David Hockney’s love-hate affair with technology

David Hockney’s Tate Britain retrospective begins with an overture. While the other rooms canter along chronologically, from student days at the Royal College of Art, through swimming pools and sunbathers to his vast multi-panel paeans to the Yorkshire Wolds, the first room contracts 50 years into four walls. What ties it together is illusion – showcasing Hockney’s consistent attention to poking holes in perspectives.

David Hockney’s love-hate affair with technology

Play Within a Play (1963), for example, is a painting of Hockney’s friend John Kasmin pressed up against a piece of glass, in front of tapestry. All is not what it seems. The space he inhabits is impossibly shallow; his body is painted on the same flat plane as the tapestry, but his squished nose is painted on a piece of Perspex, nailed to the canvas. Elsewhere, in 4 Blue Stools (2014), what appears to be a single image is revealed on closer inspection to be a room of impossible spaces and figures, made by stitching together hundreds of digital photographs.


(Above: 4 Blue Stools, 2014)

“Photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed cyclops”

“Photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed cyclops – for a split second,” Hockney once said. “But that’s not what it’s like to live in the world, or to convey the experience of living in the world.”

Hockney’s relationship with technology, and the way of seeing that it propagates, runs throughout the Tate’s retrospective. Cameras, in particular, ricochet from one room to the next. Here we have paintings that trap their subjects in Polaroid frames; here we have Picasso-like portraits made from Polaroids; here we have painted landscapes made up of panels; here we have composite scenes made up of digital photography. All dig at how humans see in ways that are different to, but informed by, the machines we use.hockey-walker-gallery1

(Above: Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966)

The final room, dedicated to the artist’s iPhone and iPad sketches, presents a very different relationship with technology. Despite the fact that, for many people, these devices have replaced their camera, Hockney seems less interested in interrogating the ways smartphones have changed how we consume images, and more with how they can be used as connected sketchpads.

“The way he embraced the iPhone and iPad as a drawing instrument, it’s very akin to how he’s always drawn,” Andrew Wilson, co-curator of the exhibition, tells me. “They become his sketchbook. A new sketchbook, that brings together drawing and painting. But they’re also a sketchbook that really capitalises on that sense of what had always driven him to engage with new technologies, especially new print technologies: distribution.”hockney_ipad

(Above: A collection of Hockney’s iPad sketches)

Wilson explains that using an iPad lets Hockney send out sketches to his network of friends, and this is part of the artist’s long-running interest in the modes of delivery, from fax machines to computers. No doubt smartphones and tablets have transformed the way images are circulated, although I’m unconvinced that Hockney’s iPad works are all that conceptually interesting. Instead, the appeal for the artist seems to lie in what they allow him to do practically, with a screen full of light.

“Painting in a way that could carry on forever, and there’d still be light coming out of it”

“The thing you’re drawing on is a backlit glass screen,” says Wilson. “It brings together on the one hand technology, which has always fascinated him since the early 60s, but also a sense of transparency – of glass and light. It’s like he’s drawing and painting in a way that could carry on forever, and there’d still be light coming out of it.”

Light, and the spectrum of colour it carries, is everywhere in Tate Britain’s show – regardless of whether it’s behind an iPad screen. This is one of the brightest exhibitions I’ve ever been to, my rods and cones slapped and tickled throughout. Fauvism gets a few heavy nods, as does the cubism of Picasso, but all the modernist echoes, perspective trickery and love-hate affairs with new technology are ultimately angled to one thing: the human eye, and what it does with the light that gets in. 


(Above: Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006. Lead image: Bill + Audrey Wilder Los Angeles, April 1982.)

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