‘Excited by the knowledge that he faced westward across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, uninterrupted until it reached the shores of Japan, Hockney has conceived an image of turbulent water as stylized as Hokusai’s woodcut of a great wave ... The sea rises as if in anger in this painting like a monster with arms outstretched, endowed with its own life, independent and even defiant of man’ – M. Livingstone
‘Here I’m on the edge of the largest swimming-pool in the world – the Pacific Ocean ... When you live this close to the sea, where it literally comes up and splashes the windows, it is not the horizon line which dominates, but the close movement of the water itself’ – D. Hockney
‘At one side of my little house in Malibu is the Pacific Coast Highway; at the other is the beach. I step out of my kitchen door and there, right there, is the sea. So when I am painting in my studio I am very aware of nature, in its infinity, and of the sea endlessly moving’ – D. Hockney
‘Of the compositions produced after the completion of work on the set designs for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and the opening of the retrospective exhibition in 1988, The Sea at Malibu makes especially clear the formal changes [now] emerging in Hockney’s work. Even though the motif of the coastal landscape remains recognizable, one cannot fail to detect a rearrangement of pictorial space and an increasing abstraction in the presentation of the scene ... This composition is striking because it is only in the foreground that light (falling from the left) is introduced as a further source of visual drama’ – P. Melia and L. Luckhardt
Painted in 1988, the year of David Hockney’s triumphant return to painting, The Sea at Malibu presents a powerful ode to the breath-taking ocean vista that lay outside his new coastal studio. Rolling waves of azure, aquamarine and deep cerulean blue unfurl across the canvas in rich layers of impasto, flecked with luminous streaks of white. Illuminated as if from above, the entire composition is suffused with the sun-kissed Southern Californian light for which Hockney, by this stage, was internationally renowned. In 1988, Hockney bought a house by the sea in Malibu, and was instantly inspired by the vast expanse of blue that glistened before him: miles and miles of Pacific splendour that lapped at the decking beneath his feet and stretched endlessly into the distance. Having spent much of the 1980s immersed in the world of set design – most notably for Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Tristan and Isolde – it was during 1988 that Hockney rekindled his passion for painting in and of itself, pouring himself into intense observations of Malibu surroundings. At the same time, the language of set design lingers in The Sea at Malibu: a theatrical, spot-lit mise-en-scène, in which a central stage-like structure opens out onto a sprawling dramatic panorama. Indeed, its heroic vision of the natural world resonates with the grandiose aesthetic espoused by Wagner himself, whose epic scores had become the soundtrack to Hockney’s long drives along the Pacific Coastal Highway. Following the success of his landmark touring retrospective that year, The Sea at Malibu formed a centrepiece of the artist’s first Japanese retrospective at the Odakyu Grand Gallery, Shinjuku, in 1989. Acquired by the Fitermans the following year, it subsequently featured in Hockney’s solo exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1999. It is a work that, perhaps more than any other of this period, captures the aspiration towards new horizons and distant shores that was beginning to infiltrate the artist’s psyche at the dawn of an exciting new chapter in his career.
Despite having established himself as the definitive painter of Californian landscapes during the previous two decades, Hockney had never painted the ocean. Between 1988 and 1990, however, it was to become one of his primary subjects. Hockney’s new residence was an old-fashioned 1930s beach cottage with a double-length deck that allowed him to encounter the ocean at close proximity. ‘To be able to walk along that wooden deck with the water at your feet gives you a feeling of real connection to the sea’, he wrote. ‘Here I’m on the edge of the largest swimming-pool in the world – the Pacific Ocean. Beyond me is nothing but sea ... Studying the movement of the water sends one into a profound meditative state. When you live this close to the sea, where it literally comes up and splashes the windows, it is not the horizon line which dominates, but the close movement of the water itself. It’s like fire and smoke, endlessly changing, endlessly fascinating’ (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, Hockney: The Biography. Volume 2, London 2014, p. 272). At the same time, poised on the edge of the Western shoreline, Hockney was profoundly aware of the unfathomable distance that stretched before him. As Marco Livingstone wrote, ‘Excited by the knowledge that he faced westward across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, uninterrupted until it reached the shores of Japan, Hockney has conceived an image of turbulent water as stylized as Hokusai’s woodcut of a great wave ... The sea rises as if in anger in this painting like a monster with arms outstretched, endowed with its own life, independent and even defiant of man’ (M. Livingstone, ‘The Sea at Malibu’, in David Hockney, exh. cat., Odakyu Grand Gallery, Shinjuku, 1989, p. 128).
As Hockney embraced painting anew, his visual language began to shift, reinvigorating the legacy of his art-historical forebears. Of all the works produced during this period, as Paul Melia and Ulrich Luckhardt have suggested, ‘The Sea at Malibu makes especially clear the formal changes [now] emerging in Hockney’s work. Even though the motif of the coastal landscape remains recognizable, one cannot fail to detect a rearrangement of pictorial space and an increasing abstraction in the presentation of the scene’ (P. Melia and U. Luckhardt, David Hockney, Munich 2007, p. 178). Drawing on the influence of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse – artists whom he greatly admired – Hockney hints at perspectival depth whilst simultaneously collapsing all sense of traditional pictorial space, bringing his waves rushing to the frontal plane. In doing so, he replicates the dialogue between distant horizons and intimate proximity that defined his own relationship with the sea at Malibu. During the 1980s, Hockney also drew heavily on the influence of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, which employs multiple overlapping perspectives in an attempt to immerse the viewer within the depths of the picture itself. This effect – which mirrors Hockney’s experience of the waves breaking up against his window – is heightened by the artist’s almost Fauvist approach to his subject matter, employing vividly-saturated hues and richly expressive brushstrokes in order to convey the intensity of his vision. Overtones of Surrealism, too, are present in the strange assemblage of props in the work’s foreground. By the early 1990s, these quixotic compositions would morph into fully-fledged abstractions. Here, however, Hockney’s visual register remains tied to the figurative realm a poetic invocation of nature’s beautiful and disarming power.