Hockney’s first trip to California in January 1964 exposed him to what was to become arguably the most notorious subject of his oeuvre to date, the swimming pool. The artist rendered the swimming pool an iconic symbol of his own work and pieces such as Nathan Swimming, Los Angeles (private collection), A Bigger Splash (Tate, London) and the paper pool series have driven the subject to indisputable acclaim and been fundamental to the artist’s celebrity. The pool as a private and domestic luxury was one that had not yet reached Britain by the early 1960s. Hockney’s recognition of its worth was, however, not entirely a result of its exoticism. The technical challenge of reproducing the real world onto a two-dimensional surface was a major driving force in his work, and the task of successfully describing water was one that attracted Hockney. ‘The idea of drawing water is always appealing to me, you can look on it, through it, into it, see it as volume, see it as surface’ (D. Hockney, BBC Newsnight, 1980). The varying degrees of naturalism used by Hockney to depict water throughout his career can be seen to pay homage to artists ranging from the optical experiments of early Renaissance painters, to the abstract patterns of his contemporary, Bridget Riley.
'Water in swimming pools changes its look more than in any other form. The colour of a river is related to the sky it reflects, and the sea always seems to me to be the same colour and have the same dancing patterns. But the look of swimming-pool water is controllable – even its colour can be man-made – and its dancing rhythms reflect not only the sky but, because of its transparency, the depth of the water as well’ (D. Hockney quoted in N. Stangos, David Hockney, London, 1976, p. 247).
The early 1980s saw Hockney’s work change dramatically with the almost accidental discovery of a new idea, the Polaroid collage. When working on an exhibition proposal at the Pompidou Centre, curator Alain Sayag encouraged the use of a Polaroid camera to save battling with the slower medium of 35mm photography. This left Hockney with an abundance of Polaroid photographs that he started to collage into uniform compositions. ‘This allowed Hockney 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’ (exhibition catalogue, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, London, Royal Academy, 2012, p. 62). By constructing a coherent space using an arrangement of fragmented views of the same subject, Hockney could challenge previous ideas from the history of image making and highlight the complications of reproducing the real world on the surface of a picture. This revelation spurred on an intense burst of creativity that formed the basis of a post-Cubist experiment that has continued for the rest of his career. In the present lot, we can see the almost fish-eye portrayal of the pool which is juxtaposed with the lack of perspective found in many of the surrounding objects.
It is not just in its slightly cubist portrayal of space that Swimming Pool demonstrates the significant influence Hockney found in French modern art. The work of Henri Matisse and his exploration of how abstraction could successfully render the sensation of sight on a flat surface was a great inspiration to Hockney. The arrangement of shapes in the present lot is reminiscent of the way in which, in his cutouts, Matisse employed abstracted forms to function as signs to describe recognisable objects. Especially in the buildings towards the top of the composition, there is little attempt to accurately describe the form of the architecture but the space remains distinctive. This could also be said of the depiction of water in familiar works such as Sunbather (private collection), where the constantly changing surface of the water and the way the light reflects off it is illustrated with an abstracted pattern of shape and line. Hockney’s pursuits concerning the tension between representation and artifice has made him one of the most recognisable and important artists of a generation.