Issue Number: 114
David Hockney RA’s exhibition ‘A Bigger Picture’ is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Here, Marco Livingstone, who co-curated the show, gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how it evolved to keep pace with the artist’s energy and enthusiasm
Anyone who works with David Hockney RA, even as he approaches his 75th birthday, quickly learns that it will take considerable energy, application and enthusiasm to keep up with his pace. In my own case, more than three decades since our first meeting, and after writing several books on his work and curating three museum shows, co-curating ‘David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture’ with the RA’s Edith Devaney has proved one of the most demanding but also exhilarating experiences of my professional life. The reason is simple: this is an exhibition primarily of new work on a scale unprecedented in Hockney’s life, made for the grandest galleries in the UK and conceived as a unified entity. This immersive installation of paintings, watercolours, drawings, gigantic iPad prints and multi-screen digital videos takes the visitor on a journey through nature and specifically through the gently beautiful landscape of the East Yorkshire Wolds.
David Hockney RA, 'April 20th, May 19th 2011, The Tunnel, 5pm & 8.10am'. Still from 18-screen video Photos © Richard Dawson/Royal Academy of Arts
As a member of the Royal Academy, Hockney has the right to exhibit six works up to a specified size at the annual Summer Exhibitions. In 2007 he asked to display a single painting on a grid of fifty 3 x 4-ft canvases to occupy the entire end wall on the largest of all the galleries in Burlington House. The resulting picture, Bigger Trees near Warter, attracted huge public and critical interest and made that year’s Summer Exhibition one to remember.
With that sensational work fresh in their minds, and aware that Hockney had been painting for the previous three years at a furious pace from his attic studio in the coastal town of Bridlington, Norman Rosenthal (then Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy) and Edith Devaney (organiser of the RA’s Summer Exhibition) asked Hockney to consider staging an exhibition concentrating on his recent landscape work. He jumped at the opportunity, knowing from experience that the prospect of a big museum show would galvanize him into making even more ambitious work. In 1983, at the invitation of Martin Friedman at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he had made the bulk of ‘Hockney Paints the Stage’ which centred on his work for the theatre. In 1997-98 he had produced views of Yorkshire and two huge panoramic paintings of the Grand Canyon for an exhibition staged in the following year at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, ‘David Hockney Espace/Paysage’.
David Hockney drawing on his iPad in the RA galleries. Jeff Overs/BBC. With the RA’s invitation in mind, in early 2008 Hockney took a five-year lease on a vast warehouse space on the edge of Bridlington, shaping it as a studio measuring 100 x 100ft. For the first time in his life, he was working in a studio that could accommodate many large paintings at once, and he could continue to count on the indefatigable Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, who had been working as his full-time assistant since 2004.
By the time I was appointed to co-curate the exhibition, I had already visited Bridlington at intervals to see work in progress and to discuss how the exhibition might take shape. (Some of these conversations formed the basis of a book, David Hockney: My Yorkshire, which sold out before the RA’s exhibition opened.) My remit was to ensure that a substantial portion of the exhibition was devoted to work predating 2004, to contextualise the new landscape work historically. In the end, we were all so swept up by Hockney’s enthusiasm that only two of the 13 galleries were set aside for this ‘back story’. It was enough to establish links with his few earlier Yorkshire landscapes and with large-scale paintings of Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon, produced in 1980 and 1998 respectively.
The exhibition’s final design looks so inevitable and logical that our role as curators might appear to have been superfluous, but we explored many permutations before settling on this layout. Even the choice of unusual wall colours to set the works to best advantage involved repeated meetings between the artist and the exhibition designer, Calum Storrie. My initial plan had to be substantially altered as Hockney produced new groups of pictures. In early 2010, as he began work on the multi-screen digital videos finally housed in a large gallery near the end of the exhibition, the artist proposed showing these in the octagonal gallery that opens the exhibition. I persuaded him instead to give the four large walls of that gallery to the series Three Trees near Thixendale, painted between 2007 and 2008 in each of the four seasons so that the visitor is immediately enfolded by this serene landscape and primed to give attention to the recurrence of favoured motifs altered by the play of light and atmosphere under different weather conditions.
David Hockney drawing on his iPad in the RA galleries. Jeff Overs/BBC. Hockney’s ‘Just Nature’ exhibition, held at Kunsthalle Würth, Germany, in summer 2009, curated by the head of his studio operations, Gregory Evans, convinced us all of the wisdom of displaying the works at the RA show by theme and motif in the first run of five galleries devoted to work made since 2004. Separate spaces are devoted to the first small paintings and watercolours, made between 2004 and 2006, and then to paintings from 2005 to 2006, of a farm track referred to as ‘the tunnel’, to a series of magnificent six-part canvases of Woldgate Woods (2006), to paintings and charcoal drawings of hawthorn in blossom (2007-09) and finally to paintings and drawings of felled trees (2008-09). The show is thus a succession of visual experiences that encourage one to share in the artist’s extreme attentiveness to particular places, always in the ‘here and now’. The closest parallel is with exhibitions of Claude Monet’s series paintings, which were among the inspirations for Hockney’s own investigations of nature. Each space has been meticulously planned on the scale model constructed by Hockney’s assistants at the Bridlington studio.
Gallery 3, the largest of the galleries and the one in which Hockney had previously shown Bigger Trees near Warter (2007), remained a worrying question mark as we entered 2011. A surprising series of painted variations on Claude Lorrain’s The Sermon on the Mount (c.1656) was first proposed by the artist for that space, but he himself eventually came up with a more thrilling proposal. Having discovered that his increasingly virtuoso drawings on his Apple iPad could be printed, with no obvious pixellation, on sheets about 1.5m high, he set himself the daunting task of producing nearly 100 such images between 1 January and 2 June 2011 to represent The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011. His selection of 51 of these beautiful prints, flanking an oil painting on 32 canvases measuring 3.65m x 9.75m overall, was conceived as a single work for Gallery 3. By presenting here a coherent installation, rather than just a collection of big pictures, Hockney made full use of the opportunity presented by the exhibition to take his art into a new direction. This is the case, too, with the gallery that succeeds it, devoted to the 18-screen videos. These continue the themes of nature, space and time, but now through the moving image. There is also the chance to see the sketchbooks in which some of the exhibition’s imagery was first tested.
The huge Gallery 3 is filled with one work: The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), a 52-part work comprising oil on 32 canvases and 51 iPad drawings printed on paper. Photo © Richard Dawson/Royal Academy of Arts.
When planning an exhibition on this immense scale, curators usually have a finite body of work at their disposal and concentrate on making a selection and then persuading collectors and institutions to lend. The making of this show, given Hockney’s extraordinary energy and his excitement at being able to produce pictures to be exhibited for the first time, has necessarily involved our willingness to adapt to circumstances, to drop works we loved in order to make space for other groups of pictures, and to go with the flow. The last surprise occurred in October 2011, by which time the exhibition catalogue was due to have gone to press. Hockney returned from a month in California brimming with enthusiasm for the 12ft-high iPad prints he had just made of Yosemite. We were bowled over, and at the end of our meeting with Hockney we had agreed to feature them in the exhibition’s concluding room, with a final treat tucked away behind a false wall: another immense recent painting of the undergrowth along Woldgate.
The central gallery showing two of the four paintings on display in the series Three Trees at Thixendale (2007-08). A Closer Grand Canyon (1998) can be seen through the archway. Photo © Richard Dawson/Royal Academy of Arts
As Hockney said in a recent interview with Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian: ‘When they say the landscape genre has been done, that is impossible. You can’t be tired of nature. It is just our way of looking at it that we are tired of. So get a new way of looking at it.’ Judging by the overwhelming popularity of this show Hockney has done precisely that, triumphantly reinventing the art of landscape.