swimming pool paintings david hockney when
Hockney visited California for the first time in January 1964 after a successful first solo exhibition at the John Kasmin gallery.  The United States fascinated him, and Los Angeles in particular, partly because of the influence of Hollywood cinema but also because of the modernist building Case Study House #21. As a gay man, he was also a fan of the beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial, which was published in Los Angeles.  “I instinctively knew I was going to like it,” Hockney said, “and as I flew over San Bernardino and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I have ever been in arriving in any city.” 
Hockney painted the first of his pool paintings, California Art Collector in 1964, and the swimming pool became a recurring theme in his paintings, such as Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and most notably A Bigger Splash (1967, Tate Gallery).  He painted a series of double portraits from 1968 to 1977, including American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968, Art Institute of Chicago), and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971, Tate Gallery).
In his 2012 memoir Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, American painter Eric Fischl paid tribute to Hockney’s ‘protean sensibility […] capable of Olympian observations, of tripping over the surface of things, of picking up this and that and constructing brilliant, seductive worlds’, and recalled his own ambitions when he first started painting the nude beaches of Saint-Tropez: ‘I thought I was capturing something that was particularly French or European, the way the foreign eye of David Hockney had captured Los Angeles.’ As well as wishing to replay Hockney’s cultural crossover in reverse, Fischl has repeatedly returned to scenes in which naked or semi-naked figures are grouped around suburban swimming pools, in arrangements that, unlike Hockney’s more serenely domestic images, have distinctly Freudian implications. In Squirt (1982), for instance, a prepubescent boy in speedos, goggles and flippers stands by the poolside firing a water-pistol towards a woman lying face down on a sun lounger – or, in Fischl’s words, ‘unloading into the crotch of this woman’ who has ‘her legs spread apart’. Birth of Love (1981) shows a night-time pool party, the water glowing ominously, where a group of six children and one woman stand and sit poolside, all naked; the woman smokes a cigarette while a young boy places a hand on her hip. The paintings, all executed in oils with superbly skilled variations of thick brushstrokes and passages of finer detailing, invite us to find them simultaneously transgressive and touching. They also invite speculation on the pervy, voyeuristic positioning of the gaze, with its constant access to moments of private intimacy like the nakedness of parents and children, and its tendency to capture figures from behind with their backs to the viewer.
Next came Hockney’s own conceptual intervention in the photographic tradition, with his polaroid composite pictures of the early 1980s. The artist’s excitement at a new technical discovery is palpable in these works: in effect, he had found a way of making cubist photographs in which the viewpoint continually shifts as the viewer’s eye moves around the image. In his own words, he had made the polaroid camera into ‘an extraordinary drawing tool’ that allowed him once more to ‘represent on a flat surface the lovely and wonderful experience of looking’. The retrospective at Tate Britain will include Gregory Swimming, Los Angeles, March 31st 1982, made up of 120 polaroids laid out in a rectangular grid, eight down and 15 across, and the pool is again strongly suited to the new medium, as the shifting viewpoints amplify the shifting of the water’s surface, the differing ways light plays upon the pool as time passes, and the shuttling movement of the swimmer, laid out in a circular pattern.
Despite denying that he was himself a ‘pop-artist’, Hockney borrowed from pop the practice of bringing complexity to the surface, collapsing the vision-field of a painting and getting all of the information right up into the foreground. Just because something’s shallow, doesn’t mean it isn’t complex. ‘Deep’ has always been a metaphor anyway. Like Hockney’s pools, his statement is all surface and all depth.
“The web patterns that water casts along the walls and floors of a pool are known as optical caustics (from the Greek kaiein, “to burn”)”, Townsend explains to me. For Hockney, pool-surfaces burn in the California sun. So does desire.
One of the most striking things about Hockney’s pool paintings is the way in which, consistently, they stand apart from the dominant tradition, in other art forms, of depicting Los Angeles in a sinister fashion (think of, say, Raymond Chandler’s literary noir, or Roman Polanski’s 1974 thriller, Chinatown). Swimming pools, in Hockney’s world, represent hedonism, sexual freedom, and straightforward joie de vivre.
To a young artist who had grown up in Britain during World War Two, experiencing deprivation and the austerities of rationing, LA’s swimming pools must have seemed almost impossibly luxurious and exotic. “The swimming pool,” says Wilson, “quickly became his sign for California.”
Hockney’s early paintings incorporated his literary leanings, and he used fragments of poems and quotations from Walt Whitman in his work. This practice, and paintings such as We Two Boys Clinging Together, which he created in 1961, were the first nods to his homosexuality in his art.
Hockney attended the Bradford College of Art from 1953 to 1957. Then, because he was a conscientious objector to military service, he spent two years working in hospitals to fulfill his national service requirement. In 1959, he entered graduate school at the Royal College of Art in London alongside other young artists such as Peter Blake and Allen Jones, and he experimented with different forms, including abstract expressionism. He did well as a student, and his paintings won prizes and were purchased for private collections.