‘Within a week of arriving there in this strange big city, not knowing a soul, I’d passed the driving test, bought a car, driven to Las Vegas and won some money, got myself a studio, started painting, all in a week. And I thought, it’s just how I imagined it would be’
'There were no paintings of Los Angeles, people then didn’t even know what it looked like. And when I was there they were still finishing some of the big freeways. I remember seeing, within the first week, a ramp of freeway going up into the air, and at first it looked like a ruin and I thought, my God this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am! '
California Bank is among the very earliest works painted by David Hockney during his first visit to California in 1964. Full of the unmistakable West Coast spirit that drenches the paintings of this seminal period in Hockney’s career, it also displays the artist’s keen formalist concerns with illusionistic space, and a wry critical engagement with the modernist abstraction and Minimalism of the mid-1960s. The titular building rears up as a gridlike structure of flat line and colour, its windows aglow in tones of turquoise, teal and pale blue against an even grey sky. Alone, this hard-edged form might appear completely abstract – but a gathering of trees in the foreground brings it back to reality. Nine tall, slender trunks topped with stylised puffs of green adjoin the building’s face in a neat row; in front of them stands a lone, distinctly Californian palm tree; in front of the palm are a trio of dark green bushes. The central palm is painted with delicate naturalism, its featherlike fronds and textured trunk picked out in charming detail, while the other foliage is conveyed in flat or smoothly three-dimensional organic shapes: the bushes are as round and crisp as paper cut-outs. These competing registers of careful figuration and surface flatness make for a painting of compelling mixed signals, situating the work among Hockney’s most ingenious deconstructions of the picture plane. At the same time, it conveys a vivid impression of real Los Angeles space, with its clean lines of modernist architecture against open sky, and the tropic sensuality of its lush palms and sunbaked sidewalks. Hockney would return to this theme throughout the 1960s: California Bank is closely related to later works such as Medical Building (1966), housed in the Tate collection and a highlight of his major 2017 retrospective at Tate Britain, and Savings and Loan Building (1967), which is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Hockney had flown to Los Angeles straight after his first solo show at Kasmin Gallery at the end of 1963, and found a world of luxury, beauty and sensory delight. He met a whole new community of collectors and artists, including the Colour Field painter Kenneth Noland, and other cultural figures such as the author Christopher Isherwood, who would become one of his closest friends. His first Californian paintings were completed in celebratory mood. ‘Within a week of arriving there in this strange big city,’ he remembers, ‘not knowing a soul, I’d passed the driving test, bought a car, driven to Las Vegas and won some money, got myself a studio, started painting, all in a week. And I thought, it’s just how I imagined it would be’ (D. Hockney in N. Stangos (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 97). He also discovered American acrylic paint – far superior to that available in England at the time – which, drying much faster than oil, allowed him to concentrate closely on one picture at a time. The nature of the West Coast environment itself conjured an art-historical precedent for the clear colours, sharp organisation and perspectival games that Hockney began to employ in works like California Bank. ‘As the climate and the openness of the houses (large glass windows, patios, etc.) reminded me of Italy,’ he says, ‘I borrowed a few notions from Fra Angelico and Piero Della Francesca’ (D. Hockney in N. Stangos (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 98).
The pictorial intelligence of Hockney’s Quattrocento exemplars clearly resounds in the lucid, poised composition of the present work. As Paul Melia and Ulrich Lockhardt have written, however, Hockney’s paintings of public and commercial buildings also reflect his involvement with key contemporary currents of artistic thought. ‘In the sixties … Literal identification of colour with the surface of the canvas … together with the concomitant loss of reference to the physical world (the surface of the work was to be its only content), was understood by leading American artists, and critics, to serve as the foundation for the modern practice of painting. Much of Hockney’s work from the mid-sixties reflects his increasingly critical view of this conception … he appropriated those very qualities that he aimed to deprecate … by representing a Modernist building in such a way, parallel to the plane of the canvas, as to create an optical ambiguity between its façade and the surface of the painting. Depicted flatness (the façade) becomes literal flatness (the surface of the picture plane) and then returns to its former state as we become aware of the palm-trees’ (P. Melia and U. Luckhardt, David Hockney, Munich and New York 1994, p. 80). Played out on monumental canvases, these ambiguities and tensions would be developed in Hockney’s iconic pictures of swimming pools, interiors and showering male nudes, reaching their apotheosis in his greatest Californian masterpiece, A Bigger Splash (1967), whose blocks of flat, bright colour, applied using a roller – pool, diving board, sky, house – are gloriously disrupted by the exuberant hand-painted splash at its heart. Exhibiting the same unique fusion of graphic appeal, complex artistic thought, chromatic pleasure and sense of place, California Bank exemplifies the qualities that characterise all of Hockney’s most captivating paintings.