A Bigger Splash: The Art of David Hockney

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The post-war years were a period of rapid evolution in British society. In the wake of the catastrophe that had brought all aspects of cultural production to a hiatus, many sensed an opportunity to re-address and re-invent notions of ‘Britishness’

The post-war years were a period of rapid evolution in British society. In the wake of the catastrophe that had brought all aspects of cultural production to a hiatus, many sensed an opportunity to re-address and re-invent notions of ‘Britishness’ as expressed in the arts. This became a priority for many of the figures endeavouring to fill the cultural void created by the war. Another catalyst was the influx of American images, products and ephemera. The prospect of total Americanisation was anticipated variously among artists and public. To some it threatened the complete obliteration of British culture. Others hoped it would have a revitalising influence and would enable them to challenge the outdated notions of tradition and nationhood being used as a defence against the US invasion.

The aim of this essay is to argue that the latter response to Americanisation yielded the most significant advances, thereby confirming Britain’s cultural dependence on the US in this period. With this intention, David Hockney is the ideal point of reference. He was a particularly instrumental figure in re-defining Britishness, as well as being one of the earliest beneficiaries of Britain’s new approach to the arts. In addition, he is an artist who has been stimulated by American art throughout his career, even gravitating to the USA during the period in question. He therefore provides a unique insight into the relationship between British and American art.

Before discussing his work, mention should be made of the artistic climate into which he emerged. In the 1950s, consumerism and mass culture were established phenomena in the US. Brand names and logotypes had become part of common experience through advertising and packaging etc. Britain, by contrast, was still immersed in post-war austerity: rationing was not repealed until 1954; and such visual forms of mass culture were much less familiar sights.

By the time British Pop art was in its early stages, this situation had changed. Signs of American prosperity were beginning to creep onto the scene, and while some condemned this influx of material outright, others felt it highlighted a need to redefine culture. Matthew Arnold’s suggestion that culture was ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’1 was being replaced by a less elitist view that recognised the anthropological value of all forms of class, culture and production: i.e. culture as the ‘distinctive patterns, rituals and expressive forms which together constitute the ‘whole way of life’ of a community or social group.’2

The Independent Group, which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1952 and 1955, were among the leading exponents of this view. Its spokesman Lawrence Alloway wrote: 'We assumed an anthropological definition of culture in which all types of human activity were the object of aesthetic judgement and attention.'3 Like Hockney, they anticipated the ‘multi-evocative imagery’ with optimism, believing that it could transform Britain’s austere visual climate. Their works of this period and subsequent years used images culled from American sources. The results of their labours, which dominated British art for nearly a decade before Hockney emerged, did much to valorise this raw material in the eyes of British art establishments (a founding member, Richard Hamilton, even taught at the Royal College of Art). When Hockney acquired notoriety in 1960-61 this material was already recognised as being valid and appropriate subject matter for artistic endeavour. As well as being a formative influence, then, the Independent Group had paved the way for Hockney’s art and facilitated its reception among the art establishment.

Another factor in the secure installation of both Hockney and this new aesthetic was the changing nature of art education. Initially the preserve of the upper-classes, art training became available to talented working-class students by the passing of the 1944 Education Act. David Hockney, whose origins in working-class Bradford would previously have excluded him from academic training, was one of the early beneficiaries of what Banham described as ‘the revenge of the elementary schoolboys’.4 The influence of the Independent Group persisted in these schools. Not only were new students accepted, but also new areas of practice were explored. The Independent Group helped dissipate prejudice against design, photography and mass media imagery – a measure which clearly aided the expression of the ‘new visual sensibility’5 that Hockney and others were committed to. In other words, the Independent Group not only helped establish him as an artist, but also imparted their aesthetic to him and thus initiated a certain dependence on the US.  In his early work there are significant differences in his rapport with Americana to that of the Independent Group. These deserve to be elaborated as they shed light on his mid-60s work and its relationship to American art.

As Alloway’s comments about the anthropological definition of culture imply, the Independent Group did not entirely celebrate Americana. Instead they adopted a distant, critical stance and subjected it to semiotic analysis. Their works are sociological exercises, assessing the effects of mass-culture. Richard Hamilton's Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? is a collage of American ephemera, rather than a loving and assiduous copy as in, say, Peter Blake’s work (e.g. Self Portrait, 1961).

Richard Hamilton's, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?

The assemblage of existing images demonstrates a reluctance to actively engage with them. Images of popular culture are juxtaposed in a sense of bewilderment. They are arranged as a room - an environment that completely encloses its inhabitants - so despite its humorous tone, the work presents them as potentially suffocating. This is most evident in Hamilton's use of a photo of a beach crowded with people for the room's carpet and one of Earth as the ceiling - as if mass culture, being universal, threatens to homogenize people and whole societies into one seamless mass. At the same time, the work is not determinedly hostile to mass culture. The presence of various technical innovations does not permit this. Tape recorders, the coming of sound in cinema (the poster for The Jazz Singer) and labour saving devices, seem to be welcomed since they are shown in their natural, logical locations. By contrast, others are presented in more disdainful terms by placing them in unlikely situations - the comic on the wall (instead of a painting); the Ford insignia, not on a car, but on a lampshade; and the giant lollipop held by Charles Atlas. The pin-up girl is juxtaposed with a tin of ham - perhaps commenting on mass culture’s tendency to treat women as commodities through glamourization and fetishization.

This cautious approach to mass-culture, the need to work in a critical manner and modify its ideas, is not present in Hockney’s work. In this respect he seems to be much more akin to the ‘No comment’ style of US Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. For the Independent Group’s critical detachment Hockney substituted an uncritical acceptance and intense personal involvement with the Americana influencing his work.

Paintings of 1960-62 are rendered in a violent, faux naif style derived from Dubuffet and Abstract Expressionism. Hockney had absorbed the influence of the latter through his contact with the American ex-patriot R.B. Kitaj and the 1958 exhibition The New American Painting.6 Like the Abstract Expressionists, his style of this period was characterised by a series of violent gestures that simulated a great intensity of feeling. His use of this technique indicates both his adherence to American art practices and his deep commitment to his subjects.

Adhesiveness (1960)

These subjects were relatively new to British art. Adhesiveness (1960) deals openly with homosexuality. The title is an appropriation of Walt Whitman’s term for homoerotic love. Two figures are shown in an embrace. The mutual insertion of phallic forms into each figure imbues the painting with an explicitness scarcely belied by the abstraction of the figures. Adhesiveness was unprecedented not only for its explicitness, but for the fact that it was a declaration of Hockney’s own homosexuality. The figure marked 4.8 represents himself, the number corresponding to the 4th and 8th letters of the alphabet, that is D.H. By the same numerical method the other figure (23.23) represents Whitman, from whom the device was borrowed.

We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961)

We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) continues this theme. The title, again from Whitman, is inscribed across the canvas. It binds together the two figures, as do the numerous tendrils which seem to give form to Whitman’s ‘adhesiveness’. The proliferation of heart-shaped forms and the agonised scrawling of the word ‘never’ emphasise Hockney’s personal attachment to the theme. Again, one figure is identified as himself. The other represents both a fellow RCA student and Cliff Richard, to whom Hockney was very strongly drawn and who also provided the inspiration for Doll Boy (1960-61). Immortalising Richard in this way highlights the changes occurring in British culture: he was a figure very much cast in an American mould, and therefore represents the process of Americanisation. It is evident that Hockney celebrates this from the fact that he depicts his figure kissing that of Cliff Richard.

Doll Boy (1960-61)

The open acknowledgement of homosexuality, at a time when it was still criminalised in Britain, marks Hockney as a pioneering figure in British art. The intense Abstract Expressionist style is present in all works of this period, and is used to aid his obsessive exploration of this highly personal theme. These works show his attempts to extend the boundaries of representation and subject matter in British art, but reveals his ultimate reliance upon American precedents. For example, the homoerotic content of his paintings has been interpreted as being ‘part of a ‘camp’ discourse set in motion by Johns and Rauschenberg (and subsequently Warhol).’7

Hockney’s commitment to such themes contributed to his emigration in 1963 to California. Here the liberated environment effected a profound change in his style of representation, though his themes persisted. Works of this period deal principally with male nudes lounging in swimming pool environments. The fey stylisation gives an appropriately languid and static treatment of this environment, making it seem a relaxed and liberated homoerotic idyll. Much of the imagery in these works is derived from magazines such as Physique Pictorial, which Hockney began reading.

California (1965) and Boy About To Take A Shower (1964) both contain figures whose poses are directly reproduced from this source. Likewise, Domestic Scene: Los Angeles (1963), but this image plays with themes of gender and domesticity. The rather alien and unearthly environment of the pool is replaced with a domestic setting comprising shower, telephone, armchair and vase of flowers. Of the two otherwise naked figures, one wears an apron, while the other is more overtly masculine. They therefore constitute a parody of traditional male and female familial roles. Hockney thus shows homosexuality as being part of lived-in reality, not of an aesthetic realm of cerebral detachment, as his pool series may imply. These figures are not nudes, they are naked people. Emphasising this is the presence of white sport socks. These indicate that homosexuality has been conceptualised by reference to athletics (pride in, admiration of the male form) rather than Classical antiquity (which British academicism had traditionally condoned).8

An element of American art that Hockney imported into these works was the ethic of surface.9 His frequent attention to swimming pool subjects can be interpreted as a symptom of his longstanding preoccupation with this. From California to Portrait of an Artist (1971) and Sun on the Pool, Los Angeles April 13th 1982, Hockney’s work demonstrates a fascination with light effects on swimming pools, and an ongoing experiment in giving them expression in painting. As he himself has acknowledged, this relates to his involvement with surface due to the fact that the refraction of light producing these effects occurs at the optical boundary – i.e. at the surface of the water, not within the water itself. When populated with their languid, introspective inhabitants this makes pool environments the ideal foundation for his investigation of surface. With their remote, introverted settings and figures, his works are often dismissed as being vacuous, though as David Hopkins has observed, ‘the eerie stillness of these images may communicate some unease with the good life.’10 This indicates that, though Hockney wants these works to appear superficial, he is not necessarily being superficial in doing so.

A substantial body of criticism (e.g. Hebdige, Lippard) has attributed this general shift towards surface and impersonality to the pioneering efforts of American Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein's comic paintings provide evidence to support this. To drain his works of emotional content and emphasise their ethic of surface, he used Benday dots - the method of printing used in comic books. He added these to his compositions by using a perforated template and, though he had to retouch them by hand, the method gave the impression his works were produced by mechanical, impersonal means. More intent on pursuing this angle was Andy Warhol, who evolved a technique of silk-screening, in which the canvas was treated with photochemicals and exposed to a projected image. This effectively removed the artist's hand completely, prompting him to say of his work, ‘There’s nothing behind it.’

Savings and Loan Building (1967)

Hockney’s Savings and Loan Building (1967) demonstrates a playful engagement with the Modernist idea of surface as articulated by Greenberg. Greenberg’s contention was that, in order to maintain its integrity, all art had to concentrate on the elements unique to its discipline. In painting this was its inherent flatness. Painters were required to expel all elements deriving from another medium, such as the depiction of three-dimensional space, and modelling in light and shade (which derived from sculpture).11

In Savings and Loan Building an example of Modernist architecture is depicted parallel to the picture plane (emphatically so, since it occupies the majority of the canvas). As a result one tends to read the façade of the building as the surface of the picture – depicted flatness thus converges with literal flatness.12 This ambiguity is subverted when the three small palm trees become apparent. Separating the two planes, these trees re-assert the presence of three-dimensional space and reveal the façade to be only depicted flatness after all.

The painting offers a riposte to the Modernist ethic, and communicates Hockney’s belief that it unnecessarily limits painting’s representational capabilities. But as Paul Melia has observed, ‘the fact that the surface of this painting is emphasised as a substantial object in its own right suggests that Hockney did have a genuine interest in and appreciation of, Modernist abstraction.’13

A Bigger Splash (1967).

In a similar vein is A Bigger Splash (1967). This relies once more on ideas central to Modernism, but engages with Minimalist art, which was denounced by Michael Fried, one of Greenberg’s disciples, in his essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967)

The basis of Fried’s argument is that Modernism ‘absorbs’ the spectator by suspending one’s sense of duration and objecthood. Minimalism, by emphasising that the work exists in space and time, distances the spectator. Since this permits a theatricalising of the relation between object and spectator, Fried saw Minimalist art as decadent and theatrical.14

The vast scale of A Bigger Splash suggests that it was to be a monumental work in the Modernist tradition,15 as does its apparent use of Modernist abstraction as outlined above. But these Modernist devices are counteracted by the starkly diagonal diving board (all other forms are composed of horizontals and verticals). This penetrates the picture plane with the same effect as the palm trees in Savings and Loan Building. The diving board’s position at the base of the canvas seems to invite the spectator to step into the picture, thus investing it with the kind of drama and theatricality derided by Fried. Hockney’s combination of these conflicting ideas is wholly idiosyncratic and personal, but in A Bigger Splash he once again demonstrates how his work relies on his American forebears.

In conclusion, I would argue that the war represented a new beginning for British art. In such a context it was possible for many to offer a challenge to traditional conceptions of ‘Britishness’. Since this occurred simultaneously with the influx of American art and culture, it was perhaps inevitable that many should use these new paradigms as the basis of the own endeavours. Such a figure was David Hockney, whose enthusiasm for Americana and whose introspective pursuit of personal themes led him to radically alter the nature of British art.


1. Matthew Arnold, quoted in Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light p124

2. Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light p124

3. Lawrence Alloway, quoted in Lucy R Lippard, Pop Art p36

4. Reyner Banham, quoted in Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light p124

5. Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light p122

6. David Hockney: A Retrospective p18

7. David Hopkins, After Modern Art: 1945-2000 p103

8. Paul Melia, Ulrich Luckhardt, David Hockney p62

9. David Hopkins, After Modern Art: 1945-2000 p102

10. Ibid. p103

11. Summary of Clement Greenberg, ‘Modernist Painting’

12. Paul Melia, Ulrich Luckhardt, David Hockney p80

13. Ibid. p80

14. Ibid. p84

15. Ibid. p84


Fried, Michael ‘Art and Objectivity’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas (Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, 1998. All references are to this edition.) pp822-833.

Greenberg, Clement ‘Modernist Painting’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory: 1900-1990 an anthology of changing ideas, pp754-761.

Hebdige, Dick, Hiding in the Light (First published by Routledge, 1988, London)

Hockney, David Hockney (Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1976)

Hopkins, David After Modern Art: 1945-2000 (Hamilton, London, 2000)

Lippard, Lucy R., Pop Art (First published in Great Britain by Thames and Hudson Ltd., London in 1966. 3rd edition (revised) 1970)

Melia, Paul and Luckhardt, Ulrich, David Hockney (Prestel, London, 2000)

Museum associates, David Hockney: A Retrospective (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988)


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