"David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition" takes its title in a roundabout way from "A Bigger Splash," the British artist's dreamy 1967 painting of a man diving into a Southern California swimming pool. That was also the title of a revealing 1973 documentary film about the artist.
But the new exhibit, continuing through Jan. 20 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, is not about that David Hockney, who was once described in an art directory as "the official painter of California." Nor is it about the bold theater artist who designed stunning productions of operas such as "Turandot" and "The Magic Flute."
The exhibition may be overwhelming, with nearly 400 images on two floors, but it covers primarily the past decade of the 76-year-old artist's half-century career. Don't go in looking for sun-drenched poolscapes, palm trees or costume sketches.
Don't assume, either, that it's an exhibition that settles into old age. Hockney is as prolific as ever. The de Young's deputy director, Richard Benefield, who arranged the show, said some works arrived before the paint was even dry. The dazzling colors, gargantuan scale of some images and video installations give it all a carnival atmosphere. Many Hockney fans will have a lot of fun.
But just inside the entrance to the exhibition, Hockney's past seems to come alive with sweet simplicity.
There's an unassuming "Self-Portrait in Bathroom Mirror With Sink, New York," lightly sketched in watercolor and crayon. Next to it another watercolor, "View From Mayflower Hotel, New York" from the same year, looks like a spring magazine cover for The New Yorker. A crayon-and-watercolor "Study for Cherry Blossom" is hard to resist.
Adjacent is "Self Portrait With Red Braces" from 2003, a watercolor depicting Hockney with those red suspenders over a black shirt, peering at a mirror, his glasses halfway down his nose, looking not at all like the youngster who made his way to California in the 1960s. It's an image that announces, right at the start, "This is who I am. Now."
Bigger works, assembled from four or six sheets of paper, can be magical. "The Maelstrom, Bodo," is a waterscape of dazzling whirlpools; "Near Nordkaap" depicts deep violet island peaks against a glowing blue sky.
Nearby, a grid of watercolors from the series "Midsummer: East Yorkshire" looks so fresh with its fields, harvests and puffy clouds that it seems Hockney has reinvented himself as a young artist of maybe 50 years ago.
Those watercolors are abruptly supplanted by the huge oil paintings of British scenes, many on grids of multiple canvas panels, that fill the central section of the exhibition. Most of these were shown last year at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, drawing mixed -- sometimes withering -- reviews from critics who used such words as "gaudy" and "spectacularly weird."
They certainly don't resemble picture-postcard views of the English countryside. Not with the hyper-saturated color some have likened to Disney animation and barren tree limbs that look downright threatening. "Bigger Trees Near Warter, Winter 2008" seems to show a thick grove on the move. "May Blossom on the Roman Road" is nowhere near as delicate as the title suggests -- those blossoms explode beneath a churning, blue-and-pink Van Gogh-inspired sky.
It's easy to escape all that melodrama via what will surely become the exhibit's central gathering place. It's Hockney's take on the familiar multiscreen film and video: four "moving" grids on all four walls, displaying spring, summer, autumn and winter in Woldgate Woods. It was photographed from nine cameras mounted on a moving vehicle. Whether art or just a multiple video, it's like a revitalizing exhibit in a world's fair pavilion.
In every case, the moving image draws attention in a hypnotic way that even 12-foot-high depictions of Yosemite do not.
"The Jugglers," a 2012 video production on 18 screens, really does create something innovative from Hockney's multiple-viewpoint technique. It's like a dazzling, dizzying, CinemaScope dream. A romantic English landscape, on another 18 screens, faces the de Young's main lobby, drawing visitors into a kind of annex to the exhibit.
Hockney has made news with his use of technology, surveyed here in a section titled "From Pixels to Print." First on an iPhone, then an iPad, using the Brushes application, he's done sketches and then drawings. Initially, he emailed them to friends, but now he's printing them on multiple sheets of paper to form "paintings" as large as 12 feet high.
His Yosemite series may be the most notable of these digital-to-print images, with its flattened perspective, bright colors and almost surreal atmosphere. They look even more sketchy when the five huge images fill the gallery walls. It's a long way from Ansel Adams, but just as personal.
In the midst of all this, a wide showcase displays 19 of Hockney's sketchbooks: real pencil, real ink, real watercolor on real paper. With focus and detail, they reveal the hand of the artist. The images are delightfully, absolutely Hockney's, such as chopsticks resting by a plate and a jumble of cigarette butts on a saucer.
The high-tech transformations lead to some questions throughout the exhibit. Which images are "original"? Which are "real"? There are a couple of convoluted labels, such as "Inkjet prints from digital photographs of the original drawings."
During a discussion after an exhibit preview, Hockney said that the iPad is a speedy tool, albeit just one way to continue the ancient practice of drawing. "It is a new medium, but you do need to draw on it," he said. "You need to know something about drawing."
As if to prove the point, early this year Hockney completed a series depicting the arrival of spring in Woldgate. His medium was charcoal on paper -- that's right, drawing with charred sticks that he held with his fingers. The drawings, deft but somber, are displayed on the de Young's main floor. Hockney considers them among his best work.
"A Bigger Exhibition" is a show that never seems to end. There is portrait after portrait, some clustered in the main section of the show and others (done this year) in the extension of the exhibit back on the de Young's main floor.
There is even an installation of "The Great Wall," Hockney's collection from 2000 of hundreds of portraits from art history, showing how he believed many artists used optical devices for their compositions.
But wait, there's more. Almost as an afterthought -- maybe pushed into a corner by late-arriving art -- you will find a small group of photo collages from the 1980s. These are among Hockney's most innovative and influential works, in which he took hundreds of photos from a single perspective, then assembled them to create a multiplane scene of a Zen garden, or his paint cart or the Brooklyn Bridge. They seem lost in this exhibit, but they're the perfect bridge between the old Hockney and the new.
A Bigger Exhibition'
When: Through Jan. 20; 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; the exhibit will be open until 8:45 p.m. Fridays through Nov. 29
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Admission: $15-$25 weekdays, $18-$28 weekends, 415-750-3600, http://deyoung.famsf.org