Picture a bespectacled 75-year-old man finger-painting wee landscapes in the English countryside. Isn't he sweet? Is he someone's doddering grandfather? Should we bring him tea and a sandwich?
Now imagine the vessel of his work being not a canvas or a paper sketchbook but an iPad. Upon completing each of his pieces, he emails them off to friends. Even sweeter, yes? And begin to notice the rather consistently stunning aesthetic quality of these images -- the draftsmanship, the confidence. He seems not only to comprehend just what it is, that ineffable magic, about the English countryside -- or Scandinavian, or Californian -- that would incline a person to paint it to begin with, but also the essential nature of the tool with which he works, whereby all-important light comes out at you from beneath a surface instead of bouncing off of it. And consider the possibility that these dainty creations of his may wind up on the cover of the New Yorker, or in several of the world's most famous museums, because oh, wait, actually, he happens to be David Hockney, an absolute genius and a titan of the art world. Still, some tea might be nice.
David Hockney, Yosemite II, October 5th 2011, iPad Drawing printed on six sheets of paper (71 3/4" x 35 3/4" each), c. David Hockney
Hockney has all the endurance and adaptability you could hope for in a pop artist. There's a gee-whiz factor in his tech-curious ventures, but also a deep and rewarding aesthetic intelligence. Comfortingly, he susses out some possible reconciliation between basic profound nature appreciation and the marauding forward march of technological innovation. Hockney makes it seem like the world we live in now need not be divided against itself.
All of which must be why there's a huge new show of his work opening at the de Young Museum. It's literally huge -- the largest exhibition in the museum's history, with some works the size of highway billboards, and it's called David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition, and it affords you a rare chance to picture several of those iPad illustrations in the breathtaking form of 12-foot-tall, wall-consuming prints. The Yosemite scenes in particular are insouciantly magnificent, and also very well situated within the general context of magnitude.
David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 26, 27 & 30 July 2006, Oil on 6 Canvases (36" X 48" each), photo: Richard Schmidt
A Bigger Exhibition also includes many portraits (and "bigger" portraits) and some of Hockney's characterful camera lucida drawings, along with what he calls "The Great Wall," a seven-century visual survey which was the basis of his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Another understandably popular nook features a series of Hockney's iPad-made illustrations -- still lifes, mostly -- playing recorded looping videos of their own creation. But the show's most arresting images are his verdant, painterly, nature-reverent studies of East Yorkshire's Woldgate Woods -- not all of which, naturally, were made with paint.
David Hockney, The Jugglers, 2012, Eighteen digital videos synchronized and presented on eighteen 55-inchNEC screens to comprise a single artwork, c. David Hockney
Now try to picture a new and entirely artist-invented visual medium, using multiple simultaneous high-definition video cameras and capturing adjacent moving images, each with unique perspectives of the same horizon line but no two of which have the same vanishing point, and producing imagery which while beautiful and mesmerizing also serves to interrogate the very experience of seeing itself. Hockney calls them "cubist movies," and, with due respect to the one he made in a room full of colorful jugglers, they seem most ideally suited to his repeated forays into those splendid Woldgate Woods. One room in A Bigger Exhibition has a 9-panel video running on each of its four walls, showing one scene -- a measured drift down the same rural road -- for each of the four seasons.
In other words, Hockney has developed a technologically enhanced way of looking so unusual and unprecedented that you really can't picture it, without actually having seen it. Maybe you're the one who could use a sandwich? They have them at the museum café.
David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition runs through January 20, 2014, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit hockney.famsf.org.
All images courtesy the de Young Museum, San Francisco.