Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Nichols Canyon: David Hockney’s First Mature Painting

Nichols Canyon marks a transition in David Hockney’s oeuvre from the swimming pools of the 1960’s to more varied panoramic Californian landscapes, concerned with portraying time and movement. In this article, Singulart discusses the composition of Nichols Canyon and Hockney’s life and love of California. 

Who is David Hockney? 

Hockney in Frankfurt, Germany, 2016. Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa/Alamy Live News. Nichols Canyon
Hockney in Frankfurt, Germany, 2016. Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa/Alamy Live News

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 Nichols Canyon?

David Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980
David Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980

Nichols Canyon can be considered one of Hockney’s first mature paintings of California. Departing from his earlier exploration of swimming pools and modernist architecture, it marks the beginning of his panoramic landscapes of the 1980’s. Having first come to California in 1963, Hockney bought a house at the top of Hollywood Hills in 1978, just before he painted Nichols Canyon. Thus Nichols Canyon depicts the Hills as seen from above, from Hockney’s new viewpoint. The canvas is divided vertically down the center by a winding black line, suggesting the road through the hills, with “Nichols Cyn Rd” written on it in blue. To either side of the road are houses, depicted in simplified forms but with realistic perspective.

The landscape itself is made up of a patchwork of patterns and bright colors, from reds and oranges in the background, to pinks, purples, greens and blues. This use of vivid color and pattern and Hockney’s dynamic brushstrokes demonstrate the influence of Fauvism and thus in Nichols Canyon, Hockney juxtaposes the traditions of the early twentieth century avant garde, from Matisse to Picasso, onto the late twentieth century American landscape. 

In Nichols Canyon Hockney experiments with solutions for portraying movement and the passing of time on a two-dimensional support.  These were challenges which would concern him throughout his career and across many different landscape works and mediums, from photo-collages to video and iPad drawings. Here in Nichols Canyon, Hockney combines a depiction of the landscape as he saw it in real life on top of the memories of repeated journeys, this layering of memory with the present view translates an almost cinematographic sense of time and journey into the paint. The viewer’s position above the landscape also gives a sense of momentum and it is easy to imagine the continuation of the journey through this landscape. Nichols Canyon’s large scale, in acrylic on a 142cm x213cm canvas, also helps to immerse the viewer in this colorful depiction of California as seen through David Hockney’s eyes. 

In his paintings, from swimming pools to the glitzy sun-lit landscapes of California, Hockney manages to transcend the stereotype of the superficial which is often associated with his chosen subject matter, by concerning himself with essentially human elements. In the swimming pool paintings, this materialises in his attempt to capture the effects of movement and light on water, his concern encompasses the formal and the physical. In his landscape works, such as Nichols Canyon, he turns his attention towards time, how it manifests upon a landscape and on one’s memory of journeys through it. Thus to consider his paintings is to consider something profound and human, it is to behold surfaces that can be penetrated and landscapes that can be traversed. 

Hockney’s California Dream

Hockney first moved to California in 1964 and in contrast to the grey-tinged landscapes of his English youth, it is no wonder he described it as the “promised land” and this sense of wonder at what must have seemed like a fantasy landscape is conveyed through the vivid colours and textures of Nichols Canyon. Hockney still lives in his house in Hollywood hills to this day and continues to elaborate on the theme of the Californian landscape.

See similar artworks in Singulart’s Inspired by David Hockney collection.

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