Hockney photographed the Grand Canyon in 1982, commenting later that '… there is no question … that the thrill of standing on that rim of the Grand Canyon is spatial. It is the biggest space you can look out over that has an edge …'1 He took a series of photographs which, with their multiple vanishing points, he placed together in a collage. Grand Canyon with ledge, Arizona, 1982,2 one of several such collages, was a crucial step in the making of A Bigger Grand Canyon. In 1986 the artist revisited his preferred collaged view of the Grand Canyon to produce a large scale photo-collage of sixty photographs, reprinting them using the full negatives, then abutting them to produce Grand Canyon with ledge, Arizona. 1982, collage # 2, made May 1986.3 In June and July 1997 Hockney made two long car trips from Los Angeles to Santa Fe and back: 'I'd been contemplating some sort of big landscape of the West … I was experiencing a growing claustrophobia … [and] stronger, the longing for big spaces.'4
He painted two studies, one of nine canvases, the other of fifteen, and cleared his studio of everything else, except two related photo-collages. These formed the basis for A composition for A Bigger Grand Canyon5A Bigger Grand Canyon. The painting is a culminating statement about the depiction of space and the experience of being within a space, or travelling through a space, over time. Hockney refers to the lessons of Cubism where a subject is depicted with multiple viewpoints, to Chinese scroll painting, where different time sequences and different elements of a landscape coalesce to form an apparent whole, and his own set designs for opera.
Hockney created his sixty-canvas work with as many viewpoints and points in time. The painting suggests what it is like to be in a landscape, to travel around it, to view tiny details as well as dramatic vistas, to see changing light, to trample the earth underfoot, and to feel the sun beating down. The viewer is able to round jagged outcrops, descend rocky steps, look down over dry river beds and view distant escarpments, while confronting at close hand strange sculptural forms. Marco Livingstone commented that 'A Bigger Grand Canyon places the viewer so convincingly at the canyon's south rim at Powell Point, one of the most spectacular vantage points, as to induce in some the vertiginous thrill of standing on the edge of a precipice so deep and extensive that it almost defies the imagination.'6
The element of the Sublime has been noted by Paul Melia: 'The genre of landscape has been important to Hockney since the beginning of his professional career. Until relatively recently, however, he was unable to draw upon the Romantic or neo-Romantic tradition of landscape art: personal experience, empathy, quasi-magical feelings aroused by a place or location, spontaneity - all triggers of artistic production for older generations of [British] artists.'7A Bigger Grand Canyon has links to the rich and awe-inspiring English Romantic tradition, but also to the Symbolist landscapes of Paul Gauguin and the Pont Aven artists. In their works the universal, the symbolic, are tapped while the pedestrian or the man-made is excluded. Hockney presents the Grand Canyon without evidence of human intrusion.
Brilliance of colour and vastness of space characterised the world of dreams when Hockney was growing up in the then heavily industrialised North of England. His Grand Canyon painting, according to Livingstone, recalls 'the magnificent spectacle of the Hollywood cinema which had helped draw him [Hockney] to the American West while he was a young boy day dreaming in Bradford'.89A Bigger Grand Canyon is rich in golds, crimsons, scarlets, oranges, ochres and browns, and contrasts of brilliant blues and greens. The visual impact, on even the most jaded twenty-first century eye, is as powerful and confronting as a Fauve palette would have been in the restrained world at the beginning of the last century.