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Contemporary Art

Hockney Up Close

The British artist David Hockney has often said that he lives in the present. In a typical quote, he told The Guardian in 2015: “It’s always just what I’m doing now. I don’t reflect too much. I live now. It’s always now.” Yet lately, Hockney, who will turn 80 in July, has allowed his past to catch up to him: he has devoted himself to two projects that look back on his 60-year career and establish his legacy quite firmly. Taschen has just published what it  calls Hockney’s “visual autobiography,” an oversize, limited-edition, 500-page tome aptly titled A Bigger Book, produced in collaboration with the artist. And in February, a major travelling retrospective of Hockney’s work opens at Tate Britain, London. 


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DAVID HOCKNEY’S SELF-PORTRAIT WITH RED BRACES, 2003 (LEFT) AND HOCKNEY’S DOMESTIC SCENE, LOS ANGELES, 1 (RIGHT). © DAVID HOCKNEY. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD SCHMIDT.

The artist has been involved in the exhibition, advising selectively but not driving the overall concept. Was he ambivalent about looking back? “At the beginning, it was clear that he was thinking about the next work,” says Tate Britain curator Chris Stephens. “But I could feel, in the last nine months, that he was coming to terms with retrospection. He recently said to me, ‘I’ve made some good pictures.’ ”

The last major retrospective of Hockney’s work was in 1988, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For such a famously prolific artist, the past three decades represent several distinct styles and periods (realism, neo-Cubism), experiments with techniques both old and new (painting en plein air and drawing on an iPad, respectively) – and the creation of a whole lot of art. “He’s massively productive,” Stephens notes. “What’s exciting about our show is that the classic early works of the 1960s that people love will be seen in relation to what he’s done most recently and everything in between.” 

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DAVID HOCKNEY, GARDEN, A 2015 PAINTING OF HOCKNEY’S LOS ANGELES HOME. © DAVID HOCKNEY. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD SCHMIDT. 

An ambitious overview, the show begins with Hockney’s precocious student work and his slyly autobiographical, homoerotic subversions of the language of Abstract Expressionism made in London in the early 1960s. Also included are the well-known paintings of swimming pools and modern Southern California architecture completed after he moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, as well as numerous landscapes – from the multiple-perspective views of the canyons and hills of the 1980s to the colour-charged, back-to-his-roots depictions of Yorkshire 20 years later. Then there is photography, video and drawing as well as works from private collections that have never been shown publicly. 

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PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST (POOL WITH TWO FIGURES), 1972. © DAVID HOCKNEY. COURTESY ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES / JENNI CARTER.

The common thread connecting this production, Stephens says, “is a very serious interrogation of how we perceive the world and how to translate that world of space and time into two-dimensional art. There’s a close emotional engagement between him and whatever he’s painting, whether it’s a place or a person.” It turns out that Hockney is never not observing or engaged in what exists around him. “From the moment he gets up in the morning to the moment he goes to bed, it’s going on all the time – making, investigating, reading,” says Stephens. “All of it feeds into his artistic imagination.” 

“He’s the hardest-working man in painting,” agrees publisher Benedikt Taschen, Hockney’s friend and a devoted collector of his work. The two met around 20 years ago and live near each other in the Hollywood Hills. For years, they talked about collaborating on a SUMO, the kind of lavish volumes Taschen occasionally publishes, whose massive size requires a customised stand. “I thought, ‘How great if a book like this could one day be made about Hockney in glorious colour!’ ” Taschen exclaims. “And since he was not only close to my house but also to my heart, I had to make it work.” 

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BIGGER TREES NEARER WATER, WINTER 2008, A YORKSHIRE LANDSCAPE. © DAVID HOCKNEY. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD SCHMIDT.

Resting on a primary-coloured tripod by Marc Newson, Hockney’s $2,500 opus is limited to 10,000 signed copies. An additional four Art Editions of  250 copies each include an ink-jet print of an iPad drawing by the artist. Back in October, when A Bigger Book was released at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Hockney didn’t hide his pleasure: “I think my whole work was made for this SUMO because it has a lot of variety,” he said. “I know the book is going to last a hundred years, at least.” Hockney’s œuvre, no doubt, will last many hundreds more.

Meghan Dailey is Executive Editor of Sotheby’s and has written for The New Yorker, Interview and other publications.

David Hockney, Tate Britain, runs 9 February–29 May, then travels to Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  

David Hockney: A Bigger Book (Taschen, $2,500; £1,750).   

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