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David Hockney’s Adventures in Printmaking

The Wall Street Journal:

A new exhibition in Minneapolis explores the British painter’s works on paper.

David Hockney, ‘Piscine a minuit, Paper Pool 19’ (1978).
David Hockney, ‘Piscine a minuit, Paper Pool 19’ (1978).

When David Hockney visited New York for the first time in 1961, he had little money and a lot of ambition. Straight off the plane, the young British artist made his way to the Museum of Modern Art, where he showed a portfolio of his prints to the curator William S. Lieberman, who decided to buy them on the spot. The sale provided Mr. Hockney, now 84, with the money he needed to move to Los Angeles, where he would make some of his greatest paintings.

Not long afterward, Mr. Hockney immortalized the transaction and other New York adventures in a series of 16 etchings titled “A Rake’s Progress,” after William Hogarth’s graphic tale of the same name. It is the earliest work on display in “David Hockney: People, Places and Things,” a new show opening Dec. 18 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which focuses mainly on Mr. Hockney’s prints and other works on paper.

“The thing I love most about the show is how it brings out this idea of experimentation,” says curator Siri Engberg, “this not wanting to sit within a certain style of working.” Ms. Engberg notes that Mr. Hockney’s arrival in the U.S. coincided with what has come to be known as the American print renaissance. “Workshops were beginning to spring up all around the U.S. during the height of Pop Art,” she says. “They were inviting artists, who may have had little to no experience in printmaking, and showing them that being part of a collaborative relationship could result in taking their work to new places.”

Many of the Walker’s Hockney prints came from the American printmaker Kenneth E. Tyler, who collaborated with Mr. Hockney throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Some of the most ambitious work they did together is found in “Moving Focus,” a series of collaged portraits of friends that Mr. Hockney made in the mid-1980s.

David Hockney, ‘An Image of Celia’ (1984).
David Hockney, ‘An Image of Celia’ (1984).

Several of these depict the British fashion designer Celia Birtwell, who sat for Mr. Hockney on a regular basis. The show includes “An Image of Celia” (1984-86), a large-scale Cubist-style collage made using lithography, in which the artist draws directly onto a flat stone. “Hockney really took to lithography very quickly because it was a natural extension of drawing for him,” Ms. Engberg says.

Mr. Hockney returned time and again to swimming pools as a subject in his prints, using lithography to depict water’s surfaces. The exhibition includes “Piscine à Minuit, Paper Pool 19” (1978), in which he used dyed paper pulp to give a glowing midnight pool an almost velvety sheen. “It’s really a hybrid between painting and printmaking,” Ms. Engberg says. “The pulp would be dyed before going through the press so you would have these painterly handmade areas of color, and then he would go in by hand on top of that with additional dye to create the imagery.”

The exhibition highlights Mr. Hockney’s love of literature with a series of whimsical prints he made in the mid-1970s to illustrate Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Blue Guitar.” For this project he traveled to Paris and worked with the master Belgian printmaker Aldo Crommelynck, whose etchings for Picasso Mr. Hockney had grown up admiring. Stevens’s poem was originally inspired by Picasso’s 1903 painting “The Old Guitarist,” which Mr. Hockney reproduced as a frontispiece. “Hockney was greatly influenced by Picasso,” Ms. Engberg says. “Here he was using literature as an intermediary to celebrate that artistic connection.”

The Walker exhibition also includes works in more modern media, including a series of black-and-white prints Mr. Hockney made using a fax machine in 1989 and a series of landscapes he did more recently with an iPad. Ms. Engberg suggests that the immediacy of both tools appealed to Mr. Hockney. “With the faxes it was a way to back away from the kind of high-tech experimental printmaking he’d been doing with Ken Tyler,” Ms. Engberg says. “Instead he could do something where it was just about drawing the page and transmitting it so that it became an instant print.”

The last room of the exhibition focuses on the variety of places Mr. Hockney has depicted over the years. “The Weather Series” (1973) consists of six lithographs made after a trip to Japan; their delicate shadings and timeless themes are reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts, but most of the scenes are actually of Los Angeles. “There is this idea of changing weather, changing seasons, coming back to a subject again and again, whether it be a portrait of Celia Birtwell or a landscape,” Ms. Engberg says. “That’s what this show is trying to tease out a bit.”