From here to Hockney: art of the pandemic

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative, as a new show at ArtsWestchester and a new book by David Hockney attest.

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.

Amid the challenges of the pandemic, artists and arts lovers of every ilk have gone deep within themselves to express their experiences in a variety of media. 

“I wrote because I was compelled to, not just to document what was happening, but to help me process it,” says Lorena Butler, a Pleasantville resident. “Chronicling the events as they occurred allowed me to see them as they were. By doing so, it made them believable and grounded me in this moment in history. As the facts and science evolved and changed on a weekly basis, there were always new things to absorb and deal with.”

Butler is one of 224 Hudson Valley artists who will be represented in ArtsWestchester’s “Together apART: Creating During COVID” (May 7 through Aug. 1), featuring more than 250 paintings, photographs, sculptures, songs, stories, crafts works and other creative activities.

“Covid-19 has profoundly changed the contours of our daily lives,” says ArtsWestchester CEO Janet T. Langsam. “At this time of great loss and physical distancing, many of us have turned to creative outlets to help us cope, to express our anguish and to gain agency when we feel helpless.” 

Deputy Director and Curator Kathleen Reckling adds: “Creativity helps us to reclaim a connection to our friends, families and self. Throughout the last year, we have found new ways to celebrate and mourn, to recognize and memorialize major life events from weddings to passings. We have documented our experiences in quarantine diaries and creative cookbooks. We have endeavored to protect our loved ones and those on the frontlines with handcrafted masks. We have painted the scenes and changing seasons from our windows and captured the faces of our ‘quarantine teams’ in photo and gouache.”

Few artists have responded to the pandemic more vibrantly than David Hockney, whose “Spring Cannot be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy” ($34.95, 280 pages), written with Martin Gayford, will be published May 11, just in time for “David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London May 23 through Sept. 26. (“David Hockney: Drawing From Life” — focusing on the five people he has portrayed most often over the years, including mother Laura Hockney, fashion designer Celia Birtwell, printmaker Maurice Payne, curator Gregory Evans and himself — is at The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan through May 30.)

Can’t get to these shows or still maintaining your quarantine? Then by all means order your copy of “Spring Cannot Be Cancelled,” one of the most exciting artbooks to come down the pike in years. Hockney has always been a thrilling artist, one who has let the landscapes of the places in which he has lived (Yorkshire, Los Angeles, Paris, London and now Normandy) and new technology inspire his work. (Who can forget his panoramic Polaroid photocollages of L.A. in “David Hockney: A Retrospective” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1988?)

From Polaroids to iPads:  The works in “Spring Cannot Be Cancelled” were drawn and “painted” on an iPad and then blown up on paper at the studio at his 17th-century farmhouse in Normandy, to which he moved in 2019 to capture the blossoming of apple, cherry and pear trees and hedgerows. The arrival of the pandemic a year later would reinforce the importance of art in his life and the centrality of nature, which he compared in spring to frothing Champagne, to that life and that art.

“I’m always looking at (trees). Always. This afternoon I might draw the apple trees and pear trees because now they have fruit on them hanging there. Trees are fascinating things. They are the largest plant. Every one is different, like we are; every leaf is different….”

These words, right down to the punctuation, are taken from Hockney’s email correspondence with art critic, friend and “Spring” co-author Gayford, further underscoring that text and email have been the new letter-writing for quite some time. The correspondence — which threads the book, along with images of the drawings and paintings and works by other artists that inspired them — is a kind of modern, digital version of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo.

The comparison is deliberate. Hockney has shared Van Gogh’s longing for the natural world, as seen in the former’s 2019 show at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, “The Joy of Nature,” now at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through June 21.

“Lots of people just scan the ground in front of them so they can walk, but they don’t really look at things. Van Gogh really looked,” Hockney observed in 2018, acknowledging that he stole from Van Gogh. (Great artists, Hockney says, don’t borrow. They steal.)

Call it an hommage to the Impressionists, Postimpressionists and artists of other eras. Hockney’s “No. 180,” 11th April, 2020, an iPad painting, evokes the burst of Van Gogh’s “Almond Blossom” (1890, oil on canvas). His red-lined “In the Studio” (2019) conjures Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” (1888, oil on canvas).

 Still the straight lines and squiggles of saturated colors are Hockney’s own and a marked contrast to the color blocks of much earlier works. 

This has led some to respond that he doesn’t have a signature style, Gayford writes, that his latest work doesn’t look like a Hockney.

To which Hockney always responds, “it will.”

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