California Spring

For the last half century, I have pictured David Hockney with a schoolboy cap, owlish wire-frame spectacles, skinny, horizontally striped tie, a shock of blond hair and a cigarette drooping from his lips - the perennial bad-boy of British art.

A few weekends ago, in San Francisco, that image was finally retired and the artist, now in his seventies (and I not much more than a decade behind him), established himself in my consciousness not as a caricature but as a great painter of place. It’s not that he hasn’t been painting place all along but in his new show, A Bigger Exhibition, he is willing to demonstrate a level of profundity that he has often preferred to hide. During all those years in Los Angeles (he arrived in 1964, already a star) – a place that has never rewarded depth, except, perhaps, in its swimming pools – he painted surface; then he created the fractured desert polaroids that were so easy to love; but in the late 1990’s he moved to Yorkshire to be close to his ailing parents and he attacked (there’s really no other word for it) the landscapes of his youth. He held them hostage through the seasons, imprisoned them in photographs and video and then made them immortal through the epic scale of his paintings.

At the de Young, all was revealed. His practice, his passion and, ultimately the visual qualities of a very particular environment: the rolling farmland and woods of the East Yorkshire wolds. There were riotous examinations of how we receive images in glorious Technicolor but that the brain most often interprets in sfumato – colors toned down into a smoky medley of sage greens, washed out blues and soupy taupes. Hockney refuses to back off the loud pedal, he forces us to admit that yes, that muddy puddle really is magenta. This is the north of England, in winter, spring, summer and fall, every season rendered in splashy colors and frenetic line and with an urgency that is evident in every brush stroke. That urgency arises from a need to reflect what he sees, not as an idea, but as an image: in turn, we begin to see with him, in thrilling sympathy with his zealous eye and, ultimately, with his honesty as a painter.

The show, barely contained in some ten large galleries, was staged on the ground floor of the De Young, a typically bravura exercise by Herzog and de Meuron, Swiss architects who cloak their only slightly punk modernism with gloriously tactile materials: here embossed copper panels for the low-slung galleries and perforated copper sheets that drape the twisted tower, at one corner of the site, which houses the administration offices and an observation platform. Their 2010 building replaces a bizarre Egyptoid beaux-arts building thankfully felled in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Across the way from the de Young is another architectural entertainment, the Renzo Piano Academy of Sciences, an overtly green building that extends from the surviving limestone wing of the old 1934 building (similarly dealt a death blow in 1989). Retaining the symmetry of the older building, the new is neo-classical modern, with slender steel columns which support an extended canopy shading the inner building in a peristyle. Piano’s new trick is to lay photo voltaics atop the translucent canopy. The body of the building is green roofed in a series of domes studded with occuli sky-lights. The roof, best seen from the upper floors of the de Young, seems to mimic the adjacent mounding land forms, which are heavily treed and vegetated sand dunes.

To learn that Golden Gate Park is an elaborate horticultural confection layered on drifting dunes was disappointing: predictably, I shed a tear for the now forever lost, bleak and wind-blown landscape of yore. By 1880,155,000 trees covered the dunes in typical late-Victorian excess, fashioned, in what we now consider a wrong-headed eclecticism, out of (mostly) California pines and Australian eucalypts. Lorrie noted that this greening of the dunes made it more accessible to the adjacent huddled masses. I was willing to admit that the dunes were probably doomed given the growth of the City and that misguided horticultural adventurism might possibly be preferable to their commercial development.

Back in the de Young, in their permanent American collection, there are a number of mid to late nineteenth century paintings by Albert Bierstadt, 1830–1902, one of those Hudson River School artists who was enthralled with the exoticism of Yosemite and the giant redwoods of California and came west to paint them. Among his paintings on display is California Spring, which portrays a pastoral scene of cows grazing in a field contrasted with an approaching thunderstorm over the Sacramento River valley. This late period Bierstadt is inferior to much of his earlier Yosemite works, less interesting than his giant redwood paintings and less iconic than his heart-rending late painting, The Last of the Buffalo, from 1888, a study for which is also on display at the de Young.

The Spring image is of a tamed landscape - a pastoral that proclaims its domesticity (hence the latter-day aurochs). Yet it is phenomenally popular and prints of the work, now in the public-domain, or hand-painted knock-offs, can be purchased in the size of your choice. Bierstadt’s earlier paintings of the Sierras celebrated the mystical power of wilderness: they were much favored by critics and the public who, at some level, understood that these paintings served the mythic pretensions of the young Republic.

Roderick Nash in his seminal work, Wilderness and the American Mind, 2001, makes the point that wilderness was a basic ingredient of American culture in the nineteenth century. In contrast, Bierstadts’s pastoral idyll, painted at a time in his career when he had fallen from favor, now sounds a ghastly pre-echo of Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed ‘Painter of Light’ whose work became a mass-market cultural cliché in the late twentieth century.

Hockney’s Yorkshire Wold paintings, his iPad series of The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) and the 25 drawings in his charcoal series, The Arrival of Spring in 2013 (twenty thirteen) describe a landscape deeply familiar to him: one shaped by the human hand since the New Stone Age; farmed by Britons through the Iron and Bronze ages, the area then further deforested by the Romans and settled in succession by Saxons, Danes and Normans. Its fertile chalk soils are now subject to some of Europe’s most intense farming. Hockney found, through the seasons (but especially in spring), in the copses, rolling hills and farm tracks of his boyhood a subject for his relentlessly questing eye. Ironically, his iPad drawings of Yosemite which were included in this vast exhibit, and ink-jet printed to a staggering 12’ x 9’, are supremely decorative, but entirely lacking in gravitas.

I am cautiously celebrating the California spring: despite the lack of substantial rain, the season is well underway in the chaparral. Locally, soap plant, wild cucumber, blue-eyed grass, deer weed, peonies, purple nightshade (solanum xanti), goosefoot, vinegar weed, morning glory and erodium (the infidel of the group) are all poking their heads out of the dry ground. Elderberry and chaparral currant are flowering; sycamores and walnuts are leafing out.

Although several oaks have died on the property and, across the way on the north-facing slopes of Sulphur Mountain, many more are now shrouded in canopies of dead leaves, the overall resilience of the schlerophytic natives is phenomenal. Many of the trees are deep rooted and as I walk over the dusty land I imagine the aquifers beneath flowing sluggishly in porous rock or, more often, in slurries of yellow and black sands, nourishing the feeder roots of sycamore, oak, laurel sumac, holly leafed cherry, toyon, walnut, mountain mahogany and ceanothus.

Hockney is now back in Los Angeles, living in the Hollywood Hills. Beguiled for so many years by the exoticism of Los Angeles, fascinated by its faux irrigated landscapes and amoeboid pools, perhaps now, in his new maturity, he will finally discover the chaparral spring as fit subject for his scintillating, late-period landscape painting.