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About the artwork

Painting: © David Hockney/Collection: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Image credit: Richard Schmidt

In 1961 the 24 year-old Yorkshire-born David Hockney first visited the United States. Since his adolescence America had been for him a country of fantasy – exciting, rich, unstuffy and full of good-looking young men. California, with its ever present sunshine, blue skies and relaxed gay scene held a special place in Hockney's dream picture and he took his first trip there in late 1961. During a short stay he found, to his delight, that his romantic fantasy was in fact a reality. In early 1964 Hockney came to live full-time in Los Angeles – at first downtown, later in the hills overlooking the city.

This picture shows the communal swimming pool of an apartment block at 1145 Larrabee Street, Hollywood, just north of Sunset Boulevard. This was the home of one of Hockney's friends, the art dealer and gallery owner Nick Wilder. Hockney lived there from summer 1966 until early 1967 whilst at the same time renting a decrepit studio in central Los Angeles. Hockney’s lover, Peter Schlesinger, a 19-year old painter whom he had met while teaching, is the naked figure climbing out of the pool.

Hockney copied the figure of Peter Schlesinger from a Polaroid photograph that he had taken, showing him leaning naked against the bonnet of a car. The square format of the photograph is deliberately evoked in the shape of the painting. The idea of leaving a border of unprimed, virgin canvas, Hockney said, was ‘to make the picture look more like a painting’. He wanted to emphasise the process of picture-making and the artifice involved in creating an illusion. Hockney subsequently thought that this wish was a timid accommodation to prevailing fashions amongst avant-garde painters. At this stage though he still wanted, however peripherally, to be involved with formal advances in art.

Hockney's picture differs from the appearance of the actual place. The pool – in reality oval shaped – has become rectangular. A staircase, behind the hedge on the right, has been eliminated. The sliding glass doors have been enlarged. In order to depict the reflections of harsh light on the window panes and the rippling movement of water in the pool Hockney borrowed from the highly-stylised conventions of graphic art used for advertising and comics. The parallel lines on the glass and the wriggling, snake-like forms in the water are what one might expect to see on a billboard advertising real-estate, or in a Marvel comic book. Hockney’s paint is acrylic – a fast-drying plastic-based paint. This can be used, as here, to produce smooth, matt areas of all-over saturated colour. It achieves the look of American comic books of the period.

On closer inspection, the picture’s surface reveals the proud edges of certain forms. These are the result of Hockney’s use of masking tape to help him make straight lines. In parts his colour has bled beneath the tape. Some have found this an irritating error in what is an otherwise crisp, sharp image. Others have argued that, like the bare canvas edging, it simply emphasises the human, flawed process of picture-making.

Hockney's paintings of Californian swimming pools have become extremely famous. Just as American artist Edward Hopper gave the world its view of the still and at times, haunting melancholy of North American city streets, so too Hockney has created iconic images of the self-indulgent, poolside life of the American west coast. People who have never visited California think of it as looking like his seductive, sun-soaked pictures. Nikos Stangos, who interviewed Hockney at length in 1975, and talked with him about this painting and related views, described them as:

‘…a catalogue of the Los Angeles art world in which Hockney spent his Californian years that will stand for the period as much as Evelyn Waugh’s Loved One stands for the earlier Los Angeles of Forest Lawn and other excesses …The paintings of these years were the best to date and there is one good one after another…All are detached and crystalline, all breathe a clarity of light, perception and realised intention that mark Hockney’s new and greater ambition to paint the world dead on, as he saw it’.

Between 1965 and 1967 Hockney made several large pictures like this one. The best known, entitled ‘The Bigger Splash’, also provided the title for a film made at the time about Hockney and his friends.

Made in 1966, this painting won first prize in the 1967 John Moores Liverpool Exhibition and was given to the Walker by Sir John Moores. Characteristically, Hockney used his prize money to pay for his parents to travel on holiday, from the family home in Bradford to visit relatives in Australia.