David Hockney: symbolic expressions of queer experience

Image: David Hockney, A diver, paper pool 17 1978, handcoloured pressed paper pulp. NGA 79.2343.1-12, © David Hockney
Image: Kenneth Tyler, David Hockney taking Polaroid shots of Tyler pool for the ‘Paper Pools’ series with friends looking on and ‘Day Pool with Three Blues’ framed as a screen in the background, Tyler Graphics Ltd., Bedford Village, New York, 1979, photograph. NGA 180937

David Hockney moved to the United States from England in the early 1960s. The social and environmental conditions of Los Angeles, California would inspire a new direction in the artist’s personal iconography which broadened to include palm trees, swimming pools and Beverly Hills architecture. The spacious and sunny atmosphere of Los Angeles was a stark contrast to the cold and stifling reality of post-war London, where the decriminalisation of gay relationships would only partially commence by 1967.  In LA Hockney’s painting and printmaking motifs subtly shifted, from a visually coded commentary on representations of queer life, to symbolic expressions of his individual queer experience.  

From the beginning, Hockney affirmed his identity through the image making process. Either sifting through popular magazines, or equipped with his own handheld camera, he utilised photography to replicate transitional moments of everyday life through painting and printmaking techniques. Hockney negated the ‘passive way that photographs are consumed within society’[i] by transforming reproducible images into singular assertions of an embodied experience. Harbouring qualities that can be described as both visceral and banal, Hockney relished the physical endurance required to create the iconic swimming pool paintings such as A Bigger Splash, 1967 held in the Tate’s collection.

“What I quite liked about doing it was the perversity of painting something that lasts for one second” [ii]

The ‘perversity’ which Hockney acknowledges has little to do with innuendoes around notions of sexual difference and more to do with the camera’s capacity to fragment space and time. For A diver, paper pool 17 (1978) which is comprised of 12 unique hand coloured sheets of pressed paper pulp, Hockney used a polaroid camera to develop the primary source material for his extensive studio process at Tyler Graphics Ltd. More than an illustrative device used to establish comparative registration marks, these snapshots serve as testimony. They are a collection of mementos that recognize the artist’s place within a new community through a distinct moment of domestic intimacy.

Image: David Hockney, A diver, paper pool 1David Hockney, No title [Pretty tulips] 1970, chromogenic photograph. NGA 66720 © David Hockney
Image: David Hockney, White porcelain 1985-86, lithograph etching and aquatint. NGA 55348 © David Hockney

Hockney’s inclination to distil and celebrate moments from the everyday reaches beyond his early figurative depiction of a diver’s momentary ‘splash’. Throughout his career Hockney has returned to a floral motif that also delivers an allegory of time suspended. Comparable for their understated sensual quality, Hockney repeatedly portrays spring bulbs in their early state of bloom. Freshly cut and arranged in household vases they appear emergent, continuously frozen in time, at the precipice of becoming. In an interview for the Van Gogh Museum, Hockney discusses notions of ‘gaiety’ within the landscape The arrival of spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 – 31 May, No.2.

“There’s a moment when I said nature has an erection, when everything is stood up … it looks as though champagne has been poured over the bushes and it’s all foaming up and it looks marvellous.”[iii]

The momentary height of spring suggests the arrival of visual and physiological pleasure for the artist. Hockney positions his work through a perspective which verifies his recognition of space. A representation of queer experience which transpires through commonplace events, either in nature or the domestic realm.   

Anja Loughhead
Assistant Curator Kenneth Tyler Collection 

Image: David Hockney, The arrival of spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 – 31 May, No.2 2011, ipad drawing. NGA 269487. © David Hockney

[i] Anne O’Hehir, ‘Sex and Desire under the Californian sun: Photography in LA’ in California Cool: Art in Los Angeles 1960-1970s, National Gallery of Australia, 2018. p. 84
[ii] David Hockney explains how L.A inspired his 20th century icon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPI2n23_B2I
[iii] Interview, David Hockney on Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA_I0qwnh_w

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