David Hockney has been the subject of more than 400 solo exhibitions over his long career. The British-born artist is such a rock star, The Guardian reports Tate Britain will be opening its doors until midnight for the first time to cope with demand for its current major retrospective of Hockney’s work.
At a point in his life when major world museums are presenting big Hockney shows, the artist could easily retire. But an exhibition of 28 images he created of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Suite, shows how Hockney continues to reassess familiar territory in new ways. After being shown in London, New York and Venice, CA, Yosemite Suite has arrived in the Bay Area. The works are on view at the Pace Gallery in Palo Alto through May 7.
The Los Angeles-based visual artist visited Yosemite in 2010 and 2011. Instead of an easel or medium-format camera, he brought his iPad along. The digital drawings have been reproduced as large prints for display, four of them stretching to nearly eight feet in height.
Some of the resulting images have been tucked into bigger shows, like David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in 2013. But seeing all 28 images assembled together in a dedicated exhibition immerses the visitor into Hockney’s vision of Yosemite. It’s a vision that is at once sunny and riotously colorful.
Trees rise up like the columns of an open, sunlit Gothic cathedral. You feel like you could face-plant into the fluffy, flower-covered mountainsides.
Hockney’s digital space
Over the course of his long career, Hockney has embraced all sorts of technologies, from Polaroid photographs to fax machines. Yet his work always remains rooted in painting.
“The technology is not the end in itself, but rather, a tool,” says Douglas Baxter, president of Pace Gallery in New York, and Hockney’s longtime friend. With Yosemite Suite, Baxter says, Hockney responds to the park with an Impressionist’s eye and then “translates it to the iPad.”
Not for Hockney the sedate earth tones of artists past. Ryan Reynolds, an assistant professor of art at Santa Clara University, says the artist translates the language of the landscape into his own patois of color, line and texture. “He takes what could be seen as these postcard views, and turns them into something that you want to contemplate and think about,” Reynolds says.
For instance, Reynolds says that Hockney is a master of texture, regardless of whether the work is produced with paint and brushes or a finger on a screen. “Dots, lines, scribbles, are used to mimic texture,” Reynolds says. “He’s studied artists like Matisse and Picasso quite thoroughly, and you can see those influences in his work and especially in these Yosemite paintings.”
Long legacy of Yosemite art
Hockney comes from a long line of artists inspired by Yosemite. In the mid-19th century, Albert Bierstadt’s oil paintings first established the landscape in the American imagination, as did the work of William Kieth and Thomas Hill. “As part the Hudson River School era, they were interested in the epic landscape infused with majestic light,” Reynolds says.
Then came photography, epitomized by the work of Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins and Celia Crocker Thompson. In more recent years, a host of photographers have continued to tackle Yosemite afresh: Matthew Brandt, Binh Danh, Judy Dater, Adam Katseff, Roger Minick, Catherine Opie and Millee Tibbs.
But relatively few artists are drawn to the park these days. “Yosemite lost the intellectual excitement that it once held to many painters, probably due to how well Yosemite is known and how often it has been depicted,” Reynolds says. “Maybe also because no one had an idea of how to do it differently. How to deal with those impossibly grand views and angles of monumental granite.”
Hockney clearly isn’t intimidated by Yosemite or its legacy on canvas or photo stock. “He’s not afraid to play with places that are very familiar to us,” says Bridget Gilman, an assistant professor of art history at San Diego State University. “There are all these ways in which a place that’s familiar could be a launching point for some kind of experimentation with materials.”
Hockney’s application of iPad painting to one of the nation’s most iconic landmarks ultimately recalls John Muir’s description of the park in The Yosemite: “From the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”
David Hockey’s ‘Yosemite Suite’ is on view at the Pace Gallery in Palo Alto through Sunday, May 7. More information here.