A Bigger Splash is one of David Hockney’s most iconic works, combining his fascination with California in the 1960’s with his investigation of the relationship between painting and performance. In this article, Singulart investigates Hockney’s famous painting in the context of the artist’s career and the artistic landscape of the late twentieth century.
Who is David Hockney?
Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1937, Hockney attended the Royal College of Art in London from 1959 to 1962, where his boundary-pushing approach to the curriculum saw his talent recognized. He quickly rose to success as a pioneer of British Pop Art. In 1964 he moved to Los Angeles, which he described as the “promised land”, a place where he “flowered” and subsequently painted works such as A Bigger Splash which would come to define his style and British Pop Art. It is through his iconic, highly saturated acrylic paintings that he captured the essence of high living in California in the ‘60s. From here, Hockney’s oeuvre has gone on to span photography, landscape painting and experiments with new technology. Today, alongside Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, he is one of the richest living artists.
What’s happening in A Bigger Splash?
A Bigger Splash depicts an idyllic swimming pool in Los Angeles and indeed, a splash. In the background, against a bright blue sky, two palm trees tower above a low-set, pink modernist building, whose windows reflect the skyline beyond the frame. In the foreground, a clear blue swimming pool spans the width of the canvas, its flat surface disturbed by a splash. In the lower right hand corner, a yellow diving board cuts into the composition, contrasting with the saturated blues and pinks. The painting was completed in 1967, when Hockney was teaching at the University of California in Berkeley. He had first visited California, from England in 1963 and described it as the “promised land”. Between 1964 and 1971 he made numerous paintings of swimming pools, each time using a different technique in an attempt to capture the fluctuating surfaces of the water.
A Bigger Splash was painted in fast drying acrylic paint, which Hockney found was best suited to capturing the saturated colours of California’s landscape. It is also framed by a stretch of raw canvas. The painting took about two weeks to paint, as Hockney chose to portray the splash using small paint brushes to capture the myriad of details, working from a photograph, rather than to recreate the splash with an instantaneous gesture by throwing paint on the canvas. He explained this decision, stating: “When you photograph a splash, you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else… a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.”
A Bigger Splash is one of three ‘splash’ paintings by Hockney. The other two, The Splash and A Little Splash were painted in 1966 and are in private collections. All three paintings share the same compositional elements, from the modernist architecture to the diving board and, of course, the splash and the swimming pool. Unlike most of Hockney’s other California paintings, this work is devoid of human presence. It is only the splash that suggests the presence of the diver and leaves a trace of human movement.
Performance and Painting: a fake splash
A Bigger Splash demonstrates the dynamic relationship between performance and painting in twentieth century art and particularly in Hockney’s painting. David Hockney painted the work a few years after he graduated from the Royal College of Arts and at a time when American Abstract Expressionism was at the height of its popularity in Britain. However, in contrast to the gestural approach of the Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, who’s action painting placed the importance on the process of painting over the finished work itself, Hockney instead turned towards a more theatrical treatment of the canvas. He took the singular event of the splash, and recreated it in slow, elaborate, dramatic detail in paint. In doing so, the painting becomes not only a depiction of a heightened scene of California high living but also a theatrical recreation or reversal of the Abstract Gesture.