Driving through the hills of northern San Diego County in the evening is lonely. The sun sets due west over the Pacific Ocean, red sinking into blue. There’s the scrub brush and the desert flora, dusty green against brown and beige. The streets are so wide, so empty. Streetlights throw down orange circles at regular intervals, electrified polka dots for nobody. The sound of tires against smooth concrete roads matches the tempo and degree of the light, soft and rounded over the canyons, content barely to exist at all.
David Hockney understood that light and that tempo. He came to Los Angeles for the light. He came also for the space, the open space just sitting there, waiting for the light to come upon it. It was the solution to a formal problem: Where do you go from Abstract Expressionism?
For Hockney, you go to Southern California. It was all about freedom. The freedom of the space and the light was physical, but it was also painterly. It was freedom from the dead end of Abstract Expressionism. Hockney liked the light partly because it was soft. It wasn’t entirely this and it wasn’t entirely that. It went well with pastels and the colors to be found around California swimming pools. Nothing against Jackson Pollock, but Hockney didn’t care for the brutality of Pollock’s attack upon the canvas. He didn’t see a future in it.
Hockney’s answer was “A Bigger Splash” (1967). If you squint at the painting or approach it from far enough away it could almost be a Barnett Newman turned on its side. But then you realize it couldn’t be. First, the colors are all wrong. The blues and the pinks wouldn’t work for Newman. This is California color coming from California light.
Second, the painting is directly representational. There’s a house and a sky and a swimming pool. The diving board is mostly just a tilted yellow rectangle (a nod to high Modernism), but it is also the cause of an event in time and space. The yellow abstraction of the diving board has sprung the painting back into the real world, in the name of a splash. The splash itself is merely a smear of white against the blue, but it is the mark of something that actually happened. The painting has become “worlded,” the color and the light and the spaces are about a mood and a feel that a particular person can have at a particular place and time.
My favorite aspect of the splash it that it carries no sound. Sometimes a painting really does achieve audio. There are a lot of Picassos that can’t be looked at without hearing jazz in your head. With Hockney (like Andrew Wyeth) there is, at best, the sound of wind chimes tinkling on the breeze from across the valley. “A Bigger Splash” is a funny title because the event is so uneventful. The Southern California light has evoked a mood for Hockney, a style that in its muted pastels provides a quiet exit from the clash and bang of his immediate predecessors.
David Hockney once said that he couldn’t take the sustained claustrophobia of New York City. He is an agoraphiliac. He looks for landscapes that can throw long shadows. This isn’t so different from the impulse that has driven human beings to California for a long time. Hockney is special in how he applied this desire to the formal problems of painting. California (in the ’60s) wasn’t just the freedom to be a certain way, to escape the old mores. It was the freedom to see again. It was the ability to look at the world, straight up, without seeing it through all the paintings that had come before.
Coming down from the hills of Carlsbad to the sea there is only pink. A clump of dried out palm trees flaps dumbly in an evening breeze. Somewhere someone jumps into the pool behind a single-story house with sliding glass doors that lead into the kitchen, cluttered in green porcelain. The swimmer disappears beneath the surface of the water before he can hear his own splash, but it is a big one. Hockney was right. This is what the world looks like. This is what it feels like. • 26 August 2008