David Hockney b. 1937


Eduardo Arroyo collection
Grazia Eminente collection


Wakefield, The Hepworth Wakefield, Alan Davie & David Hockney: Early Works, 19 October 2019 – 19 January 2020, not listed or illus in exhibition catalogue


'In 1960 for a young art student trying to think of modern art, of the visual art of his time, obviously wanting to be involved in it, the opposition to the figure as a subject was very strong. I opposed it too, I thought, this is not the way to go. Yet obviously I was dying to do it, to come to some terms with the figure.' [1]

Heaven Perpendicular, c1960-61 is part of a seminal series of works from David Hockney's early career. Painted while he was a student at Royal College of Art, when he was just 23, the present work marks Hockney's coming of age both personally and as an artist. Importantly, many of the artist's paintings dating from 1960-62 reside in public collections around the world, including, Tate Gallery, London [2]; Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London [3]; Royal College of Art, London [4]; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas [5]; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg [6] and Astrup Fearnley, Oslo [7].

When Hockney enrolled on the painting course at the Royal College in 1959, he found there were two dominant artistic trends - traditional painting (still life painting, life painting, figure compositions) and Abstract Expressionist painting which had recently traveled over from America by way of the highly influential Tate exhibitions Modern Art in the United States (1956), New American Painting (1959) and the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1958). As a young student yet to establish a pictorial language of his own, Hockney found himself navigating between these two idioms.

Also pivotal to the development of Hockney's early art was the work of an older generation of British avant-garde artists - specifically Roger Hilton and Alan Davie [8]. Hockney first saw Davie's spontaneous, free-flowing canvases at the Wakefield Art Gallery in 1958, at which time he was still studying at the highly academic Bradford College of Art. It was Davie's work which inspired Hockney's early experimentation with abstraction at the Royal College and through the winter of 1959-1960 he produced around twenty large abstract works on hardboard most of which were destroyed or painted over by Hockney or his colleagues [9], as he recalls,

'Young students had realized that American painting was more interesting than French painting. The idea of French painting had disappeared really, and American abstracted expressionism was the great influence. So I tried my hand at it, I did a few pictures, about twenty on three feet by four feet pieces of hardboard that were based on a kind of mixture of Alan Davie cum Jackson Pollock cum Roger Hilton.' [10]

Although American and British contemporary abstract painting made a strong impression on Hockney, his experiments in this style of working were short lived. Pure abstraction, for Hockney, did not provide enough content to sustain his own work, 'I did them for a while, and then I couldn't. It was too barren for me.' [11] Favouring a more representational approach, but not yet ready to reassert figurative references for fear of appearing reactionary, Hockney began to introduce numbers, symbols and text into his paintings, as he recalls:

'But I still hadn't the nerve to paint figure pictures; the idea of figure pictures was considered really anti-modern, so my solution was to begin using words. I started writing on the pictures. And when you put a word on a painting, it has a similar effect in a way to a figure; it's a little bit of human thing that you immediately read; it's not just paint. The idea came because I didn't have the courage to paint a real figure, so I thought, I have to make it clear, so I'll write 'Gandhi' on this picture about Gandhi. I can remember people coming round and saying That's ridiculous, writing on pictures, you know, it's mad what you're doing. And I thought, well, it's better; I feel better; you feel as if something's coming out. And then Ron said Yes, that's much more interesting.' [12]

Encouraged by his older peer R.B. Kitaj to make paintings about the things that interested and excited him, in 1960 Hockney reintroduced the figure into his painting, while maintaining an abstract aesthetic. This resulted in a series highly imaginative compositions, which combined the figure with expressive, gestural passages of paint and often included numbers, symbols and text. Within this unique visual language Hockney now felt able to explore highly personal subject matter, such as his sexuality. Indeed it was precisely at this time that Hockney began to publicly acknowledge his attraction to men, emboldened by an American student at the college, Mark Berger, who himself was openly gay. Alongside the Doll Boy and Love Paintings series, Heaven Perpendicular is among the earliest examples of Hockney's 'coming out' paintings.

Here we find the word 'heaven' scrawled at the top of the picture and 'perpendicular' split in two by the red form and rendered in wobbly outline. A capital letter 'P' floats in isolation to the left, this 'P' is most likely a reference to Peter Crutch - Hockney's unrequited crush [13] and fellow student at the Royal College, who featured in numerous other early works including Peter C, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World and Cha-Cha-Cha that was Danced in the Early Hours of 24th March, and I'm in the Mood for Love, all painted in 1961.[14] The red, phallic form which rises up from the bottom edge of the canvas and doubles up as the figure's body, reappears in works such as The First Love Painting, 1960 and The Third Love Painting, 1960, while the figure's outstretched arms recall those in We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961. While the keyhole placed close to the figure's body is a further sexual metaphor. Less self-critical than works such as Study for Doll Boy, 1960, where 'unorthodox lover' is scrawled alongside a hunched over male figure, and less overtly sexual than paintings such as Adhesiveness, 1960, which depicts two male figures in the '69' position [15], the more subtle erotic undertones of Heaven Perpendicular perhaps reflect Hockney becoming more at ease with his sexual identity.

In this early period, Hockney went against the contemporary trend of anonymously titling works 'compositions', preferring to give his paintings descriptive titles.[16] While a title such as Growing Discontent was rooted in reality, reflecting Hockney's increasing dissatisfaction with his purely abstract painting experiments, here the title, which reiterates the two words within the composition that dance around the central phallic form, could be interpreted as a poetic phrase for an erection - which Hockney had titled another work from 1959-60.

The tiny size of Heaven Perpendicular, 15 ¼ x 11 ¼ inches, stands in contrast to the large format American abstract expressionist paintings that were being made at the time, which in the case of Pollock were often mural sized. The small size of this painting and the presence of text combine to beckon the viewer closer and, when close enough to read the words, one is confronted with a surface which, as in Queer, 1960 and The Second Love Painting, 1960, is a thick and dry mixture of oil paint and sand [17]. Close up the words and images seem to dissolve into the roughly textured surface, as one's awareness of its tactile qualities is heightened.

In Heaven Perpendicular the blocky rectangular form of the figure, it's outstretched arms, the ladder-like form and scratchy marks, all correspond to Alan Davie's Discovery of the Staff from 1957, one of the paintings Hockney saw in Wakefield in 1958. The crude lettering also relates back to Davie, who incorporated text into many of his paintings around this time. The 'ladder' motif, which appears again in Alka Seltzer, 1961 and The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, 1961, is also suggestive of a spine, recalling the skeleton drawings Hockney made in his first term at the Royal College. It may also be a reference to the guitars seen in the cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque. Stylistically, this painting also reflects Hockney's interest in the work of Jean Dubuffet, who employed a crude form of drawing inspired by children's art, while the sketchy words that litter the surface hark to street graffiti.

[1] Nikos Stangos (Ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, My Early Years, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976, p44

[2] The Third Love Painting, 1960; Study for Doll Boy, 1960; Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style, 1961, The Berliner and the Bavarian, 1962 and The First Marriage (A Marriage of Styles I), 1962

[3] We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961

[4] Going to be a Queen for Tonight, 1960

[5] Adhesiveness, 1960

[6] Doll Boy, 1960-61

[7] Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11, 1962

[8] The impact of Davie on Hockney's work in the 1960s is the very subject of the upcoming exhibition We Two Boys: Early Works by David Hockney and Alan Davie scheduled to take place at The Hepworth Wakefield in October this year, before touring to three other venues, including the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.

[9] A small number survived, including Love Painting, 1959, Shame, 1960, and Erection, 1959-60

[10] Nikos Stangos (Ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, My Early Years, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976, p41

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] This was an unrequited passion as Peter was straight and thus the pair had a purely platonic friendship.

[14] It was not uncommon for Hockney to use single letters as stand ins for longer words, indeed in other works he has used the letter 'L' as shorthand for love.

[15] A bold statement at a time when homosexuality remained a criminal offence (Homosexuality was legalized in the UK in 1967)

[16] In other cases Hockney parodied the tendency of abstract painters to number their compositions, 1, 2 etc. by including the words 'First' and 'Second' and so on in his titles.

[17] Hockney worked on an even smaller scale for Queer, 1960 (9 ¾ x 7 inches / 25 x 18 cm), and Second Love Painting, 1960 (10 x 7 7/8 inches / 25.38 x 20 cm)