David Hockney

David Hockney studied art in England before going to the U.S. to teach at the universities of Iowa, Colorado and California. He settled in Los Angeles in 1978, influenced by L.A.’s intense, glaring light and sleek “California modern” aesthetic. He published several series of graphic works in book form and also achieved international prominence as a stage-set designer for the opera and ballet.

Born July 9, 1937, Bradford, Yorkshire, Eng. Hockney was a painter, draftsman, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer whose works are characterized by economy of technique, a preoccupation with light, and a frank, mundane realism derived from Pop art and photography.

He studied at the Bradford College of Art (1953–57) and the Royal College of Art, London (1959–62), where he received a gold medal in the graduate competition. He visited the United States in 1961 and returned in 1964–67 to teach at the universities of Iowa, Colorado, and California, and thereafter commuted between England and the United States until settling permanently in Los Angeles in 1978. That city's intense, glaring light and sleek “California modern” aesthetic had a pronounced influence on his work.

Much of Hockney's subject matter is autobiographical, including portraits and self-portraits and quiet, incidental scenes of his friends and his quarters (e.g., “Portrait of an Artist,” 1971). The casual elegance and tranquil luminosity of these pieces also predominate in his still lifes. Hockney's exploration of photography in the 1980s resulted in Pearblossom Hwy., 11–18th April 1986 and other ambitious photocollages. He published several series of graphic works in book form, including illustrations for Six Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1970) and The Blue Guitar (1977). Hockney also achieved international prominence as a stage-set designer for the opera and ballet. His books include Hockney by Hockney (1976),

David Hockney spent the summer of 1976 on Fire Island, New York, with art curator Henry Geldzahler and poet Christopher Isherwood, reading the poems of Wallace Stevens. He especially loved the long poem entitled The Man with the Blue Guitar, which had been inspired by Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist of 1903. Hockney had admired the works of Picasso for a long time, and he was excited by the way Stevens had woven an allusive and musical text around the theme of the interplay between reality and imagination.

Hockney made a series of drawings inspired by the poem and owing a great debt to Picasso that summer, and then back in London he painted some small canvases continuing the theme. Dissatisfied with these, he decided to make a set of coloured etchings instead which would stress the artist’s freedom of imaginative response to reality and illusion. He gave them the title The Blue Guitar, etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso, and they were published both as a portfolio and as a book in spring 1977.

In his introductory note, Hockney wrote, “ The etchings themselves were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms. Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures within pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame.”

The disparate images are not easy to read as interpretations of the poet’s themes, but what holds them together is the continual reference to the example of Picasso. The etching Figures with Still Life shows a man measured up for perspective watching a cubist woman playing a mandolin. The man was taken from a photograph of Chico Marx and the woman from a Picasso painting of 1909. Both figures are just as real or unreal as each other. In Etching is the Subject, a pen draws Hockney’s friend Gregory Evans and leaves blobs of ink behind. The pen and the portrait are illusions but the blobs are real. What is this Picasso? has a realistic curtain drawn back to reveal a stylised head which copies Picasso’s 1937 portrait of Dora Maar. And in A Picture of Ourselves, a woman copied from a classical sculpture in a plate from Picasso’s Vollard Suite of 1933 contemplates two images of herself, one a surrealist sculpture from another Vollard plate and the other a bestial image in a mirror derived from Picasso’s Two Nudes on a Beach of 1937.

The Blue Guitar is a fascinating attempt to demonstrate the power of the imagination to question the world of appearances.