Painted in 1988, the same year as Hockney’s first major US retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, Jade Plant is a striking example of the artist’s return to painting after the ambitious ‘post-cubist’ experiments with photography that defined his oeuvre at the beginning of the decade. Rendered in vivid colors, the seemingly candid composition, dominated by the Jade plant is complicated by Hockney’s introduction of shifting perspectives, most evident in the relationship between the plant pot, table and floor. By rejecting the traditional ideas of perspective, Hockney has liberated himself from the constraints of naturalism, resulting in a dynamic and multifaceted composition. This stylistic ode to the cubist movement is characteristic of Hockney’s best output from the 1980s and is a testament to the artist’s expansive knowledge of art history, and his incorporation of this historical knowledge into his own contemporary practice.
Although the use of single point perspective is evident in early masterworks such as Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, 1969 (Christie’s, London, 6 March 2019, lot 8, £37,661,250), the early 1980s saw Hockney’s work change dramatically with the almost accidental discovery of a new artistic practice, the Polaroid collage. Through this medium, Hockney explored his preoccupation with the desire to create a composition that reflects the sensations of observation, rather than statically and scientifically render a scene. “Perspective takes away the body of the viewer. You have a fixed point, you have no movement; in short, you are not there really. For something to be seen, it has to be looked at by somebody and any true and real depiction should be an account of the experience of looking” (D. Hockney, quoted in David Hockney, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2017, p. 142).
Hockney adopted this practice after working on an exhibition proposal at the Pompidou Centre. Left with an abundance of Polaroid photographs, Hockney started to collage the photographs to create uniform compositions, allowing him to “solve a problem that he had been musing on for several years; how to make representation of the real world without using conventional single-point perspective” (D. Hockney, quoted in David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2012, p. 62). By constructing a coherent space using an arrangement of fragmented views of the same subject, Hockney was able to embark on an intense period of investigation into this “post-cubist” portrayal of space. These experiments were later expanded into the realm of painting, culminating in works such as the present lot.
Jade Plant contributes to a rich history of still-life painting, and in particular to the way artists have used the medium as a means of pursuing innovative ways of reproducing the real world onto a two dimensional surface. Throughout the art historical canon, although the subjects of still-life often remain a constant, the way in which they are rendered is constantly changing. The Dutch masters of the seventeenth century used the still-life as a means to a greater naturalism, recreating exuberant scenes of luxury with painstaking accuracy, something that was made more problematic when relying on a live sitter. While still-life painters of the European avant-garde such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and artists of the subsequent cubist movement often rejected one point perspective, it is not just their investigations into a new painterly language that inspired Hockney. The chromatic intensity and full composition of Hockney’s Jade Plant, could easily be compared to masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, 1888, painted a century earlier, and works such as Van Gogh’s Chair, 1988, illustrate the significant influence that Hockney found in the Dutch artist at this time.
Although Hockney’s main inspirations are most commonly associated with European avant-garde art, the 1980s saw the artist develop an increased interest in Oriental Art, and in particular, Chinese scroll painting. After the discovery of George Rowley’s 1947 book, The Principals of Chinese Painting, Hockney realized that the fifteenth-century art form was absent from the constraints of the single-point perspective that was popular in the West. As Hockney eloquently stated: “The West used gunpowder and one-point perspective to fire canons, whereas the Chinese, who lacked this perspective system, used their gunpowder for fireworks to illuminate the immeasurable night sky” (D. Hockney quoted in David Hockney: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles 1988, p. 61). In the same year that Jade Plant was painted, Hockney released the film A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, 1988, where he narrates his way through a 72 foot long scroll, exhibiting the work in a way that is not really possible in a museum, book or photographic reproduction. Through the physical act of navigating the seemingly endless scroll, a strong sense of the overall space is maintained despite the constantly changing viewpoints. This creates an effect that comes closer to the experience of walking through the landscape than many forms of photography or painting even today. These influences are not only evident through the reduction of conventional perspective, but perhaps also through the chosen subject matter of a Jade plant, which holds a strong significance in Chinese culture, resembling wealth and prosperity.
Executed during one of the most informative decades of Hockney’s celebrated career, Jade Plant embodies the innovative use of space, color and subject matter that defines the very best of his oeuvre. Imbued with a rich color palette and personalized perspective system, such qualities have helped contribute to Hockney’s reputation as one of the most distinguished and recognizable artists of a generation.