“I’ve always loved chairs,” David Hockney once noted. “They have arms and legs, like people.” In his paintings, drawings, photocollages, and even sculptural installations, Hockney has returned repeatedly to the chair as a subject, using it as a stand-in for the human body. And in portraits of family and confidants, the subjects are often depicted in spaces empty but for the chairs in which they sit.
Hockney’s Gauguin's Chair (1988) is a still life, a portrait and an artistic homage all at once. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted Gauguin's Chair in honour of the titular artist, with whom van Gogh had a close though fractious relationship, and who had visited him in his adopted home of Arles the year the work was painted. Van Gogh depicts Paul Gauguin’s chair at an oblique angle, its green and yellow-striped cushion supporting two books and a lit candle resting in a chamber stick, its halo echoed by an illuminated wall sconce in the background. A century later, Hockney’s take on van Gogh’s canvas – one of two such re-creations he painted – reimagines van Gogh’s tribute to his Post-Impressionist compatriot: Squared off to the picture plane and free of the books and candlestick, this version of Gauguin’s Chair suggests a particularly deadpan portrait, as if the absent body of the painter is boldly facing the viewer, the “limbs” of the chair angled with a gentle sense of insouciance.
DAVID HOCKNEY, GAUGIN'S CHAIR, 1988.
As in van Gogh’s version, Hockney has composed his painting in jewel-like complementary colours: the background's green-and-red sequence and the chair's purple-and-yellow pairing achieve a pulsating, nearly electric optical effect. The chair’s splayed legs, rendered in Hockney’s signature warped perspective, recall the artist's explorations of how three-dimensional space, when flattened onto a canvas, can nevertheless coalesce into something like the experience of human sight, with its ever-shifting vantage points. This keen interest in the nature of perception has only reinforced Hockney’s deep belief in the medium of painting – he once said, “I’m quite convinced painting can't disappear because there's nothing to replace it. The photograph isn't good enough. It's not real enough.”
Hockney’s dedication to constant experimentation in pursuit of ensuring that painting remains vibrantly “irreplaceable” has led to an extraordinary body of work, produced over more than five decades. Frequently described as Britain's greatest living artist, Hockney is currently the subject of a retrospective at Tate Britain, on view through 29 May, which will travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.