Painted in 1989, the same year as David Hockney’s celebrated travelling retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York and Tate Gallery, London, Two Pink Flowers is a masterful example of Hockney’s paintings from the 1980s and 1990s when the artist developed a broader pre-occupation with painting still life.
In some of Hockney’s earlier works such as My Parents, 1977, a vase of flowers would be inserted into the interior scene, a colourful highlight to the otherwise sparse composition. Gradually Hockney gave greater importance to the subject, exploring it within its historical genre of still life painting. Simultaneously embracing tradition and continuously innovating, Hockney imbued his works with his unique use of colour, space and brushstroke. Two Pink Flowers wonderfully demonstrates Hockney’s admiration for the modern Masters, such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, whilst retaining his own direct sensibility for form, colour and space for which he is acclaimed.
Amongst images of Piero della Francesca, Vermeer and Degas in Hockney’s Looking at Pictures on a Screen, 1977, are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which are brightly facing out towards the viewer. Expressing the importance of Van Gogh and and his influence on his art, Hockney commented, ‘I’ve always had quite a passion for Van Gogh, but certainly from the early seventies it grew a lot, and it’s still growing. I became aware of how wonderful [his paintings] really were. Somehow they became more real to me … it is only recently they’ve really lived for me’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Livingstone, David Hockney, New York, 1997, p. 149). The brightly painted yellow backdrop in Two Pink Flowers, with Hockney’s vivid yellows and painted black line, used to differentiate the table top from the foreground and line of the vase, pays a visual homage to Van Gogh’s great Sunflowers.
Two Pink Flowers depicts Hockney’s play with multiple viewpoints, an interest Hockney developed with his experimental photographic montages of the mid-1980s. This is seen in the present work in the number of seemingly opposing planes and perspectives that Hockney toys with, which is emphasised by the different directions of his application of the paint. Hockney’s exploration in this new medium brought his works: ‘closer to how we actually see – which is to say, not all at once but in discrete, separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world’ (D. Hockney, quoted in L. Weschler, ‘True to Life’, The New Yorker, 9 July 1984, p. 62). The exploration into photography, and the use of it in his work, increased Hockney’s interest in Cubism, which thereafter had a subsequent effect on his painting style. Hockney explained that photography, ‘very strongly rekindled my interest in Cubism, and in Picasso’s ideas, so that in a sense it was photography that got me into thinking about the Cubist ways of seeing’ (D. Hockney, quoted in N. Stangos (ed.), David Hockney That’s the way I see it, London, 1993, p. 89).
Concurrent with Hockney’s exploration of the photographic medium was his pre-occupation with space and composition. The importance of referring to art history, and Hockney’s deep knowledge of the necessity of looking back, in order to have the ability to move forward and innovate, is clarified by his constant referral to the Old Masters, in both subject matter, and their approach to depicting space. He stated, ‘What I wanted to do, what I was struggling to do, was to make a very clear space, a space you felt clear in. That is what deeply attracts me to Piero, why he interests me much more than Caravaggio: this clarity in space that seems so real’ (D. Hockney, quoted in exhibition catalogue, David Hockney. A Retrospective, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988, p. 83). Growing from a fluted and austerely coloured grey flower pot, rise the two contrastingly vibrant pink flowers. One reaches towards the top of the painting, silhouetted against the vividly painted yellow wall, the other, foreshortened, reaches out to the viewer, opening its petals to us and bringing us into the composition. Hockney unites the earthy tones of the table top, soil and plant pot with the fantastic contrast of yellow, pink and the cobalt blue cloth. Two Pink Flowers brilliantly characterises Hockney’s manipulation of planes, through his restricted colour palette and flat application of paint, with the illusion of spatial depth only hinted at in the painted shadows. The two techniques are strikingly united in the present work, creating a painting that encapsulates the many concerns that Hockney was exploring in this period in the 1980s.