Travelling through images: David Hockney in Mexico

 “…someone came to visit me from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to organise a show of my photographs… I hadn’t got all the negatives in order, I had just stuck them in boxes; I didn’t even know where they were… He decided he needed a record of the pictures he’d chosen from the albums, so I bought a whole carton of Polaroid film”[1]

So recalled David Hockney in his 1993 autobiography That’s the way I see it. This impulsive act, purchasing too much Polaroid film in 1982, precipitated a new direction for Hockney’s art. He had started painting that year, but stopped, as he began to experiment with his Polaroid camera. Propelled by this abundance of film, Hockney began to collage multiple photographs together in what he started to call ‘joiners’. The joiners depicted a single scene, but with photos taken from a variety of angles and moments. Distilled into the overall composition was a sense of movement, passing time and fractured viewpoints. Hockney later said that “the main problem with the photograph has to do with time… there is no time in a photograph”[2], but with the joiners, Hockney had found a way of reintroducing this.

A photographic ‘joiner’, not made by Hockney, but by an unidentified photographer at Tyler Graphics Ltd, 1991

This idea, of suspended time in a photograph, had preoccupied Hockney’s thoughts the previous year. In an essay he wrote for London’s National Gallery in 1981 for the exhibition ‘The Artist’s Eye’, Hockney wrote:

“…the strangest images that are made now are at sporting events… you’ve never seen anybody suspended mid-air. You have never seen the ball stood still. And in photographs they seem still. Because it’s got very little time in it”

Whereas the world that we experience is moved through, dynamic and forever changing, the world in a photograph is frozen, and according to Hockney, collage was the means to reconciling this difference[3].

These collages were a new output for Hockney, but certainly not a new artistic method. He often used multiple photographs in constructing his paintings and prints pre-1982. For example, the work A diver: paper pool 17, a masterpiece from the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Collection that is currently on display in Lichtenstein to Warhol, has a series of disrupted viewpoints, where the edge of the pool, or the ripples in the water, suddenly skew on a new angle. Archival photographs show Hockney taking Polaroids of the backyard swimming pool in preparation for the final work. Collaging photographs was the method for realising this work of art in multiple parts, freezing the dazzling effect of sunlight hitting the water in his camera, only for it to later be reworked in the paint-like paper pulps he was experimenting with in 1978. Collage was the method, but it was not the final work of art.

David Hockney takes Polaroid photographs of the Tyler Graphics swimming pool, in preparation for the ‘Paper pools’ series of prints. Photo: Lindsay Green, 1978

“when I pieced the pictures together, I took off again because I realised I was opening up something else, that here was a marvellous narrative… I was using narrative for the first time, using a new dimension of time”[4].

Hockney’s enthusiasm meant that he quickly produced over one hundred and fifty joiners. Single photographs then came to feel flatter as images to him, whereas paintings seemed to hold a dimension of passing time[5]. With these observations, Hockney was drawn back to a reassessment of Picasso’s Cubism. For Hockney, Picasso’s work constituted a new use of time in images, which “is the reason you can see round the back of the body as well as the front – once you begin to realise this, it becomes a very profound experience, because you begin to see that what he is doing is not a distortion”[6].

Later in Hockney’s life, these insights into the relationship between photography, viewpoints, time and Cubism began to further solidify and inform new observations. These interrogations culminated in the revisionary Hockney-Falco thesis. This thesis, outlined by Hockney and physicist Charles Falco, asserts that art’s development, namely its increasing realism from the 1420s onwards was due to the novel use of optical instruments (namely the camera obscura) to aid the painting process. The development of optical instruments, including the camera, and the changes in Western art run parallel to one another, as Hockney observed that,

“… the photograph is the ultimate Renaissance picture. It is the mechanical formulation of the theories of perspective of the Renaissance, of the invention in the fifteenth-century Italy of the vanishing point, which many people think was one of the most profound inventions of all time… so the photograph is, in a sense, the end of something old, not the beginning of something new”[7]

David Hockney at the Oaxaca ruins with Gregory Evans and Judith Goldman. Photo: Kenneth Tyler, 1984.

Views of a hotel courtyard

In 1984, a pivotal moment was to expand on Hockney’s insights into Cubism. It was a trip to Mexico. This pilgrimage south was with master printer Kenneth Tyler, who had been developing a new piece of technology. It was a simple idea, but it once again propelled Hockney’s artwork in new directions. Tyler, having worked with Hockney for the preceding two decades, wanted to make the lithographic process lightweight and portable. He was all too aware that the cumbersome stones for lithography limited an artist’s mobility. Hockney wanted to move around his subjects as he worked, to capture the multiple dimensions that a Cubist work required. It was a fortuitous moment for both artist and printmaker.

David Hockney uses the Mylar lithographic drawing pad in the courtyard of Hotel Romano Angeles, Acatlán de Osorio, Mexico. Photo: Kenneth Tyler, 1984.

Tyler’s new lithographic technology was a thin, lightweight drawing pad. The pad was made up of near-transparent Mylar plastic. This plastic was textured, which meant that it could hold marks made with crayon-like lithographic tusches, and each layer of the sketchpad could be worked on in a different colour. This meant that Hockney could work outdoors, easily move his position as he worked, and produce an image in as many colours as he wished.

Hockney’s Cubism, along with this portable technology culminated in the Moving Focus series of prints. A series that primarily examines a peculiar hotel courtyard.

“our car broke down and we had to spend the night in a hotel in Acatlán. The hotel courtyard was very beautiful and I made a number of sketches there towards an oil painting”[8]

Hockney returned with Ken Tyler to the small town of Acatlán de Osorio (shortened to Acatlán), in the Puebla region of Mexico. The hotel called Hotel Romano Angeles, near the centre of town, had small monastic rooms which opened onto a central courtyard filled with tropical plants and an ornamental well in the centre, painted to appear as though it was made of brick.

Ken Tyler took his camera and documented the time that they spent working at the hotel courtyard, the trips that they took into town and the excursion to the Oaxaca ruins, accompanied by Gregory Evans and Judith Goldman. The Kenneth Tyler Archive at the National Gallery of Australia holds these photos. In both black and white and colour, they show Hockney working on this lithographic drawing pad, continuously moving his workspace up and down the veranda and into the centre of the hotel courtyard. This movement through space was essential for Hockney to create his Cubist vision for the series.

Tyler’s photographs are fascinating in how they show Hockney’s working process, in exactly the moment he was questioning the way photography presents back to us the world we inhabit. These frozen moments in time, when viewed sequentially, re-animate the story of the Moving Focus series of prints.

David Hockney and an unidentified hotel staff member on the veranda of the Hotel Romano Angeles. Photo: Kenneth Tyler, 1984.

[1] Hockney, D. (1993). That’s the way I see it. London: Chronicle books, p. 88.

[2] Joyce, P. & Hockney, D. (1993). Hockney on ‘Art’: Conversations with Paul Joyce. London: Little, Brown and Company, p. 58.

[3] Ibid., p. 150

[4] Hockney, D. (1993). That’s the way I see it. London: Chronicle books, p. 109.

[5] Ibid., p. 103.

[6] Ibid., p. 102.

[7] Ibid., p. 124.

[8] Ibid., p. 157.

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