‘Just as I arrived at the RCA they were changing the whole system and abandoning the teaching of drawing for this general studies course. I objected to this: I’d been working in a hospital for two years and I expected to draw. They said that the Minister of Education had complained that people were leaving art school ignorant, so I replied that there was no such thing as an ignorant artist – they were all interesting – and told them off, saying, “You are a professor of painting: you have to profess painting.” They didn’t like that I was cheeky and confident enough to criticize them and that I didn’t even bother signing in to these lectures, so they said, “You’ve failed this course.” I didn’t care. Who’s going to ask a painter to see a diploma? They’d say, “Can I see your paintings?” Wouldn’t they?’ (Interview with David Hockney, Timeout, London, 2016).
Hockney returned from a trip to New York in July 1961 with his synonymous bleach blond hair, rounded glasses, and cheeky attitude, which be brought with him to the Royal College of Art. Hockney provocatively painted the work Diploma (1962) when he was denied a degree by the school for refusing to write a final essay, which they later rescinded, perhaps persuaded by his growing reputation.
Painted in 1962 Big Stone straddles two key periods of Hockney’s oeuvre, the ‘Love Paintings’ and the early sexually charged figurative paintings, which he painted soon after his move to California in 1964. Big Stone and works of this period such Picture Emphasizing Stillness (1962) and The Hypnotist (1963) give a clear insight into his flexibility with subject and a new found confidence, which drove him to experiment with alternative styles and new compositional formats. Painted in 1962, the present work is painted in arguably the most it experimental phase of his early work. Following his first solo exhibition in 1963, soon after painting Big Stone, American Art critic Gene Baro observed how Hockney used: ‘the conciseness of style as an element separable from content, as a thing applied ... Hockney’s style, as it develops, is a pastiche of styles. The paintings achieve a synthesis – of form, of feeling, of comment – by quotation and placement. In short, the subject of Hockney’s paintings is relationship among images, arbitrarily stated but sometimes needing to seem casual or accidental. Frequently the paintings court an air of innocence. Sometimes they appear to spoof art itself’ (G. Baro, quoted in C. Stephens and A. Wilson (eds.), exhibition catalogue, David Hockney, London, Tate Gallery, 2017, p. 50).
Hockney’s foray and exploration of different styles leaves the subject of Big Stone ambiguous in its nature. Hockney travelled frequently during the early 60’s in particular to New York and Italy. Hockney visited Florence and found museums such as the Uffizi to be particularly captivating. Looking at Big Stone it is tempting to draw parallels with the biblical tale of Joseph of Arimathea sealing the tomb of Christ, a subject that he no doubt encountered on his so called ‘Artistic tour’ around Europe with Michael Kullman in December 1961. However Hockney vowed that he ‘resisted any influences from the art there’ and instead grounded himself in the Modernist aesthetic of the period.
The great expanse of blank canvas and the artist’s apparent engagement in the act of painting itself is far more indicative of modern art movements in the West. Hockney himself stated ‘at that time I was much more conscious of current ideas about painting. For instance flatness: flatness was something the people really talked about then, and I was really interested in it’ (D. Hockney, quoted in N. Strangos (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London, 1976, p. 87).
In the early 60’s British art saw the rise of The Situation Group, whose works were defined by huge colour palette works. Contemporaries of Hockney, who he studied and exhibited with, such as Bernard Cohen, Jeremy Moon and Robyn Denny, blocked out vast fields of canvas with blank flat colour, simplified figurations and geometric forms prompting Hockney’s newfound clean aesthetic. In America Hockney was inspired by the work of Jasper Johns, whose paintings of the late 1950’s were reminiscent of classic abstract expressionism but looked to simple compositions to anchor his painterly and textured technique. Comparisons can clearly be seen in Hockney’s brushwork and soft layered colours in Big Stone and works such as Jasper Johns, Figure 5, 1960.
Although less explicit than the homoeroticism of the ‘Love Paintings,’ that Hockney viewed as a form of propaganda, the more finished figure and his sketchy companion in Big Stone are indicative of the male couples that become so prominent in Hockney’s works of the mid 60’s. Perhaps hand in hand, they march in unison across the canvas. One lies in shadow, the other swathed in a white veil, whose texture is strangely akin to those in Francis Bacon’s work. The profiled face of the man on the left is almost identical to that of the Hypnotist (1962) whilst the fleshy hues are symptomatic of Dubuffet who Hockney described as ‘the only French artist who was doing anything that was interesting at the time’ (ibid., p. 67). The painting though simple in its composition is an almost ceaseless combination of influences and styles, and truly defines the explorative nature of Hockney’s work in these formative years.
‘I want to use different styles, or a vocabulary of different styles, the same way a writer uses different words. I think it is part of a technique of painting to be able to adapt yourself to different styles… In a way I would like to paint a picture that was completely anonymous, that no one could tell was by me. Not in the style of another individual, but in the anonymous style of a school, like the Egyptian or byzantine style’ (D. Hockney, quoted in P. Melia and U. Luchardt, David Hockney Paintings, London, 2009, p. 39).