Hockney's most iconic motif within his long and varied oeuvre: the swimming pool. The great symbol of California's outdoor pleasures – and an extremely exotic and sumptuous prospect for a young man from Bradford. The present work delivers a highly abstracted composition that evolves from the swimming pool as symbol of comfort and affluence, to a formal device for the depiction of light and reflective surfaces.
Hockney had been enthralled with Los Angeles since he first arrived there at the beginning of 1964. As the artist later reflected, “California did affect me very strongly… I instinctively knew I was going to like it. And as I flew over San Bernardino and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I have ever been in arriving in any city'' (David Hockney in conversation with Martin Glazebrook, in: Exh. Cat., London, The Whitechapel Art Gallery, David Hockney Paintings, prints and drawings 1960-1970, 1970, p. 11). In California, he found the quintessence of a fantasy that he had formed wherein athletic young men, swimming pools, palm trees and perpetual sunshine sensually coexisted without inhibition. As Paul Melia notes, Hockney’s paintings “… of male nudes climbing in or out of swimming pools, sleeping by the pool's edge, or floating on inflatable beds appear to represent a return to a pre-modern world of sensuality and plenty, a second Eden” (Paul Melia and David Luckhardt, David Hockney, London 2011, p. 58). Indeed Hockney’s interest in water and swimming pools allowed him to extend the European tradition of the depiction of classical beauties bathing, set harmoniously within a utopian landscape; a long standing theme within the history of Western art that has captivated Renaissance and Modern masters alike, from Titian and Rembrandt, to Cézanne and Matisse.
For Hockney, the swimming pool represented the embodiment of this tranquil land of affluence and leisure, and he embarked on meticulous observations of the water he saw. When intense sunlight hits water it reflects in sensuous curves, wobbles off ripples and flickers against a serene surface, in ways that present remarkable challenges to any artist. Quickly the technical challenge of painting water itself became of equal interest for Hockney, as first seen in the painting Man Taking a Shower (Tate, London) executed at the beginning of 1965 whilst he was teaching at the University of Colorado. Furthermore it presented a platform for the artist to tackle the graphic difficulties of light, depth, transparency and reflection. As the artist explained, “Water in swimming pools changes its look more than in any other form… But the look of swimming pools is controllable – even its colour can be manmade – and its dancing rhythms reflect not only the sky but, because of its transparency the depth of water as well. So I had to use techniques to represent this. If the water surface is almost still and there is a strong sun, then dancing lines with the colours of the spectrum appear everywhere” (Nikos Stangos, Ed., David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 104).
These technical challenges also provided a platform for Hockney to make his first foray into an American inspired style of abstraction. No doubt influenced by the contemporaneous American artists in his gallerist Kasmin’s stable, such as Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, Hockney felt a desire for exploration: “I have never thought of my painting as advanced, but I wanted to be involved, if only peripherally, with modernism” (David Hockney cited in: Christopher Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Bigraphy. Volume I. 1937-1975, London 2011, p. 43). Starting with Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica and a series of still lifes, he explored the different possible interpretations of Cézanne’s famous remark that nature should be broken down into the essential components of the sphere, the cylinder, and the cone. As Hockney has since explained: “The ‘artistic devices’ are images and elements of my own and other artists’ work and ideas of the time… All the paintings were, in a way, influenced by American abstractionists, particularly Kenneth Noland, whom I’d got to know through Kasmin who was showing him. I was trying to take note of these paintings… they’re all done the same way as Kenneth Noland’s, stained acrylic paint on raw cotton duck, and things like that” (David Hockney quoted in: Ibid.).
The artistic devices in this instance are the abstract arrangements of curves and the effects of translucency as depicted through a hyper-stylised abstract tapestry of vivid blue and white tones. Having briefly experimented with acrylics in London, Hockney found the American acrylics superior in texture and colour. He could now use acrylics to his satisfaction, and their quick drying properties allowed him the freedom, not only to focus on one work at a time, but additionally to emphasise the pre-eminence of the image by achieving a smooth surface of flat and brilliant colour. His use of a wider palette of colours – curving interweaving lines of violet, blues and reds – accentuate the play of light as it is reflected upon water’s ever-changing surface. Furthermore, the purported objectivity and sense of distance from his subject reveals Hockney’s growing interest in photography, which had sprung from the synthesized, superficial impression of reality he had seen in glossy American magazines. This is suggested by the strip of raw canvas and thick silver border around the image, which stresses the absolute artificiality of pictorial representation and continued dialogue with abstraction, whilst creating the impression of a ‘picture within a picture’: "...by including the representation of a frame within the painting itself he gives the work another layer of meaning which causes us to ask exactly where reality lies" (John Russell, The Times, 9 December 1965).
This work not only summates the vision of the Californian idyll that so captivated the artist, it eloquently encapsulates the advancement of formal and technical concerns that would establish Hockney’s reputation as the leading artist of his generation. As he simply recalled, “Swimming pools I’ve always liked as things. I like swimming in blue swimming pools in sunny Hollywood. But water is done in quite different ways. Sometimes I did it very formally, other times it’s done more naturalistically… the way the light would dance on the water. And really the paintings about water are about movement aren’t they?” (David Hockney in conversation with Martin Glazebrook, op. cit., p. 13).