A consummate virtuoso of the paint medium, David Hockney completed Steps with Shadow (Paper Pool 2) in 1978 as part of a series of Paper Pools from his stay with friend and artist Ken Tyler at the latter's home in Bedford Village, New York. Originally intended as only a stopover on Hockney’s way to California, his time on the East Coast between August and October 1978 proved to be a particularly fertile creative period during which he made the entire series of Paper Pools, showing the artist’s unwavering receptivity to new stimuli.
Steps with Shadow (Paper Pool 2) continues the fascination with the glistening, ethereal surfaces of the swimming pools that Hockney encountered upon his arrival in Southern California in January 1964. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, London in 1962, Los Angeles’ vivid light and alluring colors marked a stark change from post-war Britain, where “private domestic swimming pools were virtually unheard of […] and so would have epitomized the exoticism and eroticism of Hockney’s new environment” (Chris Stephens in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain (and traveling), David Hockney, 2017, p. 67). The milieu of the West Coast was undoubtedly hugely formative for Hockney, whose iconic landscapes of the 1960s emerged from the progressive and liberal attitudes he encountered there.
The present work extends ideas acquired from the artist’s time in California: compared with the West Coast extroversion of the pools, exemplified by the exuberant dynamism captured in works such as A Bigger Splash, Steps with Shadow (Paper Pool 2) instead plays on ideas of reflection: of water’s physical properties but also to prompt the viewer to look inward. The opacity and clearly-defined borders of the California pictures exclude the viewer; the distressed edges and cropped viewpoint in the present work absorb them, inviting them to the pool’s edge.
Steps with Shadow (Paper Pool 2) is the result of an experimental technique that Hockney learned from Tyler and first used in the Paper Pools. It signifies a major shift in the artist’s subsequent work. Tyler had attended the Art Institute of Chicago and studied under the direction of Marcel Durassier, the French master printmaker who had worked with the titans of modernism, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso; Hockney was ready to receive his expertise. The present work was produced by layering together individually-colored, hand-made pulped paper which would then be passed through a high-pressure hydraulic press, demonstrating a maturing of the artist’s processes and formal procedures. Through narrowing and brightening his palette, the outcome is a work that has much in common with the paintings of his revered contemporaries, Richard Diebenkorn and Art Informel artist Jean Dubuffet.
The elegant simplicity of the forms belies the thorough preparation and the density of art historical references that saturate the work. Hockney studied Tyler’s pool in New York at different times of day through both Polaroid shots and drawings, and thereby acquired a full and intimate understanding of the light and color changes on the water between dawn and dusk. The interest in reproducing variations on a scene under fluctuating atmospheric conditions has a canonical pedigree as the Impressionists’ calling-card, echoing Monet’s celebrated series of cathedrals, waterlilies and haystacks. Only three years earlier, Hockney stated in an interview that he was adamant about no longer working in series for fear of being stifled creatively; here, however, he found himself doing precisely that upon realizing the paper pulp method’s potential for innovation. The series also shows an affinity with the cut-outs of Hockney’s immediate predecessor, Matisse; both celebrate the exuberance of color and share a preoccupation with exploring the potential of paper that goes beyond being merely a surface to receive marks, and instead to bring it center-stage.
A playful self-referentiality that was to become a hallmark of postmodernist tendencies in art is employed in the present work. The paper pulp process was not only employed for its potential to stimulate and expand Hockney’s practice, but also because it was perfect for the pool theme, establishing an equivalence between the means of representation and the subject because of the considerable amounts of water involved in the method. “In some of these pieces, [Hockney] was so concerned to emphasize the inherent wetness of water in a swimming pool (rather than, say, its transparency) that he used over a thousand gallons; ‘in a watercolor you only use a cupful,' [Hockney] wryly remarked” (Ulrich Luckhardt and Paul Melia, Eds., David Hockney, 2011, p. 130). Equally, the use of daringly simple shapes to evoke a quotidian subject suggests a ludic engagement with, and subversion of the frequent high-mindedness of abstraction, and particularly a subtle riposte to the works of the New York School.
The present work can be summarily described as an extension of the acclaimed swimming pool imagery of the 1960s that decisively made Hockney a household name. Here, it is translated into a wholly new idiom through a remarkable economy of means, paying respect to canonical art history while simultaneously pre-empting several postmodernist tendencies in art. Hockney is a talented juggler, balancing the spinning plates of abstraction and representation; the influences of the East and West coasts and past and future in perfect equilibrium, all the while captivating his viewers.
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