David Hockney’s paintings of swimming pools are among the most iconic and recognizable series of paintings in Post War art, as from the early 1960s onwards the artist captured the exoticism and eroticism of the California pool scene. In addition to the obvious attraction of the associated subject matter, Hockney was intrigued by the technical challenges of how to capture the constantly shifting bodies of water. The resulting paintings, such as A Bigger Splash, 1967 (Tate, London) and Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966 (National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery), have become part of the 60s cultural lexicon, but the following decade Hockney embarked on a new series of paintings that took his investigations even further. Known as his Paper Pool paintings, this small group of works included water as part of the creative process more than ever before. Springbrett mit Schatten (Paper Pool 14) is one of the central works from this series, an evocative painting that not only captured the energy of the swimming pool, but also satisfied the artist’s need to be challenged by his medium. With works such as this, he relished the creative ability of mastering a new technique, learning and accepting its limitations, and transcending them in the pursuit of a powerful new phases of his career.
Across six large conjoined sheets of handmade paper, Hockey produces a striking image of one of his iconic swimming pools. Through a series of simplified—almost abstracted—forms, the artist captures not only the physical features of the pool, but also the cooling sensation of the water on a hot summer’s day. Geometric planes of color denote solid forms—a diving board, the turf borders and hedges that surround the pool—while the clear water that fills the pools is rendered by a series of surface ripples and the shadows they create as they dance across the bottom of the pool. The technical difficulties of how to depict a colorless, formless material lies at the heart of this innovative series, and made the subject matter perfect for what the artist was trying to achieve. “Hockney’s fascination was in using a watery medium for the representation of a watery subject,” writes Nikos Stangos, “bringing together many of the themes he most loves: the paradox of freezing in a still image what is never still, water, the swimming pool, this man-made container of nature, set in nature which it reflects, the play of light on water…” (N. Stangos, David Hockney: Paper Pools, New York, 1980, p. 6).
Hockney achieved this perfect union using, what was for him, a radically new technique of combining painting and paper making. Influenced in part by Ellsworth Kelly, who had begun investigating a similar technique in 1976, Hockney worked with a longtime friend and expert papermaker, Kenneth Tyler, at his Tyler Graphics studio just north of New York City. Hockney used Tyler’s own pool as the motif for these new paintings, as “For days he [Hockney] studied the pool, drawing and photographing it extensively at different times of the day and night, observing the many light and colour changes” (ibid.). After a concerted period of study, Hockney made a series of drawings from which Tyler and his assistant made metal molds, each with a compartment that reflected an area of the drawing. These molds were then placed directly upon sheets of newly made, and still wet, paper before colored pulp was poured into each one. After each of the molds was filled, they were carefully removed, and Hockney hand finished the work by directly applying more colored pulp and liquid dyes to the sheet by hand. Once the composition was complete, the sheets were then pressed under high pressure to fuse together the layers of colored pulp and hand-made paper, and to speed up the drying process by squeezing the excess water. Hockney used lots of different techniques for applying this pulp and pigment to the surface of the paper. Stagnos observed that, “Liquid colour pulps were spooned, poured, painted and dropped onto the pieces. Sometimes Hockney found softened hard edges by blending and patting, coloured pulp areas with his fingers and hands. Dog combs, toothbrushes, fingers, a garden hose and working outside in the rain were used to obtain textural effects. He usually applied liquid dyes with a kitchen baster or a paint brush, but on several occasions sprayed it on with an airbrush” (Ibid, p. 7).
As one of the most innovative artists working today, Hockney’s enquiring mind is always searching for new techniques with which to work. From Polaroids to iPads, he has an instinctive interest in new technologies and how they may be able to help forge his artistic vision. “I love new mediums and this was something I had never seen or used before,” Hockney has said. “I think mediums can turn you on, they can excite you: they always let you do something in a different way, even if you are forced to simplify it, to make it bold because it is too finicky. I like that. As such Springbrett mit Schatten (Paper Pool 14) becomes the perfect example of how the artist melds together technique and subject matter. “I kept looking at the swimming pool in the garden,” Hockney continued, “and it’s a wonderful subject; water, the light on the water. And this process with paper pulp demanded a lot of water; you have to wear boots and rubber aprons. I thought, really I should do, find a watery subject for this process, and here it is; here, this pool, every time that you look at the surface, you look through it, you look under it” (D. Hockney, quoted in N. Stangos, David Hockney: Paper Pools, New York, 1980, p. 21).