Swimming Pool Blue: David Hockney in California

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In 1963 the British artist David Hockney emigrated to California. Here the liberated environment effected a profound change in his representational style. Works of this period deal principally with male nudes lounging in swimming pool environments.

In 1963 the British artist David Hockney emigrated  to California. Here the liberated environment effected a profound change in his representational style. Works of this period deal principally with male nudes lounging in swimming pool environments. The fey stylisation and languid, somewhat static treatment portray this environment as a relaxed and liberated homoerotic idyll. Much of the imagery in these works is derived from homoerotic magazines such as Physique Pictorial, which Hockney began reading.

Boy About To Take A Shower (1964)

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).

Domestic Scene: Los Angeles (1963)

An element of American art that Hockney imported into these works was the ethic of surface. 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.’ 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).

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. 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.’

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.

The vast scale of A Bigger Splash suggests that it was to be a monumental work in the Modernist tradition, 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.


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