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David Hockney’s Timescapes - Reinventing Modern Art in the Shadow of Mortality

Virginia Quarterly Review | Friday, Nov 01, 2013


Stephen Spender, April 9th 1982. Composite Polaroid, 34.75 x 30". Images courtesy of David Hockney, inc. unless credited otherwise. (Richard Schmidt)

On the train out of London King’s Cross toward Bridlington via Doncaster one cold gray morning this past January—​on my way to visit with David Hockney once again, this time regarding his upcoming San Francisco show of portraits and landscapes—​I was watching the snug small towns and winter-​idled fields stream by, punctuated by the occasional copse of bare trees, and I found myself recalling some lines of W. H. Auden’s that David used to cite when we were first getting to know each other (around the time of his Polaroid collages in the early eighties). A crisp vivid stanza from Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron,” to be exact:

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

How he loved decanting those lines as he splayed out the Polaroid tiles into yet another portrait of this or that other fond dear friend—​his studio assistants David Graves and Richard Schmidt and Gregory Evans, for example, or his longtime sidekicks Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, or Billy Wilder and his wife, or Stephen Spender by himself—​commenting on the amount of time and focus it took to work out that room-​wide backdrop if he were going to succeed in bringing out the piece’s true subject and his heart’s true passion, which was to say all that human clay.


How remarkable, I found myself thinking, that over the past ten years, the culmination in many ways of a passionate journey of aesthetic inquiry that had really begun with those gridded Polaroid collages, so much of the work had come to focus on an engagement with landscapes entirely emptied of any people.


As the train now began to home in on its coastal East Yorkshire Bridlington terminus, the thus far relatively bland landscape began to take on character. It began, that is, to look like “a Hockney.” And no wonder—​scores of David’s watercolors and paintings and blown-​up iPad drawings of these very wheat fields and sloping wolds and tight-​grouped stands of trees and blowsy cloudscapes had recently held center stage at the Royal Academy in London. (A record 650,000 rapt visitors had traipsed through the gallery-​wide exhibition, which then went on to draw similarly unprecedented crowds in both Bilbao, Spain, and Cologne, Germany.) Someone in London had commented that Hockney had managed to turn this previously ignored corner of East Yorkshire into a virtual national park, so familiar had people become with this particular vantage or that particular view, and so treasured had those views in turn become. Indeed thousands of people had started making pilgrimages to the environs of this otherwise fairly dilapidated onetime summer coastal resort situated across the North Sea from northernmost Holland. Having been noticed, the landscape sliding by—​the dendrite-​spreading trees, the sky-​reflecting puddles, the dense brambly hedgery—​began to look worthy of notice. No longer bland, it seemed to take on promise, veritably to breathe it out. “Look at me,” it seemed to boast (not unlike certain fields outside Arles on other hillscapes in the lee of the Montagne Sainte Victoire east of Aix), “look at me, for I have been seen.”

***

David was there to greet me in the parking lot at the Bridlington Station, all bundled up, smoking, snug in the driver’s seat of his Lexus sedan. He was, as I had been forewarned, somewhat less voluble than usual. Granted, over the years he has seemed to follow a regular, almost tidal, pattern: five or six years of intense and ever more intense activity (and the past half-​dozen years had seen perhaps his most intense productivity ever), followed by several months of almost prostrate collapse. Only this time, as I was now given to understand, things had been a bit more serious than that. In fact, within weeks of each other, he’d suffered a minor stroke that had initially left him almost unable to speak, though his thinking and ability to draw had gone largely unscathed, and then four nights in a hospital for a substantial operation to clear some arteries in his neck. (It was the first time in his seventy-​five years that he’d ever undergone anesthesia, let alone spent the night in a hospital!). His ability to speak seemed to be filling back in, and doctors were predicting he’d soon recover completely, but his discourse that weekend was still somewhat more halting than usual, and the experience—​a brush, after all, with mortality—​had clearly left him fairly shaken.

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