David Hockney’s With Conversation is a spectacular work painted in 1988, the year of his triumphant return to painting. Spanning over two metres in length, this work depicts an interior scene from Hockney’s Hollywood Hills Studio that converges into an exterior view of fractured, abstracted shapes hinting at landscape and architectural forms. This mural-scale work allows the viewer to enter into the space created by Hockney, as if one has stepped into the artist’s studio to admire the panoramic vista beyond. Portraying domestic interiors have been significant to Hockney - he gives them equal attention in his portraits, realising that they are more than just a stage for human drama, they have great representative potential. Royal blues, lush verdant greens, bright cadmium yellows and pinks swell, creating a voluminous space in which the trees open out to the Pacific Ocean. Hockney has taken great care to leave each brushstroke visible so that the viewer is able to trace his movement across the expanse of the surface. Mirroring the multiplicity of spaces, Hockney incorporates a plethora of painterly techniques. In the foreground, spots of viscous paint enhance the adjacent stripes, while moving up the canvas, energetic brushstrokes contrast with long sweeping movements. The meticulously painted wood grain and vase stand out against reductive forms, and smooth blocks of colour in heavy impasto contrast with lighter washes of paint. Synthesising styles, processes, and elusive abstract forms to spectacular effect, by flattening the picture plane and selecting only the essential details necessary to describe the form, the clarity and precision of the work is demonstrative of Hockney’s ability to realise his intentions with a vivid immediacy.
A sprawling domestic scene, the joyous colours and confident forms reflects the fulfilment of an artist at a period of professional success. Indeed, in 1988 Hockney enjoyed a major retrospective of his works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which later travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Tate Gallery, London. That same year, he returned to the medium of painting with full furore, embarking on a series of outstanding works representing the living room and veranda of his Hollywood Hills Studio that he refers to as ‘narrative abstractions’ and which includes this painting. The vibrant chromatic intensity and the exuberance of his composition echoes Henri Matisses’s lyricism in the extended swirling lines that occupy the left hand side of the composition, the forms in the landscape appear to grow organically like flowers moving upwards towards the Californian sun. Hockney was inspired by the French master’s expressive language of colour and has expertly harnessed his brilliance at harmonising different hues and shapes. Three vertical forms with cast shadows stabilise the abstract composition, and while they suggest trees or architecture, their significance remains elusive. It is clear from such abstract forms that Hockney has learned much from Matisse’s looseness and his ability to imply recognisable forms with the most basic suggestion of pictorial elements. The left hand side of the canvas is particularly evocative of Matisse’s collages such as The Snail, 1953, a work comprising of pasted down shapes of solid colour. With Conversation appears to have been constructed to give the impression of a collage of shapes and colours itself, imbuing the canvas with a sense of depth.
An all-encompassing work, With Conversation is a grand art historical pastiche, joyously paying homage to his art historical predecessors. Rendered in highly gestural, loose brushstrokes that reveal the artist’s touch, With Conversation is the result of the significant insights gained from his own work that enabled him to develop this new range of vision and testament to his admiration for the great painters of the Modernist canon. An evocative record of those who Hockney admires, the key positioning of the empty central chair recalls Vincent van Gogh’s Van Gogh’s Chair. The empty chair, a familiar motif within Hockney’s oeuvre, is a prime example of this, and is a fitting homage to the absence or memory of a person. Hockney was always greatly moved by the work of Van Gogh; he was inspired by his use of vividly contrasting colour combinations that Hockney has combined in this work. The eye then journeys across the magnificent canvas, immediately drawn to the table viewed from above and the colourful, multi-faceted vase pay homage to the Cubist theories of Picasso. The faux bois is particularly resonant of the Pablo Picasso’s famous Still Life, 1912, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. A green apple sits precariously atop the table, conjuring evocations of the signature perspective used in Paul Cézanne’s distinctive still-lifes. Just as Matisse and Picasso both studied Cézanne’s techniques with fascination, here Hockney continues this fertile dialogue with the giants of early 20th-century painting who he so admired. In his remarkably reductive and stylised pictorial language, there is a powerful implied presence, which intends to evoke the actual presence of the subjects in the real space of the viewer. One can almost imagine that he has gathered those ground-breaking artists into his Hollywood Studio, and they are fervently discussing their artistic theories with one another.
With Conversation can be regarded as the meeting point of Hockney’s oeuvre up to the point of its inception. This paintings can be seen as the culmination of the insights gained from his earlier practise, as well as the lessons he has learned from the art of the past century. Indeed, Hockney appears to have taken the most successful elements of his preceding oeuvre and combined them to produce With Conversation. Building on his bright and bold scenes of the 1960s and 1970s such as American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968, The Art Institute if Chicago, or My Parents, 1977, Tate, London, With Conversation has also been informed by the artist’s extensive investigation into photo-collage in the early 1980s. By altering the pictorial space to form composite views and receding planes, he developed the new types of perspectives and multiple aspects that are evident in this work.
With Conversation is the site where the artist entertains a fruitful dialogue between multiple influences ranging from Modernist painting to Chinese scrolls. In the early 1980s, Hockney discovered George Rowley’s The Principles of Chinese Painting that explained the varying perspectives employed in the depiction of landscape in Chinese scroll paintings. In contrast to the single-point perspective that has become so familiar in the West since the Renaissance, Chinese landscape painting assumes the viewer to be located not in front of the picture, but within it. Hockney was so fascinated by the idea that the viewer is able to ‘walk’ through the landscape that he said ‘I wanted to pass on the excitement of what I saw in it to other people’ (D. Hockney, quoted in P. Melia, David Hockney, London 2007, p. 125). He thus adopted a format that was unconfined to a single perspective and allowed the viewer to visually move through the landscape. In With Conversation, the table and chair invite the viewer into the painting, which then draws the eye across the picture plane from right to left in a manner that echoes the right to left movement of a Chinese scroll. As such, the viewer reads the painting from within, and thus, as the title of this work suggests, enters into a dialogue with the work.