In 1995, the year Plant on Yellow Cloth was painted, Hockney was in a period of prolonged mourning. Henry Geldzahler, Hockney's closest and most valued confidant, died in 1994 of liver cancer at the age of 59. Where Hockney could once rely on the daily phone calls of his dearest of friends to keep him company, the artist now found his life and artistic practice deprived of one of its most ebullient sources of inspiration and stimulation. This death of a great mentor affected Hockney deeply. As recounted in Christopher Simon Sykes' biography of the artist, "Peter Adam visited [Hockney] in California and found him in a melancholy mood: 'sitting opposite me, reciting the long list of the departed, people he had known, shared a bed with or a drink. The emotion is still visible on his pale face as he lists the tragedies which had reached almost everybody he knew...The American hero of so many of his paintings, the sexy image of life and physical pleasure, the icon of healthy living, the American Dream, was no more'" (Christopher Simon Sykes, David Hockney: A Pilgrim's Progress: The biography, 1975-2012, p. 320). Surrounded by so much illness and death, Hockney had developed a habit of painting intimate flower still lifes for his friends as get-well cards. Ultimately, this tragic moment of immense loss served as a catalyst for the artist to paint with a renewed intensity and sense of observation, embarking on a series of still life paintings of flowers, from which the present Plant on Yellow Cloth emerged.
Returning to California, Hockney took advantage of the bright, clear ocean light to capture the delicate nuances of a bouquet of flowers. The paintings are composed in a classic still life format; vases containing stems and blooms are set upon implied table tops. Settling into his practice with increased vigor, Hockney chose a spot at the far end of the studio from which to paint his blooming subjects; into that corner streamed a crisp gold northern light. It was the beginning of an intense period of production for Hockney and one that revisited his interest in the genre at earlier stages of his career. He felt that it was an elemental part of an artist's practice to be able to render the soft lines and volumes contained in the form of a flower with clarity and authenticity. Not necessarily a mimetic type of authenticity, but rather of the kind championed first by the Impressionist painters, where the light and color of any given moment can differ drastically from the next; where the same object is constantly shifting and changing right in front of us. Hockney realized that in depicting a simple bouquet of flowers, there were an infinite numbers of ways that he could do so. Plant on Yellow Cloth is therefore more about the process of painting a still-life, than about the record of the object itself.
Hockney's intense occupation with his still-life series is a testament to how much he enjoyed the genre. The pleasure of painting is an essential element of his work. He said, "I think anyone who makes pictures loves it, it is a marvelous thing to dip a brush into paint and make marks on anything, even on a bicycle, the feel of a thick brush full of paint coating something. Even now, I could spend the whole day painting a door just one flat color" (the artist in Nikos Stangos. Ed., David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 28). The present still life calls to mind Henri Matisse's 1947 Still Life with Pomegranates with its brilliant use of raw color to juxtapose the objects against a flattened background. Looking at Matisse, Hockney developed an adept command of rendering a three dimensional space to be radically flattened just with the use of color. As in Matisse's Still Life with Pomegranates, Hockney completely eliminates a mimetic vanishing point and masterfully presents the viewer with a unique window into an intimate, interior space.
Flowers were very much on Hockney’s mind, as he had recently attended the 1995 exhibition Claude Monet, 1840-1926 at the Art Institute of Chicago. It had greatly inspired him: "I came out of that exhibition and it made me look everywhere intensely. That little shadow on Michigan Avenue, the light hitting the leaf. I thought: 'My God, now I've seen it. He's made me see it'… I came out absolutely thrilled'" (David Hockney and Paul Joyce, Hockney on Art: Conversations with Paul Joyce, New York 1999, p. 203). Hockney wanted his audience to have the same experience when viewing his paintings. The fact that the still life genre is an easily accessible format for both the artist and viewer allows the artist on the one hand to focus on the pure act of painting and the viewer on the other to enjoy the formal qualities of the work itself. The background is perhaps the most painterly element of the painting. The brushstrokes are vivid and clear. They function to close the space between background and foreground, flattening the image and dispensing with the aura of illusion. The vase could be resting on a windowsill or a table top. Like Monet, Hockney frees color from pictorial veracity and allows us to enjoy it purely as an impression or emotion. For his unabashed and innovative approach to subject matter, Hockney is without question one of the greatest figurative painters of the 20th century.
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