Hockney’s perpetual spring: the embrace of digital tools

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The artist, well known at the time for his vividly colored paintings of swimming pools, California landscapes and a wide circle of friends, had made prints before, and for him the photocopier was just a new kind of printing machine – one that put the whole process right in his hands. Rather than having to work with an engraver through a long process of laying down each color individually, matching each section step by step, Hockney explained, “I can work on my own – in fact, you practically have to. work by yourself; nobody else has to do anything and I can work quickly and responsively. In fact, it’s the closest thing to painting: I can write something, evaluate it, edit it, revise it, all in seconds.

Still life with curtainsMarch 1986

David Hockney. © David Hockney. Photo by Richard Schmidt

The photocopier may have been Hockney’s first foray into integrating contemporary technology into his artistic explorations, but it was not his last. “I’m not a mad techie,” Hockney remarked, “but anything visual appeals to me.” One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Hockney trained at the Royal College of Art in London, studying under both Francis Bacon and Peter Blake. He quickly gained attention as part of the British Pop Art movement, but continued to develop his unique style of painting after spending time in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. The city’s brilliant colors, modern architecture and vernacular and his distinctive residential lifestyle, as well as his family, friends and lovers, provided endless inspiration.

David Hockney. The Art Institute of Chicago, Purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Frederic G. Pick. ©David Hockney

Hockney, however, never rested on his successes, nor on a single medium: “I love new mediums. I think mediums can excite you, they can excite you; they always allow you to do something in a different way. Even if you take the same subject, draw it in a different way, or have to simplify it – make it bold because it’s too temperamental – I like that.

David Hockney. The Art Institute of Chicago, The Mary and Leigh Block Endowment Fund. Photo by Richard Schmidt

As a result, Hockney’s practice expanded into photography, photocollage, video, film, and even stage sets for opera and ballet, and he continued to embrace many new technologies on the way. of road. Shortly after using the copier for engraving, he turned to the fax machine. At first he only sent these works to friends, but in an early version of remote work he participated in the 1989 São Paulo Biennial by fax. Partly stemming from his frustration with collectors unwilling to loan works he created so soon after his 1988 retrospective, the project ran into technical difficulties when Brazil’s telephone system could not handle faxes. . But Hockney persisted, sending and receiving his fax prints from various Los Angeles hotel rooms and having an assistant personally deliver them to the biennale.

David Hockney. The David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney. Photo by Richard Schmidt

Not only was Hockney enamored with the fax as a means of printing – “You can get a nice velvety black. Now it won’t last, but as long as you have it, it’s very beautiful. – but it also increased the dissemination and accessibility of his work. “I love the idea of ​​being able to send photos to people, and the photos are not materially worth anything, because we dematerialize them to send them. The only thing they do is bring pleasure to the eyes and the mind, and it deeply appeals to the bohemian side of my artistic nature. While using facsimiles, Hockney adapted its output to the capabilities of the medium. Initially, he created single-page works, but as his use of the fax machine continued, he began cutting prints and sending up to 144 pages of faxes which could then be reassembled into works. of monumental art.

David Hockney working on the multi-page fax Trio, 1989

© David Hockney. Photo by Richard Schmidt

Ever curious, Hockney bought the first-generation iPhone in 2007 and a few years later began experimenting with an app called Brushes. Some marveled at how he could handle drawing on something so small, but he had drawn on tiny sketchbooks he carried around in his pockets for years before, so the size didn’t bother him. : “Despite the scale, you can draw majestic things; majestic mountains can be drawn quite small.

The iPad has of course increased its canvas size, and he first used it in 2011 to do The arrival of springa series comprising a large painting and 51 drawings created in the North East of England. Fittingly as he planned to return to the topic in spring 2020, this time in Normandy, he picked up the iPad. Now he had even more digital tools at his disposal: more brushes, more textures, more colors, more layers. This period also coincided with the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hockney spent his seclusion communing with nature in the countryside surrounding his home and studio, capturing the subtle changes of a single tree, the change of light across a field, the slow and sometimes sudden burst of cool colors in the world, all on the iPad.

Digital technology has given him incredible freedom. There was portability; all he needed was the iPad and his pencil, no painting paraphernalia to carry. There was a real immediacy in the work; he never had to wait for the paint to dry and he could revise in a way that is not possible on paper or canvas. He could also work at night; with the backlit screen, there was no need for an additional light source.

David Hockney. ©David Hockney

Like many of his other tech projects, Hockney first distributed the iPad paintings to friends. As the pandemic shut down and canceled so much, Hockney’s vivid, color-saturated images embodied his comment, “They can’t undo spring.” He started printing them in a large format, about two feet in diameter, and setting them up in his studio. Sometimes he would go back and rework one that had already been printed. Eventually, the series consisted of 116 prints.

First exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in London then at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 2021 and at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul, in 2022, The arrival of spring, Normandy, 2020 is coming to the Art Institute this summer. One hundred and sixteen of Hockney’s brilliant views on the changing season come together in a feast of color. Unsurprisingly, other technology enhances the presentation: Hockney has made two animated videos of his springtime scenes, and an official augmented reality app brings the exhibit’s artwork to life.

David Hockney. ©David Hockney

Hockney has once again transcended boundaries, expanding artistic expression as well as the distribution and accessibility of art while simultaneously providing new ways to encounter nature and technology. “I’m having a lot of fun, yes I am,” said the artist, now in his 80s. “It gave me a new breath of life.”

His lively celebration of spring might just do the same for the rest of us.

—Robyn Farrell, Associate Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art


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Additional support for David Hockney: The arrival of spring, Normandy, 2020 is provided by the Morton International Exhibition Fund.

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