An Urban Dreamscape


7 February 2017

In Waiting For The Sun, his account of the Los Angeles music scene, Barney Hoskins describes the city’s very particular form of social life. For visiting pop stars from Europe, LA initially appeared opaque, a city with no obvious centre or cultural scene. The socialising happened elsewhere, not in streets and squares or even bars but in the houses up in the canyons and the Hollywood Hills.

This combination of private space and social life is captured in David Hockney’s iconic series of pool paintings from the late 1960s and early 70s. Hockney first moved to LA in 1964 and returned there periodically, retaining a house in Nichols Canyon near Mulholland Drive. LA’s ubiquitous swimming pools were the first thing Hockney noticed, their glinting turquoise squares of water visible from the plane as he descended into LAX airport. For Hockney, the swimming pools were a form of public space, as important to the social life of the city as the squares of Florence were to the painters of the Renaissance.

After a childhood in Yorkshire, it’s easy to see why Hockney might have been seduced by the beatific climate and sexual hedonism of 60s LA. His paintings from this period describe a setting of exquisite mid-century modern houses sitting in an almost eerie calm under the Californian sun. Palm trees gently swish and shadows drip lazily from verandas, awnings and the kind of impossibly elegant architectural details you find only in places where it doesn’t rain. The languid atmosphere of these images is often broken by a specifically erotic charge. The bare buttocks of the naked figure in Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1967) for instance, or the explosive spray of water in A Bigger Splash from the same year.

Hockney didn’t just depict the architecture of LA; he helped form it. His images are now such an indelible part of our mental image of the city it is as if Hockney was actually one its designers. The swirls of blue that he painted on the tiled floor of his own pool are revealing in this respect. He is painting the place quite literally, blurring the distinction between image and reality. It is if he wanted LA to actually become how he imagined it. Hockney’s LA paintings are an urban dreamscape come to life.