David Hockney – a master colourist

I first came across David Hockney’s work through the lithographs of Celia Birtwell, wy back in the 70s when I was an art student studying printmaking. I loved these images, the simplicity of the line work with its subtle wash – stylised but capturing a moment.

On exploring Hockney’s work further I saw an exhibition of his LA Swimming Pool series and again I was struck, not just by the naturalness of the image/subject matter but at the complexity of the structure and composition that made these images so alluring; they were so quintessentially modern.

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) 1972

Many decades later I was fortunate to see a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia which showcased the work of Dale Chihuly as well as featuring Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon. For me it was one of those ‘wow’ moments. Coming out of the wonderfully curated Chihuly show – which was akin to walking through Aladdin’s Cave – to see this incredibly strange painting consisting of many small canvas boards in the strangest colours was one of the highlights of my art viewing.

What made it so special was a short film that accompanied the work: David Hockney talking about his process in constructing this amazing piece. Not just the footage of him driving his convertible along mountain rides listening to Bach, but also his using photographs of multiple viewpoints and then the process of colour selection. I finally sat down right in front of that painting and it took my breath away. I was able to experience it from so many different point of views (perspectives) that it wasn’t a static image, it was an alive and deeply moving colourful experience. Sadly, the NGA has now hung this masterpiece on a wall over the escalators so that it’s impossible for anyone to really see/view/experience it, or indeed understand what all the fuss is about. I don’t understand why this decision was made as I think it remains of the true great works in the collection.

David Hockney, A Bigger Grand Canyon” 1998

One of Hockney’s ‘tricks’ is to eschew traditional perspective – a fifteenth century construct which is fixed  – and opt for a more subjective view. He sees his objects from multiple perspectives, from many views and many sides and angles and manages to capture the visual experience of being in the presence of the depicted image. Masterful.

So it was with great anticipation that I wanted to see the NGV’s exhibition of Hockney’s new works: Current. And yet, when I expressed my interest and asked if people wanted to go see it with me, the response was lukewarm: ‘nah’, not really interested.
I had talked to a friend who had seen it and she related how impressive the digital/iPhone images were and Hockney’s discussion of his art making on video. I definitely wanted to see this. I had also seen a very short interview with Hockney on SBS about this show and the glimpse of the images impressed me with their bright colour and sheer joyfulness. I was going to see this show.

And so I did. I managed to convince a friend to see it with me – he and I went to uni together to study Art History and although he was sceptical about the show, he was gracious enough to come. I’m extremely pleased to say that he was blown away and thought it one of the best shows he’d seen. Hockney is not just a master of colour he is a master of invention.

Hockney’s use of the iPhone (and then the iPad) to create ‘pictures’ is mesmerising. His use of colour is breathtaking and his skill, well, I think he is one of the greats. And at age 90 he is making inroads and creating works that not only astound but delight. If ‘joy’ was something I had expected to experience, I found it to be so much more than I could ever have contemplated. There were so many ‘wow’ moments in viewing those works; so many mouth-gaping ‘how is that possible?’ that I came away convinced that I had seen one of the greatest shows of the 21st century (second only to an exhibition of Anselm Kieffer that I saw at the Royal Academy of Arts in London).

Modernism in Queensland

In a post-post-modernist world, how many people are familiar with the amazing accomplishments of the modernists?  They were the pioneers of colour, form, daring simple styles and subject matter previously deemed unworthy of artistic endeavour.

I was a bit sceptical about going to see Modernism at Queensland Art Gallery, an exhibition showcasing the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Grace Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston.  Putting those three women’s work together seemed a bit like an afterthought – we’ve managed to secure paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe but not enough for a stand-alone show, or curating a show out of whatever’s not recently been seen from the stockroom.  Certainly it seemed odd to show O’Keeffe with the other two Australians – Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith.

But each artist has transformed traditional still-life into a more vibrant and modern aesthetic.  Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings fill the canvas with close-ups of magnificent blooms, their bright colours and abstract quality conveying a distinct sensuality. Margaret Preston’s graphic paintings focus on design and pattern and remind me of the early Russian modernists with their focus on constructivism and utilitarian design as well as the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. One of my favourites is a very minimalist painting of a tray of cups Implement Blue (1927), highly stylised and beautiful in its minimalist, industrial design. I love the play of light and use of geometric pattern and colour.  I’m not a fan of Preston’s later work where she appropriates colour and design from a quasi-Aboriginal aesthetic – all these strike me as being works of design rather than landscape painting.

In a way, Grace Cossington-Smith is the odd one out; her paintings seem more post-impressionist rather than modernist – apart from The sock knitter (1915) – and her subject matter less interesting. The sock knitter is a portrait of her sister knitting socks for soldiers fighting in France.  The interesting thing about this painting is it’s emphasis on compositional structure: the play of horizontals and verticals through the misalignment of the cushions on the back of the sofa which sit at odds with the intimate and commonplace subject matter.  It’s one of Cossington-Smith’s best (if not the best) paintings). A tension between subject matter and surface, which reminds me of Matisse.

Christopher Allen in his review of the exhibition (when it showed originally at Heide) wrote: The exhibition includes a number of abstract or semi-abstract works from O’Keeffe’s earlier period, including the years when she shared a home with Stieglitz at Lake George. These are finely painted with a sensuous pleasure in surface texture and a love of seductive, even sexual forms, even if the notoriously vulval flowers are barely present here. And it is this erotic vitality that separates her so starkly from the rather spinsterly sensibility of the two Australians.”  And it is indeed this aspect that made me sceptical of seeing this show.

I first came across Georgia O’Keeffe when I was a young art student in the 70’s. Back then she was very much a feminist icon – her bright paintings of canna lillies and other exotic flowers were often described as images of vulvas, though O’Keeffe always denied this.  In some way O’Keeffe’s work became conflated with that of Judy Chicago’s (one of the “first-generation feminist artists,” who was part of the Feminist art movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s to develop feminist writing and art and at the time and who were heroes to many young women seeking to advance their own artistic practices). 

Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party was a collaborative piece that made no hierarchical distinction between art and craft, indeed it was the very inclusion on some of these crafts (hand women settings, pottery, embroidery etc) that made the installation so significant. I was lucky enough to see it in the 80’s at the Melbourne Exhibition Building, which was still functioning back then.  The Dinner Party is considered as one of the first epic feminist artworks, serving as a symbolic history of women in Western civilisation. It consisted of three large tables put together to form a triangle, covered in white tablecloths on which were 39 elaborate place settings, each representing a significant mythical or historical woman of whom O’Keeffe was one.  Each of the plates was beautifully hand painted depicting a flower or butterfly image evoking a vulva.

The works on display at QAG are actually well curated and worth the visit.  Depending on your individual taste you’ll find one artist’s work more interesting than others.  For all my misgivings about a show on modernism that consisted of these three seemingly disparate female artists, I think it’s interesting to re-visit this long-forgotten aspect of early twentieth century art making and remind ourselves of the trajectory.  Certainly some of O’Keefffe’s beautiful pastel works seem like a precursor to colour-field painting, especially the paintings of Helen Frakenthaller and I loved some of her dark almost abstract landscapes. I also found resonance with Tim Maguire’s beautiful close-up paintings of flowers, especially tulips. Whatever the connections, whatever the inspirations, it’s always good to see some art and be reminded of how it’s an ever changing landscape (pardon the pun).