Portrait of Nick Wilder is one of the finest of the famous series of California pool paintings that first established Hockney's international reputation in the mid-1960s. 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 (which has here been flattened into an almost abstract construction of form), Portrait of Nick Wilder convincingly conveys the essence of the "California Dreaming" good-life.
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 the spring of 1964. He immediately fell in love with both the place, the lifestyle and a young blonde student named Peter Schlesinger and over the next two years increasingly spent most of his time there settling permanently in Hollywood in 1966. Portrait of Nick Wilder was painted in the spring of this year and is the second of two large-scale paintings of swimming pools in which Hockney deliberately attempts to mimic the precision, flatness and objectivity of a photograph. (The earlier work being his painting entitled Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool.) The move to California had prompted a dramatic transformation in Hockney's art which also coincided with an increasing interest in photography. The flat geometric forms and the powerful horizontality of the L.A. landscape lent themselves well to Hockney's illustrative style of painting and in conjunction with the use of photographs as well as drawings Hockney began to define a new and unique vision of the American West-Coast. As he excitedly recalled from his first visit to L.A. "There were no paintings of Los Angeles, people didn't even know what it looked like... 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 its Piranesi, so here I am!"
Nick Wilder was a Contemporary art dealer whom Hockney and Schlesinger had befriended and around whose swimming pool they spent much of their time. Portrait of Nick Wilder marks a significant departure in Hockney's art being the first portrait the artist had painted in many years. " After Sunbather I did Portrait of Nick Wilder which I began in early 1966," Hockney remembers. "I had Mark Lancaster take pictures of Nick in the pool like that; I got Nick to pose with just his head coming out of the swimming pool and Mark had to go in the pool to take the pictures. I just painted it. I think this was about the first absolutely specific portrait I'd painted for many years, since being a student in Bradford probably. There'd been portraits but they weren't of real people. I'd come to the conclusion I could now do a specific portrait. To me, moving into more naturalism was a freedom. I thought, if I want to, I could paint a portrait, this is what I mean by freedom" (D. Hockney in N. Stangos, David Hockney on David Hockney, London, 1976, p. 104).
In conjunction with the new "freedom" that Hockney discovered in L.A. his paintings, as Portrait of Nick Wilder clearly shows, were also conscious explorations of the relationship between painting and photography. There is a deliberate avoidance of using shadows in Portrait of Nick Wilder and the forms have been deliberately flattened in order to emphasize the effect of strong sunlight and the flat geometry of L.A. Although the painting looks as if it is based on a single photograph, - something Hockney clearly intended and has attempted to emphasize by leaving a border of bare canvas around the edge of the painting - the precise relation of the painting to photography is deceptive as the composition is in fact the product of many different photographs and a large degree of painterly artifice. As Hockney pointed out, his paintings were very carefully constructed into co-ordinated patterns of form. "I think that buying a camera coincided with an interest in making pictures that were depicting a place and people in a particular place," he remembered. "Certainly in California '65/66 when I had begun to do that, using only rather poor Polaroid photographs to jog my memory - the paintings were on the whole still invented" (Cited in M. Livingstone, David Hockney, London, 1981, p, 97).
Indeed, commenting on the way in which Portrait of Nick Wilder has been composed Marco Livingstone has detected Hockney nodding to recent developments in the contemporary painting of the day and in particular revealing his awareness of Frank Stella's work. Livingstone writes, "The architecture in a picture such as Portrait of Nick Wilder provides a metaphor for the construction of the composition. The rectilinear grid, moreover, establishes a strong consciousness of the surface on which the image rests, while at the same time suggesting real space through the identification of this grid with a three-dimensional setting... In many of these pictures a continuous horizontal band extends across the whole image area as a visual echo of the framing edge and its seems likely that (Frank Stella's) early paintings of horizontal bands directed Hockney to relate the image to the external form of the canvas in this fashion. At the very least one can say that the overt formalization of the structure, notwithstanding its antecedents in the art of Poussin and other 'classical' painters, is the product of a mid-twentieth century sensibility" (M. Livingstone, David Hockney, London, 1981, p. 99).
Hockney himself has reiterated these sentiments in a way when he admitted the influence of contemporary painting on this work. "The method of depicting water" he has recalled, "was influenced by the later abstract paintings of Dubuffet and Bernard Cohen's Spaghetti pictures." But, the "idea of leaving a border of virgin canvas round the edge was", he later thought, "in retrospect a timid one. It makes the picture look more like a painting which was an essential premise in advanced painting at that time. I have never thought my painting advanced but in 1964 I still consciously wanted to be involved, if only peripherally, with modernism" (David Hockney on David Hockney ed. N. Stangos, London, 1976, p. 100).
With its bleak geometric forms, blank windows, still curtains and empty architecture, Portrait of Nick Wilder is infused with a pervasive and powerful silence that surrounds the enigmatic and smiling (and Mr Ben-like) figure submersed in the languid rippling water of the pool. This is a silence that invades all the finest of Hockney's pool paintings and which was shortly to be disrupted by the "splash". In this memorable portrait, this silence combines with Nick Wilder's slightly bemused expression of contentment to convey a sense of the child-like wonder with which Hockney viewed modern California. Small and isolated against this synthetic L.A. Garden of Eden backdrop, Nick Wilder seems, like Hockney, not to really be able to believe his luck in being where he is.
Fig. 1 Hockney contemplating Portrait of Nick Wilder in his Los Angeles studio, 1966
Fig. 2 Nick Wilder's apartment and pool, Larabee Drive, West Hollywood, 1978
Photograph by Peter Webb
Fig. 3 David Hockney, Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool, 1966
National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Walker Art Gallery), Liverpool