This very well-known painting epitomises all the burnt landscape/blue tiled pools of California that are so romantic to those of us from different landscapes. The image is of one of those minimalist modern tract houses of Los Angeles. The Kaufmann House was a beautiful example, but in the 1950s and 60s all little suburban LA houses had a pool.
Hockney painted this one with a roller and Liquitex — a discussion about painterliness, image and surface that was intense at the time. The traditional surfaces of art were vehicles for the depth of field and the rendering of image. The painter's skill was measured in its passion and its verity. Postwar abstraction focussed on the surface itself, not the image. In The Bigger Splash, the painted part floats in a larger square of unpainted, unprimed canvas: it clearly is acrylic paint flatly applied to material stapled to the wall, a rejection of the centuries of priming and underpainting, working and reworking in oil paint to the edges of the stretchered linen ground. The part that is painterly, the splash, was done with brushes, but the splash itself was something Hockney found in a book of photos of swimming pools. It wasn't about direct observation from the side of the pool, but rather direct painting from a photograph, another transgression of expected fidelity to a visual experience. This was a figurative work assembled like a collage of banal images and as deep as banality can be.
It is in such a thin, un-reflexive, uninteresting world that one can remake oneself — is this not the dream of the new world, without class, history, social conventions and repressive social narratives? Of course 1960s southern California was not without its class by wealth, division by race and services by ethnicity, but if you had come from grey, cramped, mingey, prissy England of postwar rationing and criminalisation of homosexual acts, Los Angeles must have been a nirvana for a young white artist with an excellent education and something to say.
If you take every artwork you see as a thesis, rather than as an image, much is revealed. Everything means something. Painting in Liquitex with a roller isn't a casual act, it is right at the centre of the nexus of abstraction and conceptualism. Copying a photograph continues Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton's late-1950s appropriation of images in the public domain. And yet, and yet, it is the image of a bigger splash, used as the title for a Hockney documentary, many reconstructions of the pool and the house online, reworking of the image itself as homage, as graphic design, as really dreadful reassemblies. Just look at Hockney+splash on Google images.
Secretly I think we all still would quite like to live in southern California, in a little modern flat-roofed house with a pool. It is a bit of a dream, still.