At twelve feet long by six feet high, David Hockney's Beverly Hills Housewife is amongst his most majestic and widely known paintings from the celebrated "California Dreaming" series of the late 1960s. Together with his universally renowned swimming pool pictures such as A Bigger Splash (Tate Modern, London), Hockney's depictions of the artificially manicured gardens and modernist buildings of Los Angeles are considered his greatest achievement. In 1976 Henry Geldzahler, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York stated that these paintings, "were his best to date and there is one good one after another: Beverly Hills Housewife, Portrait of Nick Wilder, Savings and Loan Building, A Lawn Sprinkler, A Neat Lawn, and A Bigger Splash. All are detached, all breathe a clarity of light, perception and realized intention that make Hockney's new and greater ambition to paint the world of today dead-on, as he saw it, with no concessions to modernism except those that were built-in presumptions shared by the painters at work in the 1960s" (H. Geldzahler, quoted in D. Hockney, David Hockney, London, 1976, p. 16).
Painted in 1966, Beverly Hills Housewife is a sprawling domestic scene that reflects the wide-eyed fascination that the young artist from the cold and gray North of England had for the leisurely lifestyle of California's middle-class. Its imposing scale invites the spectator to become a participant and witness to the dazzling light and affluent existence that he sought out on America's West Coast. Already celebrated as an enfant terrible of Contemporary art by the time he left the Royal College of Art in London in 1962, Hockney had first traveled to California in January 1964. The place held a magnetic draw for the artist, who had immersed himself in the potent idealism of its sun-drenched landscape, and the California that he had found in magazines, movies and the gay novels of John Rechy. He had daydreamed about a world of warmth and pleasure, reminiscent of Matisse's Nice with its palms, bathers, striped awnings and simple forms and was delighted to find that it was everything he had hoped it would be. Here, he felt free to invent the city, giving it a promptly recognizable, iconic form that no other painter had cottoned to: "[Los Angeles was] the first time I had ever painted a place," he later explained. "In London I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn't see it properly. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts... I remember seeing, within the first week, the ramp of a freeway going into the air and I suddenly thought: My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am" (D. Hockney, quoted in S. Howgate, David Hockney Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2006, p. 39).
Hockney managed to secure successive teaching posts at the University of Colorado and the University of California at Los Angeles and quickly immersed himself into Californian culture and society, establishing a network of American and expatriate friends including the writer Christopher Isherwood and the actor and playwright Jack Larson, who introduced him to Betty Freeman, the statuesque subject of Beverly Hills Housewife. Freeman had become an admirer of Hockney's after viewing his first solo exhibition of paintings at the Kasmin Gallery in London in 1963 and his set designs for Alex Jaffrey's theatre production of Ubu Roi and the pair developed a lasting friendship that would eventuate in several portrait sketches and photographs as well as decades of correspondence.
As collector of Contemporary art and a generous patron of avant-garde musicians, Freeman exemplified the exciting and beautiful people that formed an integral part of Hockney's unique vision of Los Angeles as a tropical paradise. This portrait of a woman and her home, living a life of ease amongst a collection of art, is closely related to two other paintings from Hockney's early years in California. As Hockney was well aware, portraits of patrons are a traditional enterprise of painters and the idea for modernizing the theme began to intrigue him shortly after his arrival in California, when the dealer John Kasmin introduced him to the poolside lifestyles and collecting tastes of local art enthusiasts. "After I'd been there a couple of months, Kasmin came out on his first visit to California, to see me and some collectors," he later remembered, "I went with him to visit the collectors. I'd never seen houses like that. And the way they liked to show them off! They were mostly women - the husbands were out earning the money. They would show you the pictures, the garden, the house. So then I painted a picture, California Art Collector in February 1964: it's a lady sitting in a garden with some art; there was a Turnbull sculpture. The picture is a complete invention. The only specific thing is the swimming pool, painted from an advertisement for swimming pools in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. The houses I had seen all had large comfortable chairs, fluffy carpets, striped paintings, and pre- Columbian or primitive sculptures and recent (1964) three-dimensional work" (D. Hockney, quoted in N. Stangos, ed., Hockney by Hockney, New York, 1982, p. 98).
This ambitious portrait of Freeman shows a marked difference to the fantastical arrangement of art and architectural space in California Art Collector, whose shallow canopied foreground and distant palm-fringed swimming pool echoes the pictorial structure of Giotto's frescoes. With Beverly Hills Housewife, Hockney has again depicted his subject on a patio, but the details of her surroundings show his development towards a greater degree of naturalism and individual characterization that would also define his double portrait, American Collectors of 1968 (The Art Institute of Chicago). This later portrait places the prodigious collecting couple, Fred and Marcia Weisman, in static poses amongst the Henry Moore and Native American sculptures in their backyard, further underlining Hockney's feeling that the people he met in Los Angeles were inseparable from the place in which they lived.
Like the many of the Pop artists with whom he associated, Hockney avoided painting the seedy realities of urban living--the city had after all been a deadly war-zone of racism, rioting and looting the previous year during the Watts Riots. Instead, he chose to portray the "City of Angels" as a synthesized reality of the perfect American idyll that was similarly proffered by the mainstream media. Having found those people who best represented his vision of the American dream, he no longer needed to source his images of the place entirely from his imagination.
Hockney had begun his highly regarded series of swimming pool paintings in 1964 and had initially asked to visit Freeman to draw her own pool but was immediately seduced by the inside-outside flow of her residence and decided to focus on her instead. The composition lends equal importance to Freeman's figure as to the expansive space that surrounds her. This well appointed home, in which Freeman held countless concerts for the composers she supported, reflects her own taste for all things new, with its planar structure and glittering shields of glass creating a diorama of carefully selected objects. The openness of the house appears to have prompted Hockney to treat Freeman's tanned, pink-sheathed form as a doll in a playhouse. Her weightless, columnar figure is carefully placed within her minimalist surroundings, in which Hockney appears to have deliberately established a humorous face-off between the "isolated housewife" and the antelope-head trophy mounted on her wall.
This panoramic scene was painted in the Pico Boulevard studio in Santa Monica that Hockney shared with his lover and favorite model, Peter Schlesinger, who had encouraged the painter to remain in L.A. In this cramped space, Hockney was barely able to step more than five feet away from the canvas. Despite these restrictions, he has managed to create an imposing and harmonious whole. The setting has been adapted from the pencil studies and grainy black and white photos taken in situ into Hockney's signature reductive and stylized pictorial language. In order to create a sense of continuity and balance, Hockney added the grass and palm trees in the foreground and the Le Corbusier chaise lounge brought out into the exterior space. With its sharp-edged geometric forms, empty spaces, and frozen central figure, Beverly Hills Housewife is infused with a pervasive and powerful silence. The composition's precisely calculated symmetry, its formality and stillness fuses the ideal proportions found in the work of old master painters such as Piero della Francesca with the formal ideas of modernism and contemporary abstraction.
Despite his engagement with naturalistic representation, Hockney playfully shows his understanding of Modernism by flattening the picture plane, trimming away all inessentials. Beverly Hills Housewife is to create an image built according to a strict rectilinear grid of monochromatic planes and stylized reflection lines that emphasize the two-dimensionality of the painting's surface. Yet, the human qualities essential to Hockney's art override the painting's pronounced attention to form, revealing a subtle and perceptive feeling for human drama. Employing a combination of a graphic designer's eye for composition, an illustrator's technique, the precision of a photograph and a painter's sensitivity to color, Beverly Hills Housewife not only conveys the essence of the Californian good-life, but also stands as a vivid testament to a remarkable life-long friendship.