This painting, like Hockney’s most important works, is steeped in art-historical reference. Here, the biomorphic shapes that dominate the composition, with their strange shadows and dreamlike quality, recall the metaphysical works of Giorgio de Chirico or the Surrealist landscapes of Yves Tanguy. Hockney’s vivid, saturated colours also evoke his Fauvist hero Henri Matisse, while his foreshortening of ground and compression of perspective clearly reveal his abiding interest in Cubism. Perhaps the most important feature of the present work, however, is its sheer painterliness, as Hockney’s mastery of stroke and texture come markedly to the fore. What About the Caves, in both its title and its execution, demonstrates the artist’s reassertion of the value of painting against a contemporary backdrop of installation art, performance, digitisation and new media. In reminding us of the very foundation of art – cave paintings – while also illustrating a variety of styles and influences from within its history, Hockney reaffirms his chosen medium as a valid and worthy artistic pursuit.
A visual precursor to his series of Very New Paintings, which were conceived and exhibited in 1992, What About the Caves shows Hockney returning to canvases with a greater freedom of invention in space and form. For a few years in the late 1980s and early '90s, Hockney had a fruitful period of creativity staging opera sets and expanding his painterly universe. The influence of that work is apparent in the present example, the flatness of the pictorial plane emulating that of a stage set, as the downstage figures appear to stretch backwards and join seamlessly with the upstage cliffs. These entwined fluid and lyrical forms explore spatial composition and the limits of realism and abstraction in a way that can be said to achieve Hockney’s goal of insinuating a multiplicity of perspectives in a single picture. Though Hockney has stated he is not a theoretician when it comes to art, he maintains a unique conceptual aspiration to fuse the languages of representation and abstraction into a more authentic depiction of reality. Combining a belief in the expressive potential of abstract painting with his practiced understanding of perception and illusionistic space, Hockney’s works from this period, including What About the Caves, are first and foremost astonishingly inventive responses to subjective experiences.
Of these 1990s pictures, Andrew Wilson writes: “…Hockney returned to Malibu and started on a series of paintings that fused all these spatial ideas together to create a language that, although formally abstract, was suggestive of landscape. Hockney believed that the forms of the painting – French curves, serpentine lines, swirls, tunnels, plans and cones – were a direct result of his being situated at Malibu, between the forces of mountains and ocean” (Andrew Wilson, ‘Experiences of Space’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain (and travelling), David Hockney, 2017, p. 147). These works represent the sum of Hockney’s experiences in the preceding years – from Malibu landscapes to London opera houses – and yet, through their inventive abstract compositions, move his oeuvre forward in a new direction. Fragmented, non-representational, and viewed through the prismatic lens of the historical canon, What About the Caves is a classic example of the experimentation and innovation that has characterised Hockney’s masterful career.
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