Kasmin, David Hockney and Sheridan Dufferin on a plane.

David Hockney at the Kasmin Gallery

Chris Stephens describes some of the early steps in David Hockney’s career.

David Hockney’s extraordinary professional rise was, in the early years, closely tied to his friend and dealer John Kasmin. His first solo exhibition was at the Kasmin Gallery in 1963 but the relationship had started before that. Kasmin recalls the Young Contemporaries exhibition in February 1961, where Hockney’s work hung alongside his colleagues from the Royal College of Art: R B Kitaj, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield. These and a few others were grouped to show a shared attitude and this led to the celebration of a new movement of figurative painters.

Hockney at the Royal College of Art

When first at the College, from October 1959, Hockney moved from a kind of realism to a form of abstraction using loosely applied thick paint inspired by Alan Davie and Roger Hilton. References to his homosexuality appeared first in the titles of such non-representational works as Shame and Queer. During 1960 his sexuality began to inform the imagery of paintings such as Doll BoyGoing to be Queen for Tonight and a series of four Love Paintings. Hockney had responded to Kitaj’s suggestion that they should simply paint what they liked. For Hockney that was boys. He was also stimulated by the huge Picasso retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1960 where he recognised that an artist need not subscribe to a single style. A self-conscious use of style and other artistic conventions would become a major aspect of Hockney’s art and one of the playful characteristics that attracted Kasmin.

Hockney was an unusually early developer, quick to enjoy commercial success. Kasmin bought Doll Boy from the Young Contemporaries, though he didn’t recognise the coded reference to the artist’s crush on the young pop singer Cliff Richard and his song Living Doll.

This new style of figure-painting became associated with the Pop Art movement emerging in New York and London, though most of Hockney’s pictures were to do with boys, gay love and, in particular, unrequited passions. He did, however, make a few works which reference contemporary consumer culture – Typhoo Tea, Alka-Seltzer – which allowed him to be easily associated with such artists as Boshier and Andy Warhol.

Hockney’s art developed rapidly during 1961 and 1962, his last years at the Royal College. Influenced by Jean Dubuffet amongst others, he combined heavy paint, a scratchy figure-painting like graffiti and fragments of text, most famously in We Two Boys Together Clinging. At the 1962 Young Contemporaries he showed four paintings under the overarching title Demonstrations of Versatility. These included the huge A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in the Semi-Egyptian Style revealing a new confidence in his art and ability to swap modes of expression.

As a student, under the Royal College’s rules, Hockney was not allowed to sign up with a commercial gallery. Nevertheless, Kasmin tried to persuade the Marlborough Gallery to let him show the artist’s work; he succeeded in having only a few drawings and the occasional painting he could sell privately.

Hockney was, nonetheless, increasingly recognised. Prizes and commissions helped pay for a trip to New York in the summer of 1961, where he bleached his hair, establishing one of the characteristics that would secure his fame. Hockney proved himself a talented etcher, selling some of his etchings to the Museum of Modern Art; when he returned from New York he used his experiences of the city’s sexual freedom as the basis for the portfolio of prints A Rake’s Progress. While he was enjoying America, Hockney heard Kasmin had left Marlborough to set up his own gallery. Hockney signed a contract, forward-dated to when he would be free from the Royal College’s regulations.

By the time of his first exhibition at the Kasmin Gallery, towards the end of 1963, Hockney was a well-known figure. He had just fulfilled a commission for the Sunday Times colour supplement to travel to Egypt to record what he saw there.

His opening at Kasmin’s was a big event. The title of his exhibition – Paintings with People In – was pointed. At that time contemporary art – and the Kasmin Gallery – were dominated by the cool abstract painting of such Americans as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, characterised by large areas of plain colour. To assert the importance of figuration was to make a stand. There was considerable variety amongst the works. Three were entitled Domestic Scene: two had British subjects based on actual places and people – Notting Hill and Broadchalke; the third, Los Angeles, was imagined, based on a photograph from Physique Pictorial, an erotic gay magazine published in California. Other works drew upon similar soft-porn sources and one on ideas of Egypt. Another – Play Within a Play – used materials and space to play with reality and pictorial illusion. For this, Hockney used a photograph of Kasmin with his hands and lips pressed up against the glass door of his gallery. In the painting, the figure of Kas standing in an impossibly shallow space is painted on the canvas, while the marks of his flesh against the glass are painted on a sheet of actual Perspex that is attached to the front of the canvas.

Hockney highlighted the conventions of painting that viewers accepted unconsciously. This became one of his most consistent and abiding themes. Even in 2018 he continues to explore this, making paintings that develop his challenge to traditional ideas of perspective. Illusion and visual ambiguities were themes, as was the use of a theatrical space and curtained backdrops as seen in Play Within a Play. That work was also typical for referencing the art of the past: Hockney’s art has often been full of references to art history. These concerns were seen in his second exhibition at the Kasmin Gallery in 1965, Pictures with Frames and Still-Life Pictures. The works again played with pictorial convention. In some he developed an emblematic treatment of landscape drawing upon recent experiences teaching in and travelling through the western United States. By then Hockney had made his first trip to Los Angeles, where he was joined by Kasmin, and showed his first painting of a Californian swimming pool in the 1965 exhibition.

By the time of Hockney’s fourth exhibition at the Kasmin Gallery, in January 1968, Los Angeles was securely established as the focus of his art. Boys in the shower or in the pool, lawn sprinklers, grid-like modern office blocks – all stereotypically southern Californian – made up his subject matter. Hockney had set out to establish for the first time an iconography for LA, as Piranesi had for the ruins of ancient Rome. These works continued his ironic critique of abstract painting, as each of the images – isolated in a field of raw canvas – can be read as a formal pattern injected with the life of representation. When it was started, A Bigger Splash simply consisted of a pattern of horizontal bands of colour like an abstract painting. Hockney then turned those flat areas into architecture and, finally, interrupted the whole scene with an exquisitely painted splash at the heart of which is a human figure.

Hockney’s paintings were meticulously painted and slow in coming. He was also in huge demand, showing in numerous places and constantly travelling. In the early 1960s he produced around twenty-five paintings in a single year, but this show at Kasmin’s included only seven canvases. Hockney had, however, also established a reputation as a graphic artist of extraordinary talent. He had become, perhaps, one of the great draughtsmen of all time. With a fine pen and ink line, and an economy of detail, he conjured the look and feel of a scene, a person, or a detail like a dented pillow or a ruffled coat. Typically, he would draw when he was away from the studio so this body of work gives the false impression of a life of idle luxury – exotic locations, hotel lobbies, young men sleeping naked in bed or by the pool. Kasmin was selling hundreds of these drawings and naturally encouraged Hockney to make more. For several summers Kasmin rented a chateau at Carennac in south-west France. Hockney was a regular visitor, spending prolonged periods there which led to numerous remarkable drawings. Subjects include Kas himself (for example, sitting in and dwarfed by his ornate bed) and the luxurious left-overs of an alfresco lunch, and there is a wonderful series of drawings in coloured pencils of vegetables: beans, leeks, peppers, carrots and so on.

Hockney’s natural skill at drawing may have lain at the root of a crisis in his painting that developed around 1973; he felt increasingly caught in ‘the trap of naturalism’. At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, he produced a series of large double portraits. For his final show at Kasmin’s gallery he tried to revive the series with a portrait of the dancer Wayne Sleep and his book-dealer partner George Lawson. He could not resolve the painting, which he abandoned, so the exhibition was, in the artist’s own words, ‘rather a wishy-washy show’. As a consequence, the closure of the Kasmin Gallery coincided with a hiatus in Hockney’s art. Uncertain of his way forward and recovering from the end of his relationship with Peter Schlesinger, the artist moved from home to home and almost gave up painting completely.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Derek Boshier, Patrick Caulfield, Alan Davie

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Chris Stephens
  • Dr Chris Stephens is Director of the Holburne Museum, Bath. He was, previously, Head of Displays and Lead Curator (Modern Art) at Tate Britain. His exhibitions there included This was Tomorrow: The Art of the Sixties (2004), Francis Bacon (2008), Henry Moore (2010), Picasso and Modern British Art (2012), Barbara Hepworth (2015) and David Hockney: Retrospective (2017). His particular specialism is the art of mid-century St Ives; he has curated numerous exhibitions at Tate St Ives and his book, St Ives: The Art and the Artists, was published in 2018.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.