internal force. Although located firmly in popular culture, like much of Hockney’s work, there is a powerful autobiographical narrative that emanates from its honesty of execution and close affinity to the events of his life. This was reflected by the title given to the film on Hockney’s life, A Bigger Splash, which like the present work, affirmed his position as one of the most influential and individual painters alive today.
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