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Hockney, it might seem, is a direct heir of Matisse’s fauvism, pushing colour contrasts to trippy and hedonistic extremes. Perhaps the story of Matisse’s influence is so abundantly evident that he feels that there is nothing to say about it.Or perhaps he just feels more temperamentally aligned with Picasso, whom he does like to talk about and whose Cubism speaks to his obsession with the mechanics of vision.“He was with his eight-year-old daughter,” Hockney remembers, “and he told me that I was her favourite artist. I suspect it was.” He laughed softly, then adds in his gravelly, Yorkshire-inflected voice, “I thought I was a peripheral artist, really.” Nowadays, in an age when the choice between abstraction and figuration is dismissed as a false dichotomy, and when younger artists imbue their work with once-taboo narrative and autobiography, Hockney is an artist of unassailable relevance.One suspects we will see as much when a full-dress retrospective of his work opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November.He delights in espousing contrary opinions, some of which come at you with the force of aesthetic revelation, while others seem perverse and largely indefensible.In the latter category, you can probably include his regular denunciations of the anti-smoking movement.
He was visiting a gallery in New York, when he bumped into critic Clement Greenberg, abstract art’s most vociferous defender.Before my visit to his studio, he emailed me a recent discovery of his: a 105-page essay by Pavel Florensky, a now-forgotten Russian mathematician who died in 1937, a victim of Stalin’s goons.Florensky was also a gifted art historian, and his 1920 essay, , is a dazzling piece of revisionist criticism conceived in defence of 14th- and 15th-century Russian icons. The absence of perspective in Russian icons – as well as in Egyptian art and among the Chinese – was not a blunder but an inspired choice.As in certain Hockney paintings, large-leafed plants abound and exterior walls are painted in discordant hues of hot pink, royal blue and yolky yellow.An inflatable swan floats in a kidney-shaped swimming pool that itself contains a Hockney painting: an abstract composition with curving blue lines dispersed rhythmically across the surface, like a cartoon rendition of waves. His conversation is wide-ranging and larded with literary references, and his manner is so genial and confiding that at first you do not notice how stubborn he can be.
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Elaborating on that theme, Hockney says: “In Japanese art, they never use shadows.” He takes out a book of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and flipped to a page that showed a small wooden bridge arching across a powder-blue body of water. “Even with a bridge, there is never a reflection in the water.” I looked up at the new paintings on the walls of his studio, wondering if he, too, had omitted shadow. The work still contains deep space and foreshortening, but the viewpoint keeps shifting.