At the tail end of his 70s, David Hockney is still a prolific artist and Current is testament to that. Everything in the NGV exhibition is drawn from the last decade, from the enormous landscape Bigger trees near Warter to a digital painting from just a few months ago, tacked to the wall before you exit through the gift shop.
Hockney demystifies the artistic process throughout, with a mix of complete works, plus sketches and digital paintings that build before your eyes. The result is a remarkable, passionate body of work, and a privileged glimpse into his process.
But where do you start?
With the help of NGV Contemporary Art Curator Pip Wallis, we pick out five highlights that demonstrate why this is such a captivating show.
iPhone and iPad drawings (2009–2016)
Your typical NGV show doesn’t open with dozens of iPhones and iPads stuck to the wall. But when the iPhone appeared in 2007, Hockney was quick to incorporate the new technology into his artistic process.
“A lot of them are really just sketches,” says Wallis. “Provisional and simple. But they’re a daily activity.” The hundreds of digital sketches cover traditional forms of drawing, such as still life, landscape and portraiture. Some are little doodles sent to friends (such as a handscrawled note declaring “I am going back to bed – DH”). Some are technical exercises. Seen all together, Hockney’s irreverent and accomplished voice shines through. “He’s using the new medium to test new technology and himself,” says Wallis. “It’s part of the constant process of being a draughtsman, which is what he’s been his whole life.”
Bigger trees near Warter or ou Peinture en Plein Air pour l'age Post-Photographique (2007)
When Hockney was offered a large wall at the London Royal Academy of Arts, he decided the best thing to do would be to fill the whole thing. He came up with this huge landscape depicting the end of winter in his native Yorkshire. “As far as we know it’s the largest en plain air painting (painted outdoors) to exist,” says Wallis. That’s not hyperbole. It’s four metres high, 12 metres wide, and made from 50 canvases.
Of course he couldn’t paint something this size in a paddock, so he did it in pieces (in a race to beat the arrival of spring). He took out one canvas a day, along with digital photographic references of what he painted the day before, and built the image bit by bit. “The camera was a big part of his process,” says Wallis. “He’s fascinated by early optical techniques used by the masters, like the camera obscura, as well as modern digital technology.” In keeping with the exhibition’s focus on Hockney’s process, his photographic references are exhibited on the surrounding walls.
82 portraits and 1 still life (2013–2016)
In one huge, long room, there are 83 paintings made over three years. It’s a feat of dedication and consistency. But it came out of a tragedy – one of Hockney’s studio assistants committed suicide in 2013, and Hockney couldn’t work for months. When he finally did, he produced 82 portraits of people close to him, all on the same background, in the same chair (and one still life of some fruit because the intended portrait subject couldn’t make it that day).
The subjects are varied: friends, family, colleagues, gallerists, curators, cleaners. “He’s getting older, and this is about taking stock of the people around him,” says Wallis. “It’s also kind of meditative. It was part of his mourning and recovery process.” For us as an audience it demonstrates his nuanced approach to portraiture – he captures something real and true about each and every subject. Each one is striking in its own right, but its hard not to see them as one huge piece of work.
The four seasons, Woldgate Woods (2010-2011)
“A lot of NGV staff are coming here on their breaks,” says Wallis. It’s not hard to see why.
The final room of the show is built around four films. The subject is simple – four views of a laneway in Yorkshire, one for each season, shot from a moving car. But each vista is shot with nine different cameras, and rebuilt into a fractured, slightly out-of-sync whole. Hockney has built collages from Polaroid photographs before, and this is a development of that technique. “Taking a photograph reduces things to one perspective,” says Wallis. “He wants to remind us that this is not how we see the world.”
Instead, he’s asking you to look at the world the way that Hockney looks at it. “Very slowly,” says Wallis, “and with an awareness that a scene is made up of many perspectives.” The films move gently forward and loop after four minutes, but you’ll want to stay longer than that.
The second marriage (1963)
This one isn’t part of the show at all – it’s been in the NGV’s archives since 1965, when Hockney was an up-and-coming young artist to watch, and it’s being exhibited upstairs as part of the Shut Up and Paint exhibition. It couldn’t be more different to the body of work downstairs, but it’s an intriguing piece to check out knowing where Hockney ends up roughly 50 years later. It depicts a couple sitting nonchalantly on a couch, an inch into a bottle of wine. The man is cut from the early-60s Mad Men mould, and the woman is an eyeless sculpture of one of Queen Nefertiti’s daughters. It’s moody and blackly funny.
“It stemmed from a moment he had in a museum,” says Wallis. “Hockney looked down a hallway and saw his friend standing next to an Egyptian sculpture in marble. They looked to him like a couple.”
This piece of early British pop art brings together people across two time periods, and contains them in an oddly shaped, flattened cube of a canvas, bordered with tattered wallpaper. “It’s one of our most popular pieces,” says Wallis. “Conservation-wise it’s delicate, so we have to monitor how often it comes out of the archive. But it’s been a key work in the collection for 50 years.”
David Hockney: Current is at the NGV until March 13.