David Hockney at Tate Britain. How has his work changed over 60 years?

michael-zhang by Michael Zhang – Assurance, Audit, EY UK&I


It was a pleasure to attend a corporate members’ private view of David Hockney at Tate Britain on 21 March – a much valued perk of the EY Tate Arts Partnership. I was initially amazed by the huge scale of the exhibition, with twelve sizeable galleries, each with multiple works ranging from almost all the stages of Hockney’s professional life as an artist.

David Hockney, who is aged 79 this year, is considered to be one of the most influential British artists of the 20th Century. Among his lists of achievements, I am most fascinated by his ability to innovate at different stages of his creative life, using a variety of mediums and multi-disciplinary approaches. He likes to challenge the conventions of picture-making and perspective.

It was interesting to see the abstract paintings made by Hockney, once shown in the Young Contemporaries exhibition in 1962 under the title ‘Demonstrations of Versatility’. Playing with different realities and modes of representation, Hockney showed off his ability to switch between different artistic styles as a young man at the Royal College of Art (RCA) – a bold statement, which has foreshadowed his entire career and identity as an innovative and versatile artist.

Hockney’s life in Los Angeles from 1964 marked a new stage of his creative career. He described it at the time as his ‘promised land’. Hockney reflected this feeling a great deal into his paintings – a number of his most celebrated works were created during this period. Among Hockney’s L.A inspired works, his painting, ‘Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool’ (1967), won the John Moores Painting Prize at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and marked the start of him being recognised widely as a distinctive visual artist. Another extraordinary work, ‘A Bigger Splash’, was sold for £2.6 million in 2006. Interestingly, during this period, Hockney embraced ‘abstract expressionism’, a deeply influential style in American visual culture at the time, then as abstract expressionism began to die out, he started to experiment with ‘minimalism’ – a cutting edge style back then.


While dabbling with abstract expressionism and minimalism, in his characteristically experimental fashion, Hockney also turned his hand to a more naturalistic style. Drawn to the psychological and emotional implications of two figures within enclosed settings, a circle of friends sat for Hockney for a series of double portraits. I found these works hugely attractive – both intimate and lively, thanks to Hockney’s sensitive eye and bright colour palette. ‘My Parents’ (1977) gave me a strong sense of nostalgia. Not only was I struck by the figures, I couldn’t help but admire the painting’s overall structure – the mirror on the desk I thought was a nice detail and hugely expanded the overall sense of space. Meanwhile, ‘Pool with Two Figures’ (1972) told a story and drew me into the L.A space, where I imagined the air to be hot and the pool cold. I could almost hear birds singing from the distant woods.

There are other interesting paintings at the exhibition, including a large number of landscape and interior works in a variety of scales and perspectives. However, what grabbed me most were his experimental works towards the end of the exhibition. Going by the responses from others in the room, people from all backgrounds, even those who weren’t familiar with Hockney’s work enjoyed these multi-disciplinary and multi-media works. Hockney described conventional photography as akin to ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops – for a split second’. In response to this, he sought to create photography that could accommodate different viewpoints as well as time and movement. His famous work ‘Pearblossom Hwy’ (1986) is a breakthrough in photo montage, paying direct tribute to cubism. These works have always concerned one topic – perspective. From his paintings to these photo montages, Hockney has always tried to challenge the status quo in terms of ways of looking at the world. He extended this interest to even richer media such as video recording. In the late work ‘The Four Seasons’ (2010), each wall of the room displayed a giant screen, playing video footage of the same wooded area of Yorkshire (his home county) during a different season. It was an immersive experience – explorative, cubist, inspiring. Hockney made this work at 72 years of age. I could hardly imagine his power and willingness to innovate, and admired his ability to extend his unique style into unfamiliar territories.

In the last exhibition room, a number of screens were showing art works made by Hockney using an iPad. In looking at these iPad drawings, the whole Hockney exhibition started to come together in my mind. Hockney tried almost all major genres and styles of art in his lifetime – portraiture, landscape, abstract expressionism, minimalism, cubism, pop art; all recorded through a variety of mediums – canvas, photo montage, video, CAD software, iPad. It seems difficult to define Hockney and grasp the essence of his creative career, as his work is broad and has evolved so much, yet the iPad drawings in the final room just looked so familiar to me. They are no one else’s but Hockney’s. From the start of his career to the present day, he has retained an inspiring sense of vitality – his sheer volume of work, his pursuit of altering the ways we look at our world, his ability to create an acute sense of intimacy, his love of the L.A-inspired bright colour palette, his endless experiments and attempts to embrace modern technologies and various mediums. And through all of this, his work still manages to retain the distinct hallmarks of Hockney. This is what amazed me the most, the unchanged.

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David Hockney is open until 29 May at Tate Britain. Access is free for EY people as part of The EY Tate Arts Partnership.