“I never thought the swimming pool pictures were at all about mere hedonist pleasure. They were about the surface of the water, the very thin film, the shimmering two-dimensionality…it’s that surface that fascinates me.”
Offering a sunlit glimpse of such innately American themes as Hollywood, leisure, sexuality, and suburbia of the 1950s and 1960s, Drawing of a Pool and Towel embodies the essence of Californian life that has inspired David Hockney throughout his illustrious career. Nowhere is Hockney’s genius more evident than in his iconic images of swimming pools, which evoke distinctive and remarkably intimate experiences of reality and memory. Playfully depicting the poolside atmosphere on paper through saturated color, sinuous line, and precise details like a half-full martini glass and open book, Drawing of a Pool and Towel stands as a vivid testament to Hockney’s singular artistic practice, illustrating the rich color palette, complex compositional structure, and intimately significant subject matter that characterize the very best of the artist’s celebrated oeuvre. Within the sundrenched world of Drawing of a Pool and Towel, as in so many of Hockney’s most iconic works, the swimming pool holds a particular significance, both as a visual representation of the very apotheosis of the stylish, American good life and as a key stylistic motif. Some of the most iconic works of the post-war canon, Hockney’s swimming pools reside in the collections of esteemed institutions including the Tate Modern, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Portland Art Museum; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Drawn to all that the swimming pool could represent – from love and lust to tranquility and leisure – Hockney was also intrigued by the formal challenges of depicting water, a subject which is at once unfixed and entirely transparent to the eye. Speaking to his fascination with the subject, the artists reveals, “Water in swimming pools changes its look more than any other form. The color of a river is related to the sky it reflects, and the sea always seems to me to be the same color and have the same dancing patterns. But the look of swimming-pool water is controllable – even its color is man-made—and its dancing rhythms reflect not only the sky but, because of its transparency, the depth of the water as well.” (The artist cited in, David Hockney by David Hockney, London, 1976, p. 104) Indeed, the sinuous yellow curls and curves of Drawing of a Pool and Towel depict the pool water as a dancing, twisting web, calling to mind calligraphic and rhythmic compositions of Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain paintings or the thunderous crimson crests and roaring riptides of Cy Twombly’s legendary Bacchus series.
In these works, Hockney likewise experimented with capturing the play of light and infinite patterns on the moving surface. “I never thought the swimming pool pictures were at all about mere hedonist pleasure,” says Hockney, “They were about the surface of the water, the very thin film, the shimmering two-dimensionality…it’s that surface that fascinates me; and that’s what those paintings are about really” (David Hockney quoted in: Lawrence Wechsler, “A Visit with David and Stanley Hollywood Hills 1987”, David Hockney: A Retrospective, Exh. Cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988, p. 81) The materiality of the work reveals the hand of the artist, enhancing the emotional and physical immediacy of the viewing experience. Rendering the scene in vivid colors that evoke the post-impressionist masters before him, Hockney creates an image built of chromatic planes and stylized lines that emphasize the flatness of two-dimensionality of the work. Subverting the viewer’s expectation of a single-perspective and three-dimensional space within the picture plane, Drawing of a Pool and Towel creates an alternate, illusionistic realm far more mesmerizing than that of the mimetic world.
"As I flew over San Bernardino and looking down and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I’ve ever been arriving at any other city."
The luminous blue surface of the pool evokes sultry summer evenings, warm breezes, azure skies, and indulgent cool waters, blurring the line between reality and memory. There is a great intimacy and immediacy to Hockney’s edenic tableau; the dappling of small blue marks to the right of the martini glass appears like water droplets left behind after getting out of the pool, and scattered details–a red striped pool towel, a beach ball, a martini glass, an open book–allude to the presence of a sunbathing figure who has just exited the scene. In the upper register of the work, Hockney dedicates the drawing to his friend designer Jean Léger. Jean Léger met Hockney in London in 1967, and the young, impeccably dressed quickly became part of Hockney’s electric entourage of friends who appear in many of his drawings around this time.
Hockney’s consistent return to the theme of water and swimming pools is tied to his fascination with the culture of California and the American West. Upon traveling from England to the West Coast for the first time in 1963, Hockney was struck by the region's persistent sunshine, bright color palette, and relaxing lifestyle. “As I flew over San Bernardino and looking down and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I’ve ever been arriving at any other city,” says Hockney. (David Hockney quoted in: John Albert Walker, Cultural Offensive: America’s Impact on British Art Since 1945, United Kingdom, 1998) Growing up under the cloudy skies of West Yorkshire made the contrast between England and the United States all the more striking. California, with all its glorious sunshine and heady optimism, immediately enchanted the young artist, and the permissive atmosphere allowed Hockney to express himself more completely than ever before. For Hockney, California became a place of personal and creative freedom, with the swimming pool as the symbolic embodiment of his new lifestyle. The swimming pool would become the setting for many of his major paintings of the 1960s and 1970s and Hockney’s iconographic representations of it the defining image in the cultural identity of Southern California.
A vivid expression of David Hockney’s defining motif, Drawing of a Pool and Towel is an exceptional example of the rich color palette, complex compositional structure, and intimately significant subject matter that characterize David Hockney’s most iconic masterpieces. The idyllic imagery and formal experimentation in Drawing of a Pool and Towel embody in visual expression the personal and artistic epiphanies that came with Hockney’s discovery of California. Hockney abstracts an illusion of space and Californian life into an essence that is entirely unique and multifaceted, absorbing and resolving the disparate concerns of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop art in a style entirely his own.