How 1960s Los Angeles Gave Us David Hockney’s Painting “The Splash”

Looking back on a painting that helped solidify the artist's career

David Hockney
Artist David Hockney poses in front of The Queen's Window, a new stained glass window at Westminster Abbey he designed and which was created by Barley Studio York, as it is revealed for the first time on September 26, 2018 in London, England.
Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Images

On February 11 in London, Sotheby’s is set to auction off a substantial collection of contemporary art, including David Hockney’s iconic painting The Splash. Also in the mix are works by Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon. And if you’ve ever been curious about Hockney’s art or wondered why The Splash is such an landmark painting for him, Sotheby’s has produced a video which offers a concise and informative look at the artist and his art.

In the video, some welcome context is provided by Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art Evening Auction Emma Baker, along with quotes from Hockney himself. When Hockney left London for California, he found a more open community as well as a setting which changed his approach to painting.

“In California, you see bright yellow and orange. I used bright yellow and orange,” Hockney recalled. “If you look through my paintings in the past, they were always blue or green. It drags you in, color; you’re suddenly discovering it, all of its possibilities.”

As Baker notes in the video, this is one of three paintings involving splashes and swimming pools that solidified Hockney’s reputation as an artist. For those curious about the details, Hockney mentions that the splash itself took him 7 days to paint.

Hockney’s love of California has endured in his work since then. Tim Adams’s review of a 2017 show of Hockney’s work at the Tate Britain observed that “Hockney tries to reconcile those different backdrops to his life by transplanting – always take the weather with you – the lurid colours of the California desertscape to his native Wolds.”

Hockney’s work in California was also the subject of a 1974 documentary, A Bigger Splash, which was restored and reissued last year, to great acclaim. Writing in Hyperallergic about the film, Justine Smith observed that “Hockney’s fascination with swimming pools during this era was tinged with eroticism. They not only feature beautiful men but reflect the tension between cool, clear exteriors and explosive desires.”

That’s a lot of theoretically conflicting dynamics within a single painting; even so, Hockey made it look both kinetic and elegant, in work that has endured over the decades.

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