Having grown up in a comparatively conservative town, the excess of L.A. society fascinated Hockney. The Expressionistic style of his study days at the Royal College of Art in London faded away, replaced by a hybrid of Realism and Pop, executed in the vibrant colours for which he is best known. One might be tempted to see Hockey’s choices of subject as rather banal, but it is precisely the sudden normality of sunbathing or swimming that fascinated the young artist. The perfect modern villas with their carefully manicured lawns, the deeply deliberate palm trees lining the sunny boulevards; to Hockney, these were the trappings of something deeply foreign. These radical changes to his oeuvre were soon spotted by the cultural arbiters of the L.A. art scene, and Hockney was swept along for the ride. In particular he was drawn to the art collectors. In his words: “After I had been there a couple of months, I went to visit some collectors. I’d never seen houses like that. And the way they liked to show them off! They would show you the pictures, the houses, the garden” (David Hockney cited in: Exh. Cat., Kagawa, Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Hockney in California, 1994, p. 26)
The present lot depicts Betty Freeman, one of the patrons of music and the arts that took Hockney under her wing soon after his arrival in California. It is a study for a larger painting of the same name, one of Hockney’s best known masterpieces. The larger painting offers us a glimpse into a contemporary shrine, where both the artworks and the people are rendered relics by their presentation. The tanned and pink clad Freeman stands on a patio in the centre of the composition, flanked by a Le Corbusier chaise longue and an abstract sculpture. The lawn is abruptly ended by the concrete of the patio, and the proliferation of glass walls reminds us that this is a place made to be seen. Our voyeurism is validated. However, the present study reveals a slightly different image of Freeman. Without the art surrounding her, the viewer is forced to question the narrative of the work. Both pieces are, after all, deeply cinematic. The trope of the lone woman in her beautiful house evokes associations with Raymond Chandler inspired noir, and the unsubtle anachronism of the taxidermied head, a vital element carried over from this study to the final composition, forces us to confront the symbolism of the piece. The stag’s head is not only a vestige of the England Hockney has left behind – and indeed the contrary trappings of wealth in both countries – but it is a lifeless, trapped beast, stuffed and placed on the wall for decoration.
An homage to his patron and friend, as well as a wry acknowledgement of her lot in life, Beverly Hills Housewife epitomizes Hockney’s scrutiny of, and fascination with, Californian life. Discarding all unnecessary elements in his representation, Hockney joins Ed Ruscha as the chronicler of L.A. in the 1960s. In his words, “My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am" (David Hockney cited in: Exh. Cat., London, National Portrait Gallery, David Hockney Portraits, 2006, p. 39).
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