David Hockney isn’t getting any younger. The English multi-hyphenate turned 85 this past July, but shows little sign of slowing down as evidenced by his latest exhibition “The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020,” on show now at the Art Institute of Chicago. This French Impressionism-inspired romp finds the artist without anything to prove, but still motivated to push the limits of his medium — in this case, the Apple iPad.
When most of the world was slowing down in the pandemic spring of 2020, Hockney found focus and momentum, executing 116 new paintings from February to July while locked down in the north of France (truly a cruel fate!). These are overwhelmingly landscapes — fields, trees, bushes — and often repeated under different conditions of weather and time. In location, approach, and ethos, Hockney channels his Impressionist forebears — variations on a tree and bushes in a field evoke Claude Monet’s stacks of wheat just a few galleries over.
“Arrival of Spring” represents the latest in Hockney’s decade-plus long fascination with painting via Apple’s iPad and iPhone. Much to many visitors’ surprise, Hockney developed each work on his iPad while working in the field using a bespoke app fitted with brushes and settings catered to his creative needs.
The resulting work relishes in an all-consuming flatness. Viewing the works on a computer screen, perhaps embedded in this article, fails to belay their size but captures the flat and saturated character of each image, as each is a print-out derived from the digital draft. The effect can be jarring — Hockney’s two-dimensional surfaces make the globules and mounds of paint accumulated across someone like Paul Cézanne or Vincent van Gogh’s compositions tower in comparison. Likewise, a too-perfect saturation makes some works glow with a borderline-sickly tone, just a little too sweet, appearing closer to the video game “Minecraft” than Monet.
The dullness of the artificial character subsides when viewing close up. At this range, Hockney’s meticulous hand begins to show, revealing fine
layers of shading and dots — not at all unlike the pointillist technique pioneered by Georges Seurat and featured in his obscure painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (located, so I’ve been told, in the Art Institute). Hockney, aided by technology, is able to push these pixelated layers to a minuscule scale that impresses despite their digital origin (see the trees of #105 in particular, or the bushes of #1).
I think it may be easy to dismiss the collection — regular and unamused murmurs of “done on an iPad” floated through the gallery — but, to his credit, Hockney succeeds in channeling the spirit of Impressionism while rethinking its material tenets. French Impressionism was a movement bolstered in part by newfound mobility as leisure time and mass transit opened up the countryside to French city-dwellers. Hockney likewise exercises the mobility afforded by shrinking technology and reminisces on the pre-pandemic period, a moment of relative peace before the coming maelstrom.
Hockney is old, and I can understand the appeal of toting a tablet over lugging a canvas, easel and paints in the manner of those who came before. The works in “Arrival” exude a casual air, and he conjures a fine dialogue with the likes of Monet and Seurat. This might be the most relaxed exhibition at the Art Institute in recent memory, for better or for worse. At this point in his career he has no need to prove himself, so why not seek out an enjoyable project? With “Arrival,” he has clearly found a personal spark.
“Arrival of Spring” is not ground-breaking nor must-see — if anything, it is aggressively without stakes. But like a good spring day, it is an appreciated and easygoing affair. Analog painting purists may recoil, but I imagine Hockney doesn’t give a sh*t. There are other contemporary painters who can and do carry the early Hockney torch (see: Jake Longstreth and his marvelous canvases of odd commercial spaces). With close inspection, Hockney’s painting/print-outs offer small rewards for those who dive in, and may inspire the novice and hobbyist painter to take their own stab at the digital canvas.
“David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020” can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago from Aug. 20, 2022 until Jan. 9, 2023.
Pablo Nukaya-Petralia (MAAH 2023) is the managing editor of F Newsmagazine. “MAAH” is not his major, but rather the sound he makes while writing.