In Depth

The art of colour: David Hockney at Tate Britain

The museum's tribute to the Bradford-born artist is a celebration of reinvention, says assistant curator Helen Little

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David Hockney has, I'm told, produced in excess of 20,000 images. The retrospective at Tate Britain shows 200 works across 13 rooms, running from his work as a student at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s to his new iPad drawings. When we first started to compile images two years ago, the corridors outside our office were lined with hundred and hundreds of reproductions of his work.

It really was quite a mission; a considerable amount of detective work went into locating the images we needed, and we craned paintings out of owners' penthouses and travelled as far afield as Australia and New Mexico. People have been incredibly generous in parting with their prized paintings for what will be just over a year, as the exhibition will travel to Paris and then New York.

David has always said to us that he hates white galleries and you can see why. His colour ranges are so rich that the colours on the walls need to be quite dramatic to make his work pop out and zing. The Designer's Guild has supported Tate shows in the past and their palette perfectly suited David. He was very keen on the pink in the first rooms, which is initially a shock to the eye, but then you start to realise how much of that colour is in the paintings.

One of the most exciting aspects of curating this show with Chris Stephens and Andrew Wilson was to rediscover the maturity of the work David made when he was a student at the RCA. Like most painters in London art schools around 1960, David went through an abstract phase and Love Painting looks very much like the kind of work Alan Davie and Roger Hilton were making.

I was taken aback by seeing Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy in a new context. It has been in the Tate collection for decades, but not in the same room as Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and My Parents. They are life-sized, 7" by 10", and full of emotional tension – either between the sitters themselves or between the sitters and the artist.

It has been such a delight to distil the enormous body of work David made in the period that led up to his Royal Academy show in 2012. It's easy to forget that he was making these incredible Yorkshire landscapes outside, en plein air, canvas by canvas. It was a real turning point in his career; he was placing himself in the long English tradition of landscape painters and thus deeply connecting himself to artists like Constable and Turner.

Hockney's legacy is enormous. He courageously championed homosexuality in his art before it was legalised in this country, painted Los Angeles before anyone else and has shattered conventions of painting the world as we see it through a lens. I have worked on this show for two years and am still amazed at the range and depth of his art, the ways he has persistently interrogated how pictures are made and encouraged us to look at the world anew.

HELEN LITTLE, assistant curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, has worked at the Tate for the past decade. The David Hockney retrospective, which runs at Tate Britain until 29 May, is already the fastest-selling in the gallery's history; tate.org.uk

Image: David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1971. Private collection, © David Hockney.

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