After his monumental landscape exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2012, David Hockney turned away from painting and from his Yorkshire home and went back to Los Angeles. Slowly he began to return to the quiet contemplation of portraiture, beginning with a depiction of his studio manager. Over the months that followed, he became absorbed by the genre and invited sitters from all areas of his life into his studio. His subjects—all friends, family, and acquaintances—include office staff, fellow artists, curators, and gallerists. Each work is the same size, showing his sitter in the same chair, against the same vivid blue background, and all were painted in the same time frame of three days. Yet Hockney’s virtuoso paint handling allows their differing personalities to leap off the canvas with warmth and immediacy. This exhibition presents David Hockney’s recent portraits created with a renewed vigor, offering an intimate snapshot of the LA art world and the people who have crossed the artist’s path over the last years.
“Other people fascinate me, and the most interesting aspect of other people–the point where we go inside them–is the face. It tells all.” –David Hockney
Always committed to figurative painting, Hockney (b. 1937, Bradford, United Kingdom) has cultivated artistic genres that were not always viewed as being particularly fashionable in the second half of the 20th century, such as landscapes and portraits. Throughout his extensive career spent both in England and the United States, the artist has often turned to portraiture to depict his closest circle of friends, with the conviction that the better the artist knows the model, the better the portrait.
His curiosity and zeal for experimentation have led him to use a wide variety of styles and techniques. The oil paintings he made when he was a student at the Bradford School of Art (1953–57) depicted his family members, as well as urban landscapes and studio figures. Later, a graphic tale comprising sixteen etchings titled A Rake’s Progress (1961 to 1962, published 1963) included sexual references and told the story of his first trip to New York. In the mid-1960’s, he began to work in Los Angeles, where he portrayed Peter Schlesinger, his partner and preferred model for five years, countless times using different techniques, such as pencil drawings, pen-and-ink, pastel, and acrylic paint. The light on the West Coast of the United States captivated him and drenched his paintings. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, he immortalized people he was close to, such as his parents, the designer Celia Birtwell, and his then partner, Gregory Evans. For these portraits, he used not only paint but also photographic collages which included multiple points of perspective, based on the influence of Picasso and Cubist fragmentation. Likewise, his inquiries into the way the great painting masters were able to use optical instruments, compiled in the book Secret Knowledge, encouraged him to make a series of 280 pencil portraits between 1999 and 2002 using the camera lucida. This device, patented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807 and made up of a contact lens and a mirror, allowed him to faithfully portray the model even if he did not personally know the subject. Once again, in 2009, although he was immersed in creating landscape paintings of the English countryside, he made a series of portraits using new media, such as the software programs Photoshop and Graphics Tablet. Thus, Hockney continually revisits to the same genre time and again, reinterpreting it according to the different technological advances and his own deepening understanding of the genre.
After a brief period without painting, in 2013 David Hockney felt the urge to pick up the paintbrush yet again in order to paint a portrait of his studio manager, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima. This work reflects on the fragility of life and signaled the start of the series of portraits featured in this exhibition. They were all executed following the same formula: the models posed for 20 hours in sessions held over the course of three days; they sat in the painter’s studio, seated on a chair on a platform with a blue curtain draped behind. Familiar with the British portrait tradition, the artist drew inspiration from the Old Masters to create a set of portraits with which he seeks to reveal the life essence of his closest companions.
Related activities include Curatorial vision, Wednesday, November 15: Petra Joos, exhibition curator and Key concepts, Wednesday, November 22: Marta Arzak, Associate Director of Education.
Exhibition organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.