Espace/Paysage, Galerie Sud, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Thursday, June 3 1999, 4:44 PM
The question that concludes David Hockney's retrospective exhibition at the Centre Pompidou is that of a viewer's place in his work. That question is far from simple, for Hockney leaves the public with only hints. Who are we in relation to these largely unpopulated canvases that, while they represent the products of human life, speak of human participation so indirectly? Even when covering a canvas with a mass of exciting reds and yellows, Hockney leaves a sense of cool disinvitation, a visual product of carefully flattened internal perspectives.
This exhibition of figurative landscape painting is far distant from the American landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, painters who sought to transport viewers into the natural world of intertwined geology and botany. Rather, this Hockney exhibition presents American landscape as a dramatic design that restates and moves scenes forward in planar perspective. When Church's "Heart of the Andes" opened at a special exhibition in New York City in 1859, for example, viewers brought opera glasses and rolled up newspapers to gain perspectival depth and acquire a naturalistic reality. Church 'captured' dramatic nature scenes for his audience, using an impossible verisimilitude that elevated human viewers through comparative grandeur. If the scene is so vast, how great must human observers be to comprehend it? This penchant for grand and sweeping pictorial vistas, together with topical exoticization, suited the politics of Manifest Destiny.
In Hockney's world, humanity has shrunk vastly. We can still stand atop that promontory with a magnificent view, but the enchantment of representational magnificence has disappeared. In his Grand Canyon paintings, two mural-like works that span the breadth of a wide gallery, the opposite of classic nineteenth-century American landscape painting occurs: there is a foreshortening so extreme as to compress that immense chasm into a visual summarization. In one version, "A Bigger Grand Canyon" (1998), the sky has been limited to a thin blue band at top so as not to betray this scheme. In the other, "A Closer Grand Canyon" (1998), where Hockney does include the Arizona sky, his compositional choice seems largely a response to the challenge of flattening that too. Both large paintings are composed of arrayed smaller canvases that emphasize optical mechanics based on photography, which underlays these Grand Canyon mural-pictures in the form of draft collage assemblies. The difference in effect can be understood by comparing these two Hockney works with Ed Mell's Grand Canyon series (for example, "Golden Chasm") where subtle chromatics and play of light combine within a modernist visual vocabulary that creates an ethereal elevated perspective for an implied viewer. Mell remains a romantic, whereas Hockney is a sober optical philosopher. For Hockney, at the edge of such scenes we come to understand ourselves as passing spectators who watch a natural richness unfold with little possible comprehension of its meaning and depth. The Grand Canyon is a stage play and the paintings are just so much stage scenery, insignificant and trivial in front of their originating reality.
As thematic exclamation points for this exhibition, the Grand Canyon paintings work well. The possibilities of the American landscape for asking anti-romantic questions of its social representation have attracted David Hockney since the 1960s. This is the land of the negative subject, the subject who has largely disappeared from view and appears only as viewer. One of his best-known works, the "Pearblossom Highway" collage (1986), captures both the presence and transitional invisibility of California inhabitants who have disappeared entirely into an assembly of roadsigns and beer-can litter along an highway. Only occasionally, through enigmatic references to Indians, do these Western landscapes acquire a politics of conflict, dispossession and possession. Even the Indians are symbolic shorthand, another form of invisibility. Nobody is at home here.
This sense of an immanent and imminent human presence is not limited to Hockney's American landscape paintings, for it also appears in his paintings of the Yorkshire countryside with heavily contoured pastures and such signs of agricultural modernization as giant hay rolls and distant reapers. The formative human hand in landscape repeatedly makes itself known through Hockney's eyes. In "Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica" (1990), a brilliantly composed work that condenses his painting technique, the coastal highway dips from the foreground through varicolored hills that catch the light, heading towards a suggestively Cartesian-graphed urban area by the ocean. Roads repeatedly shape Hockney's landscapes, a human development that penetrates the landscape deeply but ultimately cannot overwhelm a resistant geography. Humanity is never over-welcome in Hockney's road landscapes. Even in "The Road to York Through Sledmere" (1997) the vaguely suburban sprawl hedging in the highway is more a point of compositional interest, less an inhabited village. The population may present behind the house curtains, but remain invisible. Roads stay forever empty, built and used but untrafficked.
Hockney has taken the photocollage compositional technique indoors in order to create carefully schematized paintings such as "Large Interior, Los Angeles" (1988). Domestic furnishings --- particularly chairs --- acquire a multiperspectival form, a technique that he openly borrows from early Picasso. This exhibition was mounted in coordination with a concurrent Hockney-Picasso exhibition --- "Dialogue Avec Picasso --- at the nearby Picasso Museum, where Hockney makes clear his intense study, adaptations from, and tribute to Picasso. Yet even while there are clear debts to Picasso and a shared playfulness, Hockney attempts and achieves panoramic interior compositions that distinguish his vivid experimentalism. "A Walk Around the Hotel Courtyard, Acatlan" (1985) depicts a colonnaded walkway and exterior courtyard where a primary red defines the picture's surreal curved space.
The exhibition's survey of Hockney's development begins in the early 1960s, when Magritte's surreal sense of space and other Magritte influences were decidedly present in Hockney's work. During that time, Hockney discovered the visual overlap between this European-born surrealism and the sterile linearity in southern California's architecture. Commercial and bank buildings that lacked any conceptual embellishment beyond the banal minimalism of Internationalist style became fields for formal experimentation. In paintings like "Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles"(1964) and "Savings and Loan Building" (1967) the architecture represents and encloses life, but generates and exists within its own social emptiness. Capital has won the day: the dryness is beyond what even the LA palms can bear. That same desolation predominates in Hockney's many canvases of domestic architecture in California, with absent, isolated or disappearing residents. He found his early public success with "A Bigger Splash" (1967), which became a model image of isolation in the midst of material success. Hockney captured the contradictions of plenty becoming nothing, of sensual stimulation leading to emotional deprivation. In this land of swimming pools, human faces are nearly dead and human bodies live one step from paraplegia.
Very little of Hockney's work of the 1970s appears in this exhibit. It fast-forwards to the eighties, by which time he had become intensely conscious of the modern history of experimentation that has informed his career. An abiding sense of participation in a tradition lives in his compositions, which can refer to several graphic styles simultaneously. Hockney does not borrow from other artists so much as return viewers to how they have learned to see during the twentieth century.