I’m just back from Los Angeles and, despite having lived there for ten years, felt like I was seeing it for the first time. My eye, accustomed to the wobbly stone and green and brown landscape that is the Cotswolds, was startled by this paean to mid-century design, all stucco cubes in mustard yellows, olive greens and shell pinks set against an aching blue sky. Now I understand that only an Englishman could and did paint A Bigger Splash.
As a teenager my sister had a poster of Hockney’s iconic California image hanging in her bedroom. We lived in Florida but every summer we visited my grandparents in SoCal for two weeks, and we loved that poster because Hockney could have painted it from their back patio. The only difference was that the diving board was rotated 45 degrees in Hockney’s version and instead of a director’s chair, my grandparents had a non-adjustable teal green chaise lounge. It was constructed of hundreds of rubber chords strung taut on a metal frame, and it left ripples of angry red welts across your skin after just a few minutes of lying on it. Still it looked good in its own mid-century, minimalist way. I’d even go as far as to say it would have been a better choice than Hockney’s deck chair, it’s low horizontal line echoing the planes of the sliding glass doors and flat roof.
In 2005, right before I left Los Angeles to move to London, I spent a lunch hour at an exhibit of Hockney’s Yorkshire paintings in watercolours. I was alone except for the gallery assistant in this quiet mecca, a block from the riot of Los Angeles that is Venice Beach, and the fact that Hockney had turned his artistic attention to the rural landscape of England felt somehow like a private pre-welcome party for me. The following year I spent more lunch hours at a second exhibit of Hockney’s Yorkshire paintings, these in oil, at a gallery on Derring Street in London around the corner from my then office on Hanover Square. The Cotswolds weren’t even in my consciousness back then, but Hockney’s images of wheat and rolling hills and country roads covered in a canopy of trees were burning themselves into my psyche for later recall. It was like Hockney knew about my move to the country before I did.
One of the joys of reading is that thrill of recognition when an author conveys something you have felt or thought or done and does so with flair and sometimes wit and above all authenticity. These moments offer the paradox of human connection via the largely individual pursuits of reading and, for the author, writing. David Hockney’s California and Yorkshire paintings make me feel the same way. I know he has painted other places and people and things, but these paintings are the ones that make me feel understood, perhaps like only and Englishman could and has.