David Hockney’s iPhone Passion

Lawrence Weschler, October 22, 2009

David Hockney Three images by David Hockney—a self-portrait, a still life, and a summer dawn—made with the Brushes application on his iPhone, 2009 After two decades of regularly finding himself caught up in all sorts of seemingly extraneous side-passions (photocollages, operatic stage design, fax extravaganzas, homemade photocopier print runs, a controversial revisionist art-historical investigation, and a watercolor idyll), David Hockney, now age seventy-two, has finally taken to painting once again, doing so, over the past three or four years, with a vividness and a sheer productivity perhaps never before seen in his career. This recent body of work consists almost entirely of seasonal landscapes of the rolling hills, hedgerows, tree stands, valley wolds, and farm fields surrounding the somewhat déclassé onetime summer seaside resort of Bridlington, England, on the North Sea coast, where he now lives. Some are intimately scaled but many are among the largest, most ambitious canvases of his entire career. The paintings have been widely exhibited—in London (at the Tate and the Royal Academy), in Los Angeles, a broad overview in a small museum in Germany this past summer—though not yet in New York, a situation that will be rectified in late October by a major show, his first there in ten years, slated to take up both the uptown and downtown spaces at PaceWildenstein.1 The buildup toward these shows has found Hockney busier than ever (he is still in the process of completing a dozen fresh canvases as I write), but not so busy that he hasn‘t managed to become fascinated by yet another new (and virtually diametrically opposite) technology, one that he is pursuing with almost as much verve and fascination: drawing on his iPhone. Hockney first became interested in iPhones about a year ago (he grabbed the one I happened to be using right out of my hands). He acquired one of his own and began using it as a highpowered reference tool, searching out paintings on the Web and cropping appropriate details as part of the occasional polemics or appreciations with which he is wont to shower his friends.

‖ Hockney explains. more luminous light are we ever afforded? Especially here where the light comes rising over the sea. Increasingly.‖ he explains. start mixing and matching the colors. ceramic vases. (He assumes the friends pass them along through the digital ether. entitled Brushes. portraits. But with an iPhone. when I do it. if you turned on a light so as to be able to see them. from which he can choose a specific color. turn it on. and glass jars. when off. probably over a thousand. and mainly self-portraits at that—perhaps playing on the way that an iPhone‘s blackened screen. which allows the user digitally to smear. These became the occasion for his extensive investigations into the types of effects possible in this new medium. reflecting back a ghostly image of the user‘s face. or else. . bring the face back to full scale. often sending out four or five a day to a group of about a dozen friends. mind you. progressively layering the emerging image with as many such daubings as he desires. ―Although the actual drawing. just the opposite of my old California haunts. as it were. ordinarily it would be too dark to see the paints. or fingerpaint (it‘s not yet entirely clear what the proper verb should be for this novel activity). rising over the seabay outside his bedroom window. by dragging his finger across the screen. goes quite quickly. the Brushes application gives the user a full color-wheel spectrum. He has now accomplished dozens of such sequential studies. To begin with. After all. or else fashion subsequent brushstrokes. over the past several months. and instantaneously evocative.‖ Hockney points out. one after the next. and not really caring what happens to them after that. of course. I don‘t even have to get out of bed. such images. sending them out in real time. sometimes as many as eight successive versions. however. ―It inevitably pushes the world away. texture. and go on to fill in the entire backdrop of the screen in that color. colorful. you‘d lose the subtle gathering tones of the coming sun.But soon he discovered one of those newfangled iPhone applications. variously narrower or thicker. or color.‖ Hockney‘s drawings. ―I‘ve always wanted to be able to paint the dawn.2 Over the past six months. That‘s just one of its many problems. not second-generation digital copies of images that exist in some other medium: their digital expression constitutes the sole (albeit multiple) original of the image. the range of results is dazzlingly various. to create highly sophisticated full-color images directly on the device‘s screen. But in the old days one never could. it is the summer dawn.‖ Indeed. Hockney became much more interested in bunches of cut flowers and plants ranged in brick pots. Essentially.) Early on. He can then modify that color‘s hue along a range of darker to lighter. and more or less transparent. The flood of images has more or less resolved itself into three streams. or draw. the reflected face in the blackened screen is approximately twice the size of the same face if one turns the iPhone around to snap a photographic self-portrait. laying in the evolving scene. what clearer. five. Hockney has fashioned literally hundreds. according to need. and then to archive or send them out by e-mail. that has been capturing Hockney‘s attention.) These are. I just reach for the device. ―some days it might be preceded by hours and hours of thinking through just how one might achieve a certain play of light. ―But that‘s how it always is with photography. already functions as a sort of Claude Lorrain–style darkened glass. so that his friends in America wake to their own account of the Bridlington dawn—two. sent out minutes apart. because. (Intriguingly.

best of all. there‘s no thrashing about. there‘s no mess. Him scratching away on his cave wall. Hockney limits his contact with the screen exclusively to the pad of his thumb. And that‘s a primordial calling: goes all the way back to the cave painters.I‘ve noticed that most users of the Brushes application tend to trace out their brushstrokes with their pointer finger. this freshness. One can set to work immediately.‖ He continues: It‘s all part of the urge toward figuration. You look out at the world and you‘re called to make gestures in response. Or.‖ he adds. and he said. ―that the images always look better on the screen than on the page. actually. craning back over that shoulder. 1 "David Hockney: Recent Paintings. and heads back over to a vast set of painted canvases arrayed against the far wall of his hangarlike studio: a view of a forest road lined with felled trees. ―The thing is. this is a medium of pure light. and watercolor bottles—and smudged clean-up rags—is used to working small. it‘s just that occasionally I speak on my sketch pad.‖ Hockney explains. you hit Send. the expressive range. pastel sticks. crayons. I asked Hockney whether he‘d mind my sharing some of these images with a wider audience across a printed medium. 2 . three high and five long. a gridded combine of fifteen canvases. you can easily reach every corner with your thumb. and I say. and begins working from his shoulder. no clean-up. stubs out his cigarette. (The screen measures changes in electrical charge. 2009. me dragging my thumb over this iPhone‘s screen. lodged in ―these not-so-simple thumbs of ours. ―People from the village. and your little cohort of friends around the world gets to experience a similar immediacy. very intimate about the whole process.‖ Hockney. ―come up to me and tease me. Only the thumb has the opposable joint which allows you to move over the screen with maximum speed and agility. He laughs. ―Though it is worth noting. you actually have to be working from your elbow. snaps off the iPhone. no. He daubs a long paintbrush with fresh creamy glops of paint.‖ he says. ‗We hear you‘ve started drawing on your telephone. There‘s something.‖ but it‘s incredible the dexterity. who has carried small notebooks in his pockets since his student days. and can be operated only with a conductive object—like a finger—rather than a pen-like stylus. You just turn off the machine. All part of the same passion. ‗Well. even better. to the activity.↩ 2.‘ And I tell them. ink pens. scrambling for the right color.‘‖ 1. but he delights in the simplicity of this new medium: It‘s always there in my pocket. and the screen is exactly the right size. lighting one of his perennial cigarettes. finally.) As I discovered on a recent visit. ―if you are using your pointer or other fingers. not ink or pigment. and when it‘s over.‖ He goes on to note how people used to worry that computers would one day render us ―all thumbs." October 23–December 24. Well there must have been a cave painter back there somewhere. if anything more akin to a stained glass window than an illustration on paper. May even have preceded language. not really. he more or less assumed that the pictures would one by one find their way into the world. along with pencils. there‘s this wonderful impromptu quality. People are always asking me about my ancestors. After all.

28-3/4" x 75". Offset lithograph.Recently Brushes issued an upgrade.0. 28 colors. 1985. From Walt Whitman to William Blake. here are the writers that mean most to him Blake Morrison. As with many such applications. 1976 . All the images reproduced here were done with the original version.↩ David Hockney. Edition of 98 David Hockney: the poets that make me paint A new retrospective reveals Hockney's 60-year obsession with literature – especially poetry. Hotel Acatlan: Second Day. Friday 24 January 2014 David Hockney: Henry At Table. Brushes 2. he prefers the original. much to Hockney's dismay. The Guardian.

money was not such a problem. Indeed. which handed out materials for free. having failed to get a transfer to Bradford School of Art. he had raised money through dares ("Give me sixpence and I'll jump in the canal"). Henry Geldzahler."He still does not really believe that an artist needs occasionally to use words. in south London. one of the main lessons of his forthcoming show at Dulwich Picture Gallery. "Heaven". as well as titles spelled out in large capitals across the middle of the canvas or curving more discreetly round the edge ("Dollboy". stretching from lithographs he did of his parents when he was a teenager. Previously a star pupil. At the Royal College of Art. because he was poor. Tom Wolfe argued that late-20th century art had become so dominated by art theory that it was now less a visual medium than a literary one: "The paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text. especially one who worked so prolifically. "Queen"." he claimed. Gregory Evans. Hockney is no exception. But his English teacher needn't have worried. Hockney was in an unco-operative mood at the time. quotations from poems and names of friends. oil paints and canvases became expensive. For a student of limited means. with his reputation more or less made. "Life Painting for a Diplomat" etc). through etchings of friends and lovers (Celia Birtwell. Do artists need words? In a famous anti-conceptualist polemic of four decades ago. He could talk for hours on almost any subject. or phrases encountered in novels or poems. His relationship with print began almost by accident. John Kasmin) to the Xeroxes and inkjet-printed computer drawings of recent years. Peter Langan. But painters have always been inspired by words – whether classical myths. Hockney was never lost for words. But he has continued experimenting with different kinds of printmaking throughout his career. of himself and the local fish and chip shop. As a teenager in Bradford. The show is a retrospective of 60 years of his printwork." wrote David Hockney's exasperated English teacher at Bradford grammar school about his 13-year-old student. is how literary an artist he is. Once in art school. he took the safer option of working in the printmaking department. . one friend reported. Once he left art school. The Painted Word. biblical narratives. And the early paintings – those that come nearest to pop art – are awash with writing: brand names. Only when Hockney became more unashamedly figurative did his logorrhoea disappear. advertising slogans.

Peter Crutch. Another Whitman line is daubed across his oil painting We Two Boys Together Clinging. the local classics to Dickens". who was straight. Flaubert andLawrence Durrell are other authors to whom he has alluded over the years. Christopher Simon Sykes. Courtesy of David Hockney One of the few other constants has been the influence of literature. Whitman appears as one of the two haloed figures standing beside the young Hockney (the other is Gandhi). Hockney was an avid reader – "everything from Biggles to the Brontës. Grimms fairytales were part of his childhood too. Blake. between terms at the Royal College of Art.David Hockney: Lilies (1971). He read him in the summer of 1960. and he later illustrated them in a series of etchings. Proust. But the first writer to appear in his art was Walt Whitman. with the next line of the poem "One the other never leaving" reduced to the word "never" – a wry admission from Hockney that the crush he had on a fellow student. the darkness of the subject matter brought out by the use of crosshatching. most of them borrowed from the local library. the house was never short of books. And in the 1961 etching Myself and My Heroes. And according to his biographer. along with the words "For the dear love of comrades" from Whitman's poem "I Hear It Was Charged Against Me". could never come . Though his Bradford working-class upbringing was modest.

Hockney was no less obsessed with his work than he had been with Whitman's. but only in a teasing. hermetic manner. they make plain what Cavafy was forced to disguise. The beauty of anomalous charm. to the extent of adopting the code Whitman had used in a journal to disguise his love for the confederate soldier Peter Doyle. The figure 3. and Hockney clearly identified with him. visited both Cavafy's native Alexandria and (a better model for the atmosphere he wished to evoke) Beirut. while the two men penetrating each other in his picture Adhesiveness have the numbers 4. The rare beauty of his face. and before embarking on his etchings to 14 of Cavafy's poems he met his ageing English translator. The prints don't so much illustrate the poems (an impossible task in any case) as convey the eroticism underlying them. and commissioned new translations from Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos.8 and 23. With those ideal lips that bring Sensual delight to the body loved.to anything. It is fascinating to compare Hockney's images of naked men in bed together with the poems that inspired them.23 – David Hockney and Walt Whitman. It took another poet. Those ideal limbs shaped for beds That common morality calls shameless. Whitman helped Hockney to acknowledge his homosexuality. where 1 = A. in his poem "In an Old Book" Cavafy describes finding an old unsigned watercolour and how: The young man depicted there Was not destined for those Who love in ways that are more or less healthy. Most of Whitman's crushes weren't reciprocated either. CP Cavafy.18 shown in Hockney's painting Doll Boy translates as CR (Cliff Richard). 2 = B and so on. . For instance. Inside the bounds of what is clearly permissible – With his deep chestnut eyes. to make it explicit.

arms folded behind his head. Hockney found his poems "slightly oldfashioned. . 1966. he would have been liable to prosecution: it was only in 1967 that homosexuality in Britain was finally decriminalised. Hockney's celebration of gay sex was propagandist as well as personal. the day after. Even so. They never describe sex. he removes the shame and depicts the young man lying back contentedly." In his etching to the poem above. had Hockney's etching appeared any earlier. he'll give voice To the strong lines that had their beginning here.David Hockney: Two Boys Aged 23 or 24. He became the artist Cavafy had imagined in a poem that describes two male lovers parting furtively after an illicit encounter: … what profit for the life of the artist: Tomorrow. or years later. Courtesy of David Hockney Despite his admiration for Cavafy. helping change the climate of opinion. with his penis (the key body part unmentioned in the poem) frankly exposed. Attitudes had changed in the 40 years since the poem was first published.

Hockney persuaded Kasmin to strip down to his vest and made a second etching. Braque. Miró and – most important from Hockney's point of view – Picasso. the year Hockney first visited LA. it has no set visual description". Hockney set off on a bicycle to find the action. who on a visit to his studio one day asked to be shown how etchings are made. whose novel City of Night was published in 1963. Hockney appointed himself its Piranesi. so how do you paint it? It is the acrylics from this period that people know best. who made the same journey but whose poems weren't candid about documenting his sexuality for another two decades. they are an attempt to solve an almost insuperable formal problem: as he put it. for his lithographs. Portraits of Californian friends are here too. "Sit still and I'll do one now. gives us two seemingly different men – a behatted. and here again he took his bearings from literature – not from Thom Gunn.Hockney's departure to California was part of the same process of liberation. united only in being portrayed from the waist up. It wasn't just personal whim but depended on his contact with different master printers and their workshops. Hockney came into his own. LA captivated him. it was Ken Tyler. Picture of a Pointless Abstraction Framed Under Glass etc. including Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy at opposite ends of a sofa. Another portrait. Since the other half of the plate was empty and it seemed a pity not to use it. in part because of its newness. but the Dulwich show contains some equally colourful lithographs from the "Afternoon Swimming" series. deciding that no one had yet found a way to depict it. In Paris. who had worked with Matisse. Kasmin Twice. and a butch. It is fascinating to see how Hockney fluctuated between etching and lithography at different points of his career. and. Excited by Rechy's descriptions of downtown hustling. in the Dulwich show is of his dealer. or double portrait. Behind their joyful hedonism. not realising – till he reached Pershing Square 17 miles later – what a vast sprawl the city was." Hockney told him. it's movable. But once he began to portray Californian swimming pools. Sprawling or not. water "can be any colour. and scratched away on a copper plate until he had a likeness. The first lithographs are too busy poking fun at the Hollywood art scene to achieve very much: Picture of Melrose Avenue in an Ornate Gold Frame. bespectacled middle-aged professional. where Hockney lived for a time in the 1970s. but from John Rechy. hairy-chested stud. In California. it was Aldo Crommelynck. The result. John Kasmin. young. The new technique for colour etching .

we are never allowed to forget that we are looking at an image. . and it is why he has worked in so many media – to keep finding new ways to reveal "things as they are". proceeds from a similar premise. back in the 1980s. "Poetry is the subject of the poem. You do not play things as they are.devised by Crommelynck (a technique described in detail in the catalogue for the show by the curator Richard Lloyd) allowed for more spontaneity than had previously been possible. a line that Hockney steals and reworks as Etching is the Subject. Picasso died before the technique was perfected. However realist Hockney's art. no matter how it's done.' The man replied. In the poem. 'Things as they are Are changed upon the blue guitar. for the title of one of his Blue Guitar etchings." Stevens writes. Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality: They said 'You have a blue guitar.' It is obvious why this attracted Hockney. that even a photocopy is never just a copy – "Everything is a translation of something else. but Hockney took to it at once. not the thing itself. and that the content is partly determined by the form. That reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic. Further homage came in his series "The Blue Guitar". and paid homage with two etchings of himself as Picasso's student and model. itself inspired by Picasso's The Old Guitarist. The art Hockney produced on a Xerox machine. inspired by Wallace Stevens's long poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar"." Working with a photocopier also appealed to him because it cut out the need for the master printer in his atelier: the artist doesn't have to negotiate or compromise but has total control.

Van Gogh. Hogarth. the originality of his vision shines through.David Hockney: Rain on the Studio Window (2009). with the shadow of a neighbouring house visible through the streaked grey pane." Whatever the starting point or the medium. Caravaggio. Hockney has been working on an iPad. quoting from writers. Hockney's art is often seen as a conversation with artists of the past. Even when painting the Yorkshire Wolds. The Dulwich show is iPad-free. where the autonomy is even greater. Monet or Claude Lorrain. including one of rain on a studio window – a humble Velux above a white radiator. Courtesy of David Hockney More recently. but it does include some fine examples of Hockney's inkjet-printed computer drawings. and where the distinction between an original and a reproduction is eroded – a drawing made in a printing machine is both. The Dulwich show is all about copying – about imitating painters. . say. But as Hockney likes to say: "There's no such thing as a copy. representing the world he sees and making duplicates of a single art work. he can't help alluding to landscapes painted by artists before him. really. more's the pity. whether Picasso.

Edition of 98 . Offset lithograph. 28-3/4" x 75". Hotel Acatlan: Second Day. 28 colors. 1985.David Hockney.

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