Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Making a Splash

David Hockney turned 70 years young yesterday, July 9th. Hockney’s unique brand of Pop Art has made him one of Britain’s most successful artists of the 20th century. The English Hockney found perhaps his finest subject in the bright sunshine of California in such works as A Bigger Splash (above). The areas of flat color as well as the amazing depiction of the effect of displaced water testify to how justified Hockney’s own “big splash” on the artworld has been.

I’ve always loved how Hockney paints the effect of light and rippling pool water on the shimmering surface of an in-ground pool, such as in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (above). The combination of realism and abstraction just mesmerizes me. This unconventional portrait typifies the unconventional nature of Hockney, whose appearance over the years has transformed into something approaching late Andy Warhol, minus the wig. Hockney, too, seems mesmerized by the rippling water, perhaps to symbolize the self-awareness that often engulfs his art.

Hockney’s self-awareness as an artist often translates into direct confrontations with art history. In The Student Homage to Picasso (above), Hockney not only comes face to face with Pablo Picasso but in doing so places him on a pedestal, acknowledging his debt to the master. The recent exhibit The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso discusses Hockney’s engagement with the example of Picasso in the field of portraiture. Conversely, Hockney tried to knock Caravaggio and many other Old Masters off their pedestals in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. In Secret Knowledge, Hockney advances the idea that artists such as Caravaggio used devices such as the camera obscura to project images on a canvas to make their stunning photorealist effects possible. Although many have come to the defense of the Old Masters and refuted Hockney’s claims, I confess to be an agnostic about the matter. Even if Caravaggio used such devices, they couldn’t possibly be totally responsible for his masterpieces. They couldn’t have made it that easy, or else everyone would have been Caravaggio. I remember when the PMA’s exhibit on Thomas Eakins years ago touched on his use of photography and projection onto canvas. Some critics presented this use as a form of cheating, which bothered me initially, until I overcame the prejudice about cameras as painting tools and accepted them as just another means by which art is made. To me, Hockney’s theory is interesting from a technical standpoint but moot in terms of whether works using such aids are art or not.