David Hockney: 60 years of work

A retrospective on Britain's greatest living artist at 80.

Written by:
Frances Wilson
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In the year of the artist’s 80th birthday, Tate Britain presents a survey of almost 60 years of David Hockney’s work in the first major retrospective for nearly 30 years and already the gallery’s fastest-selling exhibition.

David Hockney is a national treasure and Britain’s greatest living artist, a title conferred upon him after the death of Lucien Freud in 2011. His work remains perennially popular and highly accessible, with its vibrant colours and subject matter drawn from the places where Hockney has lived and the people he has encountered, including the many intimate and personal pictures of family and close friends.

As an artist, Hockney’s principal obsession continues to be the challenge of representation, how we view the world and how that view can be captured in two-dimensions. Although presented largely chronologically, the exhibition uses thematic elements to demonstrate Hockney’s ongoing interest in challenging the conventions of picture making, and the way in which a painting and its subject matter is viewed or perceived. Thus the show contains his early forays into photo-montage in the 1980s, a genre which he extended in recent years into large multi-screen video installations, and pictures created using an iPad app, which reveal his willingness to embrace new technology in the creation of new artworks.

There are many favourites in the exhibition, works which Hockney himself describes as “old friends”, including “A Bigger Splash”, “Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy”, and his celebrated double portrait writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy, together with intimate, sensitively-drawn portraits of family and friends, including his parents and his long-time friend Celia Birtwell. A whole room is devoted to drawings, which prove that Hockney is, above all else, a fine draughtsman (an attribute also made clear in the iPad pictures). The show also presents rarely-seen works from the 1960s when the artist was studying at London’s Royal College of Art, plus Hockney’s landscapes from his native Yorkshire to his adopted home in California. New paintings of Hockney’s home and garden in Los Angeles (“Garden With Blue Terrace”) are displayed for the first time, works which vibrate with striking colours and lush vegetation, and show that old age has certainly not dimmed the artist’s creative impulse (his home in L.A. has provided constant inspiration since he moved to the Hollywood Hills in 1979).

Colour has always been an important for Hockney, from the sun-drenched landscapes of California to the glittering azure swimming pools of “A Bigger Splash” and related works, hot pinks, rich umbers and intense greens leap from the paintings. The later works are notable for both their colour, scale and naivety, drawing the viewer into the winding forest paths and fields of Yorkshire. The iPad pictures (thankfully far fewer on display than in the sprawling Royal Academy of Arts show of 2012) reveal an even greater colour palette, backlit for added effect, though the medium results in works which lack depth.

All of Hockney’s life is here, from his student days in 1960s swinging London to his move to bohemian California, his friends, his lovers, the landscape of Yorkshire where he has lived for awhile in recent years. There’s a real joie de vivre in his work, perhaps most evident in the radiant colours of the later paintings, which leaves the visitor feeling uplifted, and the accessibility of the subjects portrayed confirm the artist’s assertion that “I always thought art was for everybody,”.

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