David Hockney and Edward Hopper
If British artist and icon David Hockney were considered a brand, then two signature motifs or codes would be immediately apparent; his use of glistening swimming pools and of the double-portrait device as a technique. Both of which make Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) – from 1972, selling later this month at Christie’s 20th Century Week in New York – something of an art moment; it’s like Chanel auctioning the ingredients for No. 5 perfume, and the secret of its original typeface. The painting – which on a recent viewing at H Queen’s in Central was revealed to be larger and squarer than one imagines – is lauded as one of the masterpieces of the modern era; it invokes a graphic-designer’s eye for composition, an illustrator’s technique, the precision of a photograph and a painter’s sensitivity to colour. It conveys the essence of the sun-drenched California good life that inspired Hockney when he first arrived from London. Ultimately, it views like accomplished sofa-art of the highest order, or the “lifestyleism” school of art. But by month’s end it may acquire another moniker. “Come November, Portrait is poised to become the most valuable work of art by a living artist ever sold at auction,” declares Alex Rotter, co-chairman postwar and contemporary art, at Christie’s, of the work. Its estimate hovers at
If Hockney’s art is happy, then Hopper’s feels sad, contemplative: Hockney’s air, Hopper’s stare
around US$80 million; the current auction record for any living artist is held by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), which Christie’s New York also sold for US$58.4 million in 2013. Hockney, the enfant terrible of the avant-garde, studied at London’s Royal College of Art and moved to Los Angeles. Like American artist Edward Hopper, of whom Hockney was a huge fan, he also spent a short time in Paris. But LA was Hockney’s calling and he fell for it at first sight in a way he hadn’t with London. “In London, I was put off by the ghost of [Walter Richard] Sickert and I couldn’t see it properly.” Coincidentally, Sickert’s nudes had inspired Hopper 50 years before that. “Los Angeles was the first time I had ever painted a place,” Hockney said of his 1964 arrival in Los Angeles. “There were no ghosts [ironic, given Hollywood’s prodigious inventory of forgotten stars]. I remember seeing, within the first week, the ramp of a freeway going into the air and I suddenly thought: My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am.” So Hockney stayed, lived, loved and lost (most notably fellow artist and his model Peter Schlesinger, the man standing poolside in Portrait, whom he met in 1966 at UCLA) there. The painting’s ease and naturalism belie the circumstances of its construction. For a start, Hockney and Schlesinger were splitting up after living together for five years. Secondly, the idea for a double portrait only occurred to Hockney when by chance he discovered on his studio floor a shot taken in Hollywood in 1966 of a person swimming – the same year he painted his famous A Bigger Splash – and another other of a boy staring at something on the ground. Intrigued, Hockney combined them to great effect. And hasn’t stopped. Hockney, with his sartorial trademark spots, stripes, patterns, prints, bright shades, pastel hues and oddly coloured socks, has since become a venerated fashion and art presence whose style has diversified while his obsession with the technicalities and processes of painting, and how we see and view art, has grown. He continues to exploit and enhance the electronic easel of the iPad and its Brushes app. If Hockney’s art is happy, then Edward Hopper’s feels sad, contemplative: Hockney’s air, Hopper’s stare. The New York-born artist’s melancholic scenes of everyday life depicting the dawn of modernism and its subsequent undercurrent of alienation are profound statements on the human condition. His motel rooms, empty train stations, pharmacies, automats, bars, diners and cinemas portray the dark side that lies beneath the American dream. Spatial emptiness, lack of communication and desolation are his predilection. Yet despite the darkness, the tense ambience, there is always the light; his paintings are suffused with penetrating beams of sun- or moonlight. Voyeurism: Hopper had a wild mind and disciplined eye. He rode the elevated railway in New York and looked into people’s houses. Looking was part of the new urban living, along with cinema-going, and Hopper was active in both. Watching, looking into spaces, through windows and buildings, at a network of characters actively viewing and being viewed. French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes once said that the darkness of a cinema and the recreational demeanour of viewers surrounding him were more appealing than watching the film itself. This attitude of idle “availability” represented a “modern eroticism” peculiar to the big city. Hockney’s LA-based work is suffused with some of that essence too. And the innocent thrill of Hopper’s watching, and our looking, is never a neutral matter of simple sight. It’s not quite real and it’s fantasised, and somewhat artificial. His angles and points of view make it appear as if he’s painted from a movie-camera crane on a set – did Hopper ever feel like a man standing in front of his easel? His style seems made of celluloid, even. Late evening, or early morning, is “the magic hour when warehouses become palaces”, said painter James Whistler, and it worked for Hopper and it worked for Hollywood in a mutually beneficial relationship. If Hopper were a film he’d be: A Streetcar Named Desire; On the Waterfront; Shadow of a Doubt; The Killers; Naked City; Scarlet Street; Brief Encounter; Psycho; Giant; Days of Heaven; Paris, Texas; Rear Window; Red Desert; La Notte; L’Avventura and L’Eclisse, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, The Godfather, Blade Runner, Hammett, Pennies from Heaven, True Stories, Blue Velvet, Road to Perdition, Lost in Translation and Woody Allen’s Café Society. The directors and cinematographers of all the above mentioned the debt their flickering illusions owed to the works of Hopper.
When Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho, not only did he appropriate Hopper’s haunting House by the Railroad, 1925, as his Bates Motel but he told actor Anthony Perkins to make his character Norman Bates like an animated figure from a Hopper painting. Blade Runner’s director Ridley Scott admits he was constantly waving reproductions of Hopper paintings under the noses of his production team to illustrate the look and mood he was after on the set design of his futuristic neonoir masterpiece. Also on sale this month at Christie’s 20th Century Week is Chop Suey, 1929, described by the auction house – which estimates this one at US$70 million – as Hopper’s most important work still in private hands. The painting is based on a restaurant the artist and his wife frequented at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Adapted from the Cantonese phrase tsap sui meaning “odds and ends”, chop suey referred not only to a low-cost dish, but also to a public destination where different cultural elements in a modern city came together, a Sino-diner. In a style reminiscent of his most famous painting, Nighthawks, 1942, Hopper distils the atmosphere – gender roles, social isolation – of this everyday eatery into a cinematic scene and does it all by invoking the historical tradition of French Impressionists painting city life. Nighthawks, which shows four people in a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, has been referenced by everyone from The Simpsons to Banksy and has a quality that transcends locale. It’s become like a national, cultural flag for 20th- and 21st-century Americana – the Star-Spangled Banner when the lights go down and the stars come out. While Chop Suey will raise the bar and is a thing of beauty, Nighthawks, if ever it comes to auction, might just become the world’s first US$500 million or even US$1 billion painting. It’s epic in import and prescient, still. American bad-girl contemporary performance artist and feminist Karen Finley, who has given talks at the Edward Hopper House Art Center, Hopper’s childhood home a block from the Hudson River in Nyack, where he created many paintings that are still exhibited there, has this to say of Hopper: “I think Hopper is like Shakespeare. He means something to everyone.” Now there’s a moment. Let the bidding, and dreaming, and beauty, commence.
CHOP SUEY, ALSO ON SALE THIS MONTH, EDWARD HOPPER’S 1929, IS ESTIMATED BY CHRISTIE’S TO BE WORTH IN THE REGION OF US$70 MILLION