David Hockney’s joyous Moving Wisp brings together nearly every important historical source for the artist in a kaleidoscopic eruption of Fauvist-inspired color and line, abstraction and representation, painting for the stage and painting on canvas. Executed in 1995, the present work has resided in just two private collections since its acquisition from L.A. Louver in Venice, California, and emerges today as a paradigmatic example of the artist’s highly acclaimed oeuvre. Recently honored with an exhibition that travelled from London to Paris to New York, Hockney is one of today’s most beloved painters, possessing a joie de vivre, painterly bravura, and innovative perspectival intelligence, all of which are beautifully crystalized in Moving Wisp.
A swell of curved forms cleave together, unfurling across the canvas in an ebullient collision of mountains, hills and water, all almost entirely abstracted yet still tethered to the natural world. At the center of this compressed landscape is the titular moving wisp, dancing gaily in a saturated vermilion shading to light orange. Behind this focal point, a turquoise and cerulean mountain leans to the left against a torrent of periwinkle blue water that cascades into a waterfall of indigo and light teal brushstrokes. The turquoise mountain intersects with a smaller sister mountain, rendered in lush white and yellow impasto, abutted by a violet façade. Fields of fiery red and cool green extend from this second, smaller mountain towards the audience, drawing the viewer in with their dramatically sloped lines. The upper register of the painting features undulating waves of deep mahogany and orange, intimating rich California soil against a bay of blue water. Like the Impressionists, Hockney exhibited a fascination with the qualities of light, varying weather conditions, and the infinite renewal that the changing of seasons reveals in the natural world, all of which come to the fore in the present work: the silvery blue river, sun-dappled fields, lush vegetation, tilled soil, vertiginous mountains, and flower-studded meadows.
A master painter and well-known plunderer of art historical references, Hockney here proudly displays his unparalleled repertoire of mark-making and deep engagement with color theory. Each passage in this work presents a unique mark or juxtaposition of color, the combination of which achieves Hockney’s unique aspiration to fuse the languages of representation and abstraction into a more authentic depiction of reality. The illusion of spatial depth, created by such passages as the light blue ribbons of water, highlighted to suggest physical presence, or the loosening of dark blue brushstrokes in the river to hint at single-point perspective, is ultimately negated by the eponymous moving wisp, which sits flatly ‘atop’ the whorl of color. In an attempt to more accurately reflect the experience of looking, Hockney rejected single-point perspective, which he believed was an artistic convention meant to keep the viewer outside the picture. Moving Wisp presents a collision of views in a Cubist-inspired composition, as if the viewer were tilting forward, looking into deep space, and seeing all facets the mountains, rivers, fields, and valleys of Hockney’s adopted California home. The present work was informed not only by a reengagement with the Cubist master Picasso, but also Chinese scrolls, evident in the abstracted idiom with which he addresses landscape and deep space from Song Dynasty scrolls. Throughout his career, Hockney has possessed a voracious appetite for art history, fragmenting, digesting, and appropriating significant movements into his own unique vernacular; this constant mining of tropes and techniques from within the canon is on spectacular display across the expansive landscape in Moving Wisp.
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) California always held great appeal for Hockney, who, having grown up in the gray of England, longed for the Bacchanalian arcadia of social liberation, sexual freedom, and rich commodities. The bright sunlight and bold colors of Los Angeles and Malibu inspired Hockney, evident in the deeply saturated and varied palette of this California landscape. Fragmented, abstracted, and viewed through the prismatic lens of art history that only Hockney can employ, Moving Wisp is a testament to the mastery of one of today’s most accomplished and engaging painters.
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