In 1978, a lost driver’s license caused a stopover in New York in the middle of David Hockney’s move from England to Los Angeles. The artist intended to stay two or three days with an old friend, Kenneth Tyler of the Tyler Graphics studio, at his workshop in upstate New York before continuing to California. Instead, he remained for forty-five days and created his experimental and critically acclaimed Paper Pools series. Gregory in the Pool, an early work from a series of twenty-nine pressed color paper pulp pictures, is an innovative portrait of Hockney’s friend and lover executed during a time of significant transition in the artist’s life. A hybrid of painting and paper-making, the present work is evocative of Hockney’s boundless curiosity, virtuosity of medium, and intimate portrayals of loved ones.
Tyler had recently worked with Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland to create abstract paper pulp works, and Hockney found the pictures, especially those of Kelly, “stunningly beautiful” (the artist cited in: Nikos Stangos, Ed., David Hockney: Paper Pools, New York 1980, p. 10). Hockney and Tyler began to work together to create flowers, impregnating wet paper pulp made from rags with rich, saturated colored dyes poured in metal molds. It was challenging, bold work and Hockney was thrilled to experiment with a new medium.
The paper pulp technique was a denial of the line, heretofore Hockney’s greatest strength; it was instead a celebration of mass and color and light that brought the artist on par with Matisse, Rembrandt and van Gogh. The viewer may be directly reminded of Matisse’s own swimming pool masterpiece, executed twenty-six years before in the summer of 1952. La piscine was the culmination of Matisse’s paper cut-outs, resulting from a trip to a favorite pool in Cannes and an innovative study of light and movement. Matisse, observing the dynamism of the splashing water, populated the work with painted paper cut into shapes of divers, swimmers, and sea creatures. Hockney described the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs, including La piscine, as “pure joy,” and this joy is clearly reflected in his own experimental paper pool.
While invigorated by the challenge, Hockney soon grew tired of figure-less representation. “I added Gregory in the pool, whose figure was the ground paper itself. I drew the figure out very simply, then I made the mold, and used two pink colors which I put together and then I kneaded them with my fingers, which I thought was nice because it’s nice to do that to flesh” (Ibid., p. 36). Gregory Evans and Hockney met in 1974 and the artist began making portraits of him almost immediately after. Gregory has since been a steady model, inspiration, support system, and now business manager. When asked recently who the love of his life is, he whispered, “Maybe Gregory” (the artist cited in: Simon Hattenstone, “David Hockney: ‘Just because I’m cheeky, doesn’t mean I’m not serious,’” The Guardian, 9 May 2015, online). Hockney took countless Polaroids of his lover in Tyler’s backyard pool, observing the ways in which the sunlight changed the surface of the water throughout the day and the distortion of Gregory’s body as he moved through the pool.
Hockney, inspired by the summer sunshine after spending so much time in England, felt it was the first time he had used primary colors. The bright blues, yellows and oranges in Gregory in the Pool, as well as an attention to horizontals and shadow, foreshadow the artistic themes he would explore more fully in Los Angeles in the coming years. In the preface to David Hockney: Paper Pools, prepared jointly by Hockney and Gregory, the editor Nikos Stangos stated that “the challenge to [Hockney’s] imagination and creative ability of mastering a new technique, learning its limitations, accepting those limitations and transcending them is the same as that which has provided the fuel in all the new phases of his work” (Nikos Stangos, Ed., David Hockney: Paper Pools, New York 1980, p. 5).
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