We had a trip to the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield to see the early works of Alan Davie and David Hockney. The significance of this pairing is that Davie had a huge influence on the young Hockney and when Davie had his first solo exhibition at the then Wakefield Art Gallery, a young Hockney visited and soon dismissed his figurative painting in favour of colourful, gestural works. This led the way for his experiments with abstraction with coded text and symbolism.
The gallery opened in 2011 as is a beautiful piece of modern brutalism and it forms one arm of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. The grey concrete rises out of the river Calder and is a stark contrast to the surrounding waterway dereliction. But the position and materials are a work of architectural genius – the river seems to flow around the building and the reflections in the water give this previously deprived area a sense of hope.
The curation of the exhibition was superb, with a useful introduction from the guide. The early figurative drawings of both Davie and Hockney show they were formally trained and skilled in figurative work. I do love seeing the early work of prominent artists and it’s always encouraging to see their struggles with accuracy that I can fully relate to. Davie in particular can be seen making minor adjustments to his life study.
Some of Davie’s early work was quite challenging and I couldn’t yet see his breakthrough skill with abstraction. However, we then saw the paintings that he included in his first retrospective in 1958. These were the ones that Hockney saw and suddenly the work sprang out of the canvas. The four works below were powerful – earthy colours, laying, loose human forms and beautifully balanced. Davie’s interest in ethnic iconography was recognisable in wonderful contemporary outcomes.
We then saw Hockney’s own early experiments with abstraction. Rather than copying Davie, he developed his own style of colour and form, including North American iconography and his trademark text snippets. These early works were quite primitive, childlike and many weren’t finished but it highlights that experimentation is about accepting intermediate results and moving on. All work should be kept as it’s a reminder of your state of mind at the time – even though the work itself may have been a dead-end it may trigger a future direction at some later point.
Overall it was fascinating to see the timeline of artistic influence passing from Davie to Hockney. It highlights how much inspiration can be gained from those a little further down the line in their artistic journeys. Hockney did not copy Davie – he was inspired by his confident abstraction and then took that as a licence to push his own style.