In the summer of 1965 David Hockney spent six weeks teaching at the University of Colorado in Boulder. This university campus has a spectacular setting close to the southern Rockies and near to the famous Flatirons, a series of impressive, jagged rock formations. However, the artist was given a studio at the centre of the campus with no view of the surrounding landscape. As he later recalled: ‘Here I am surrounded by these beautiful Rocky Mountains; I go in the studio – no window! And all I need is a couple of little windows.’ This reminded Hockney of an earlier experience, when he had travelled with friends from Paris to Switzerland in 1961. He was looking forward to seeing the Alps but, seated in the back of a mini-van, he saw nothing of the passing scenery. On his return, Hockney painted Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, inventing the landscape from geography books and postcards. In his viewless studio in Boulder, Hockney again created an imaginary landscape, nailing a piece of canvas to the wall and painting Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians. ‘The whole picture is an invention from geological magazines and romantic ideas,’ he wrote later. Hockney decided that the dark grey area of rock at the bottom right of the picture needed an additional feature so he added the blue office chair, describing the ‘Indians’ as ‘tired’ to explain its presence. The eagle was adapted from a photograph of a Native American totem carving.
The anecdote surrounding its creation and the playful title can tend to obscure the significance of this work. In personal terms, it relates to Hockney’s ‘romantic ideas’ about the American West, nurtured by boyhood visits to the cinema in Bradford with his father and, more recently, by road trips across the United States; Hockney had just driven from New York to Boulder in an enormous Oldsmobile convertible. In artistic terms, the picture is a response to recent American abstract painting, then the dominant force in contemporary art. The clear, flat colouring in acrylic paint and especially the stripes that define the mountains refer to the colour-field paintings of American artists such as Kenneth Noland. Hockney was familiar with Noland’s work as they both worked with the same art dealer. Although the allusion seems playful, Hockney’s experimentation with style and with the tensions between abstraction and realism were his central preoccupations at this time. He recalled his concern that his art should look contemporary and how he ‘wanted to be involved, if only peripherally, with modernism’. The blue painted border, the variety of style, the play between flatness and three-dimensional forms all seem part of this conscious effort to avoid convention and draw attention to the processes of painting.
The artificiality as well as the suggestion of storytelling in this work were soon abandoned by Hockney. In the second half of the 1960s he moved more decisively in the direction of figurative art, creating images of California that were more closely based on direct observation and experience. But Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians still counts among the most compelling works of these years; it is a fantasy created in a windowless studio in Colorado that conveys all the excitement of discovery that marked his first years in America.
Published online 2016/17
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (2015).