David Hockney, Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, 1980, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the F. Patrick Burns Bequest, © David Hockney

The Art of Looking: David Hockney at LACMA

November 23, 2015
Holly Gillette, Education Coordinator

As an educator at LACMA, I am blown away by what each visitor brings to the discussion when I enter the galleries. In October I had the chance to give an Art of Looking tour, a free monthly lunchtime talk open to the general public. Recently having come back from a professional development on gallery teaching, I felt invigorated and ready to try something new. I posed the question: What would happen if I bring a group of adults in front of one work of art, for the entire hour? 

Silence on a tour can be terrifying, let alone the idea of sitting in front of one artwork for what may feel like eternity. With this challenge in mind, I chose to focus on David Hockney’s Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio. It’s the perfect piece for an Angeleno on a lunch break, a tourist on their first visit to LACMA, and a seasoned LACMA member. I had previously taught with the piece before, but never for an hour. If you have ever visited LACMA’s Art of the Americas building, you cannot miss it. It’s an iconic image, a beautiful winding road through the Hollywood Hills that is over 7 ft x 20 ft.  

After introducing myself, I told everyone in attendance that this wasn’t going to be your average tour where you see several artists and several galleries. Instead, we would be sitting and discussing one work, for one hour. Anyone up for the challenge was encouraged to stay. 

Educator Holly Gillette leading a discussion of David Hockney's Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio

As we entered the gallery, the members of the group grabbed stools, knowing that they were in it for the long haul. I began by asking participants to take a long look, silently. After several minutes, I opened the conversation by asking the group to share any observations, questions, or thoughts about the work. Slowly, people began to share. Knowing this was the Hollywood Hills, some reminisced about driving along the road themselves. One person asked about the artist’s use of color. A number of participants noticed the unfinished quality in several areas of the canvas. Rather than offering up an answer quickly, I often posed questions back to the rest of the group. Many interpretations bubbled up. I also included lively quotes from Hockney himself, culled from catalogues and interviews. 

After some time, we moved in close to the painting to examine the texture and paint quality. We moved far away. We even spent some time talking with each other in small groups, sharing our observations. 

Before we knew it, 45 minutes had flown by and we had come to a collective resting place. It wasn’t quite an hour, but I was pleased that our leisurely look at a great work of art had gone by so fast. At this point, one man raised his hand and commented that he had seen David Hockney at the museum that day and thought he was coming to my talk. I responded, “Oh, I would have been so nervous if David Hockney had joined us!” 

As the group dispersed, I noticed the man who had eagerly mentioned Hockney standing with several friends. I walked over to thank him and his friends for participating. The man playfully mentioned again that David Hockney was here, somewhere. I looked to his right, and looking straight at me was. . . the man himself in a white hat and glasses! The artist had keenly observed everything going on during the conversation, but had remained silent. I gasped in disbelief and thanked them again for attending. 

As an educator, you can only hope that each visitor takes away something memorable from their experience. In this case, I was blessed to have a special visitor on my tour—something I will never forget. I can’t help but wonder what Hockney’s takeaway was from our time together. After all, everyone’s comments were authentic responses and in the moment, all reflecting on a work painted some 35 years ago in Los Angeles.