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David Hockney brings color back home

'David Hockney: A Bigger Picture' at London's Royal Academy marks the artist's late-in-life return to landscape painting. Large, colorful works of East Yorkshire are featured.

February 12, 2012|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • DAVID HOCKNEY says he hasn't given up L.A. living: "I'm on location."
DAVID HOCKNEY says he hasn't given up L.A. living: "I'm… (Graham Barclay / For The…)

Reporting from London — — He may have traded Southern California warmth for the gun-metal skies and windy damp of his native England, but this is surely David Hockney's moment in the sun.

His compatriots are busy hailing him as undoubtedly Britain's greatest living painter now that his friend Lucian Freud has died. Queen Elizabeth II just appointed him to the Order of Merit, an honor restricted to 24 Britons at any one time for their contributions to the arts and sciences.

In the pages of the Guardian — the left-wing paper to which Hockney regularly dashes off harrumphing letters to the editor — a fashion writer felt moved to confess that the artist, a "brilliantly intentional nerd," was "my all-time style hero."

All the adulation is gratifying to Hockney, who has been living and working in Britain more or less full-time for the last few years. Which raises the question: Has he given up Los Angeles, the city he's called home for more than three decades and that considers him an adopted son?

Hockney waves away the notion with one of the cigarettes that seem permanently lodged between his fingers.

"I haven't really left L.A. When people in Hollywood ask what I'm doing, I say I'm on location," he says with a chuckle in his Kensington studio. "That's a term they understand. It's just taking a lot longer than I expected."

The reason for the extended absence can now be seen on the walls of London's prestigious Royal Academy of Arts. Late last month, "David Hockney: A Bigger Picture" opened to rapturous reviews and massive ticket sales, making it the first blockbuster art show of 2012 in the British capital.

The exhibition marks a late-in-life return to big landscape painting for an artist many identify with indolent scenes of swimming pools and slender young men. Its title even riffs on the most well-known of those paintings, "A Bigger Splash."

The scale of the new show is gargantuan, both in the number of works on display (more than 150) and the sheer size of some of them (the largest is 12 feet by 32 feet).

Remarkably, however, this is no nostalgic retrospective, though a handful of works date as far as the 1950s and '60s. Most of the paintings and drawings were created in the last several years, including a staggering 52-part series from 2011, in a burst of productivity that can be attributed to Hockney's boundless enthusiasm and energy at age 74, his ever-present iPad and the cavernous room in the gallery where the entire set hangs.

California influence

The exhibition plants him firmly back in the East Yorkshire of his youth, a region in northern England of unassuming chalk hills and leafy lanes that he used to cycle around as a boy and later as a young man who took on summer farming jobs.

Though some Britons dismiss East Yorkshire as drab by comparison with the romantic heather and moors of Bronte Country to the west, in Hockney's hands the area is a riot of color — deep reds, shocking purples, splashy yellows and multiple shades of green in the trees, fields, paths and hawthorn bushes. The paintings and poster-size prints from iPad drawings evoke Van Gogh, Seurat, Rousseau and even Hockney himself from his earlier, sun-drenched period.

"These are landscapes of Yorkshire painted by somebody from Yorkshire but who lived in California for 30 years. It's bound to have an effect," says Hockney, who still speaks with a Yorkshire accent. "People said, 'You brought California color there.' I said, 'Not quite,' but [it's] certainly made me look at color" differently.

"West Yorkshire is quite dramatic and beautiful, the crags and things," he adds. "East Yorkshire, to the uninitiated, just looks like a lot of little hills. But it does have these marvelous valleys that were caused by glaciers, not rivers. So it is unusual."

Hockney began returning more often to Yorkshire in the 1990s, usually to visit his mother, who died in 1999. A friend who was terminally ill encouraged him to turn his brushes to capturing the local surroundings, which he did at first with paintings based on memories of the area, some from his boyhood.

In 2007, Hockney produced "Bigger Trees Near Warter," a monumental oil spread across 50 canvases that was displayed at the Royal Academy before he gave it to the Tate Gallery. The academy eventually asked Hockney if he would be interested in mounting an exhibition in 2011 devoted to his Yorkshire landscapes, a project he eagerly accepted, though he insisted it wait till 2012 so that he could have more time to observe and prepare.

"When the RA asked me to do this exhibition, I said, 'I need three more springs.' That's three years; you can't speed them up," he says. "That's the big difference with L.A. You do have the seasons in L.A., but you have to be a botanist and know what flowers come out [then]. It doesn't hit you on the head as it does here....

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