“Los Angeles is a very sexy city, partly because it is the most ‘Mediterranean’ of American cities—the climate is sunny, the people are less tense than New York, life goes on at a slower rate. When I arrived I had no idea if there was any kind of artistic life there, and that was the least of my worries. I found out later that there were quite a few good artists in Los Angeles, and I got to know them, but they weren’t the main attraction which California had for me.” (David Hockney cited in Peter Webb, Portrait of David Hockney, New York, 1988, p. 69)
A critical early landmark of David Hockney’s era-defining painted visions of Los Angeles, Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles encapsulates the very genesis of his lifelong enchantment with the magnetic allure of Southern California. Painted in February – March of 1964, Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles is significantly regarded as one of the very first paintings that Hockney made after arriving in the city in January of that year, having arranged for an exhibition at The Alan Gallery in New York with pictures he was to paint in California. Exemplifying the artist’s earliest impressions of the city, the present work sees Hockney re-interpreting the archetypal innocuous mid-century architecture of a downtown Los Angeles office building through his trademark acerbic wit and irreverent painterly aplomb. The present work reduces the topography of a specific city square in downtown L.A. to pure form, evoking the innocuous cool of the place through paring down his representation of the Pacific Mutual Life insurance building to the cubic linearity most closely associated with the tenets of Modernism. Populating the composition with sensuously sprouting palm trees, Hockney’s scene is evocative of the artist’s singular attraction to the life he found beneath the brilliant California sunlight. Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles belongs to a rare and exclusive group of paintings of commercial and public buildings in Southern California that Hockney executed in the years between 1964-1966. Of the approximately 5 other significant canvases in this series, 3 belong to renowned museum collections: Plastic Tree Plus City Hall (1964, Rhode Island School of Design Museum); Savings and Loan Building (1966, Smithsonian American Art Museum); and Medical Building (Tate Gallery). Importantly, the present work was included in Hockney’s seminal first American exhibition at Charles Alan’s gallery, alongside such renowned early paintings as California Art Collector; Boy About to Take a Shower; Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills; and Cubist Boy with Colorful Tree. Furthermore, acquired in April 1974 by the pioneering Los Angeles dealer Paul Kantor, Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles has remained in the same family collection until the present day.
In London, Hockney’s expectations of Los Angeles were colored by John Rechy’s novel City of Night, released the previous year; it was the underbelly of sexual promiscuity centered around Pershing Square that provided a backdrop for the desire and attraction Hockney held for the city. Hockney recalls, “I thought it was a marvelous picture of a certain kind of life in America. It was one of the first novels covering that kind of sleazy sexy hot night-life in Pershing Square.” (Nikos Stangos, ed., David Hockney by David Hockney, New York, 1976, p. 97) In Rechy’s novel, the author wrote: “I was seeing Pershing Square, Los Angeles, now for the first time…the nervous fugitives from Times Square, Market Street SF, the French Quarter — masculine hustlers looking for lonely fruits to score from…the scattered junkies, the small-time pushers, the queens, the sad panhandlers, the lonely exiled nymphs haunting the entrance to the men’s head, the fruits with the hungry eyes and jingling coins; the tough teenage chicks — ‘dittybops’ — making it with hot hustlers… all amid the incongruous piped music and the flowers — twin fountains gushing rainbow colored: the world of lonely America squeezed into Pershing Square.” (John Rechy, City of Night, New York, 1963) Immediately upon his arrival, Hockney sought out the Pershing Square he imagined in his fantasies; like a modern-day Gauguin, Hockney endeavored to find his Eden. After cycling hours from Santa Monica—not yet realizing the long distances in LA were meant to be traveled by car—Hockney was surprised to encounter not the seedy bustling activity he expected, but rather a far more salubrious and sanitary environment that had cleaned up dramatically since its heyday of the 1950s. Nevertheless, Pershing Square still represented for Hockney the symbolic emblem of his ideal fantasies of California; as such the present work significantly embodies the very beginnings of Hockney’s fascination with the landscape that would continue to dominate his work for decades: "Emptiness rather than the life of the bars attracted Hockney as he started to paint a city which he was never to show as bustling or populous but only as building fronts and street signs." (Andrew Causey cited in John A. Walker, Cultural Offensive: America's Impact on British Art Since 1945, London, 1998, p. 136)
In his paintings of Los Angeles from the 1960s, David Hockney defined a visual identity for the city—a historical fact perhaps no better represented than the use of one of Hockney’s early California paintings on the cover of Reyner Banham’s canonical 1971 study of the city, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. For artists in the 1960s, flatness was the essence of modernity, an insistence emphasized by Clement Greenberg; Hockney’s paintings of Modernist buildings represented the landscape in parallel plane to the surface of the canvas, creating a tension between the façade of the architecture and the flatness of the picture. In 1964, Hockney would have seen Ruscha’s paintings of Standard gasoline stations at Ferus Gallery, another body of work that took the streets of Southern California as their subject. Constantly engaging with art history, in his depictions of the California cityscape Hockney locates the precise regularity of minimalist art through the grid-like forms found in the rectilinear mid-century modern architecture dominant in Los Angeles. Of his paintings’ formal concerns, the artist noted: “Buildings, roads, sidewalks were all straight lines, because that’s what L.A. looks like in the flatlands: long straight roads, right angles, cubes.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (and travelling), David Hockney, 1988, p. 85) Commenting from a distance on the burgeoning field of American Minimalism in the 1960s, Hockney’s painting establishes a critical position in the context of the American art scene at this time: “The fact that the surface of this painting is emphasized as a substantial object in its own right suggests that Hockney did have a genuine interest in, and appreciation of, Modernist Abstraction.” (Paul Melia and Ulrich Luckhardt, David Hockney: Paintings, New York, 1994, p. 80) Indeed, Hockney’s rendering of sharp-edged modern buildings, exemplified by the present work, propose a new perspective on the sterility of minimalist art. Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles interrupts the banality of the office building with stalks of lushly painted palm trees, disrupting the regularity of the building’s lines with the foliage sprouting vertiginously in an ordered row out from the ground. For Hockney, the openness of the Southern California landscape and its architecture reminded him also of Italy, encouraging him to borrow pictorial and compositional notions from artists like Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico. As Hockney explained to Melvyn Bragg in a 1972 interview, “There were no paintings of Los Angeles, people then didn’t even know what it looked like. And when I was there they were still finishing some of the big freeways. I remember seeing, within the first week, a ramp of freeway going up into the air, and at first it looked like a ruin and I thought, my God this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!” (David Hockney cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery (and travelling), David Hockney, 2017, p. 67)
Furthermore, Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles crucially displays the artist’s formative radical experimentation with various technical and compositional concerns at the beginning of his storied career. Evincing his ongoing dialogue with abstraction, Hockney’s painting is dominated by straight edges and simplified shapes—the primary image is isolated in the center of the composition, framed by a flat background and three strips of color approximating the city street that runs along the bottom of the picture. Possessing an arresting immediacy that evokes the format of a Polaroid photograph, the present work exemplifies Hockney’s challenging of classic representational art by avoiding any suggestion of illusionistic perspectival space. Instead—likely parodying Clement Greenberg’s insistence on a central, symmetrical composition in his organization of space—Hockney’s painting captures the essence of a place, while explicitly disavowing traditional notions of landscape painting. Immediately predating the paintings of houses, pools, and lawns that would occupy his practice in the later 1960s, the radical and deeply significant Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles captures Hockney’s earliest impressions of the city that would come to inspire, excite, and shape his brilliant artistic vision, reflecting a period of immense creative innovation for the artist. As Hockney recalls, “California did affect me very strongly... I instinctively knew I was going to like it. And as I flew over San Bernardino and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I have ever been in arriving in any city.” (David Hockney cited in Exh. Cat., London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, David Hockney, Paintings, Prints and Drawings, 1960-70, 1970, p. 11)
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