“Los Angeles is an acquired taste,” says David Hockney, although he admits he fell for the city on his very first visit in 1964. After growing up in Yorkshire, Hockney was excited by the “eroticism” of L.A. It was like nothing he’d seen or imagined. To a young, gay artist from Britain’s gloomy north it spoke of endless possibilities.
Today, at the age of 79, Hockney is a far cry from the platinum blonde who was one of the faces of ‘Swinging London’, before becoming the Pop laureate of the California lifestyle. Hockney has become an Old Master, whose love of colour is still obvious in his yellow shirt and purple cardigan. Physically he is grey, gaunt, and a little slowed down by a stroke suffered in late 2012. No-one, however, could be more unaffected. After all these years in the spotlight he still speaks with the same northern lilt, and is much happier expounding theories of art than talking about himself.
Hockney may have kept his boyish disposition but he says he hardly leaves the house nowadays. In defiance of the rest of the world he continues to smoke heavily, which means that his conversation is punctuated by raking coughs. Aside from this one cherished vice he looks after himself, claiming he hasn’t had a drink for 25 years, and is usually in bed by 9.30. These habits are partly the result of his deafness, which can turn a public event into a torture session. “I stopped going to art openings years ago,” he says, “because all I could hear was a mad cacophony!”
It’s tempting to say one doesn’t need to be deaf to have that experience at an art opening. Hockney makes it sound like a great relief not to have to go to all those parties. “I was never a party person,” he confesses. “I don’t mind if I’m thought of in that way, but it’s not true. I’ve always been a worker. I read a lot and I paint a lot. That’s all I do. In fact, over the last 60 years I’ve worked almost every day, even if I wasn’t painting, or designing an opera.”
“I set out in life to do something, and I actually think I’ve done a lot,” he laughs, and coughs.
He has done a lot for Los Angeles over the past five decades, where his paintings have become local icons. The best known is probably A Bigger Splash (1967), which shows the aftermath of someone diving into a pristine blue LA swimming pool. It’s a painting that still looks incredibly fresh today, much to Hockney’s amusement. “People put that out on Twitter and Instagram, but I don’t think they know it’s 50 years old,” he says. “Imagine looking at a painting in 1967 and thinking how modern it looked if it had been made in 1917!”
Driving to Hockney’s studio in the Hollywood Hills I thought of another famous LA painting, Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio (1980), a 6-metre long, multicoloured roller-coaster ride that shows the winding route to the artist’s lair, amid a panorama that includes the urban grid of the city, clumps of trees and vivid patches of parkland. The studio complex is scarcely less labyrinthine than the road through the hills. In the course of the interview we wander from the cavernous studio space to the nearby home of Hockney’s long term assistant, Gregory Evans, and back again.
Hockney lived in LA from 1964 to 1968, and again from 1978, before surprising everyone by relocating to Yorkshire in 2004. He claims the main reason for the move was his frustration with California’s increasingly draconian anti-smoking regulations. His new studio was a 10,000-square-foot factory in the coastal town of Bridlington, where he began making landscapes on a monumental scale.
Back in England he participated in the Royal Academy’s 2007 Summer Exhibition, with a 12-metre, 50-panel painting called Bigger Trees near Warter, or/Ou Peinture Sur Le Motif Pour Le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique. It proved so popular the RA invited Hockney to hold a solo exhibition of landscapes in January 2012. That show, A Bigger Picture, would attract 600,000 visitors, breaking all Academy attendance records. It then travelled to Bilbao and Cologne, ultimately being seen by 1.2 million people. Bigger Trees’, the work that started it all, was gifted by the artist to the Tate, and will be shown in Australia in November.
At a time when his reputation in Britain had never been higher, Hockney decided to move back to LA. One of the catalysts for the relocation was the suicide of a young studio assistant, which seems to have drained Hockney’s enthusiasm for the land of his birth. He had also been upset by vandals who cut down a famous local tree called “the Totem”, which he had depicted in numerous paintings and drawings.
By mid-way through 2013 Hockney was restored as a resident of LA, vowing never to live anywhere else. In October that year his return to California was greeted with another massive survey, David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. This show of more than 300 works would be seen by another 240,000 people.
It was only a matter of time before an Australian art museum would host an exhibition by one of the few living artists known and loved by the general public. Inevitably it was the enterprising National Gallery of Victoria that led the charge, seeing Hockney as the perfect successor to shows such as The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaulthier and Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei, that have drawn impressive crowds. The summer blockbuster, David Hockney will run from 11 November to 13 March next year. Despite his dread of openings, Hockney says he’ll come out for the show, having been promised a hotel room where he can smoke.
Over the years Hockney’s work has had a mixed reception down under. In 1999, the National Gallery of Australia acquired the painting, A Bigger Gand Canyon (1998) with suitable fanfare. Yet when Ron Radford took over the directorship from Irishman, Brian Kennedy, the picture was relegated to a side wall above an escalator – which was widely interpreted as a contemptuous gesture. Now Radford’s successor, Gerard Vaughan, has restored the work to a prominent location in a revamped international hang.
Hockney says that his brothers, both of whom live in Australia, kept him informed about the painting, but he was never concerned. “Don’t worry,” he’d reply. “It’s still up somewhere and it will move eventually.”
Not much seems to worry Hockney any more. He is conspicuously absent from the Broad Collection, housed in a gleaming new building in Downtown LA which is currently the city’s biggest cultural drawcard. In a systematic display of work by every trendy artist of past three decades there is not a single piece by Hockney – which proves that his popularity with the public has not made him fashionable in contemporary art circles.
“They’ve always said to me they only like the early ones,” he laughs, and coughs. “In 1981 they said ‘It’s all gone now!’ In 1991 they said it again. They said it in 2001 and in 2011. But I keep on going.”
The thought that Damien Hirst has made hundreds of millions of pounds selling stencilled coloured dot paintings to wealthy collectors doesn’t fill Hockney with envy. “It’s just funny to me,” he says. He finds it comical that anyone could make so much money doing something so uninteresting.
What is really exciting him at the moment is the prospect of a colossal new book on his work published by Benedikt Taschen. “It’s going to be marvellous,” he enthuses. “He’s only done three books of this scale before – on Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz and the Rolling Stones. This is the first one with paintings. It should be out in September or October, so it’ll be available for the show in Australia.”
The book will provide the most complete record of Hockney’s career ever assembled, starting with the works of his teenage years in Bradford, and continuing to the present day. The final image, appropriately enough, is a used ashtray.
Like Elvis, Hockney lives surrounded by loyal helpers who are more like his friends than employees. Gregory Evans might best be described as the in-house curator; Jean-Pierre Goncalves, whom Hockney calls his “right-hand man”, even plays the piano accordion on a recent video work.
The artist is the benevolent despot of a small state. He only has to have an idea and his courtiers will start figuring out how it might be realised. Hockney’s fertile imagination and willingness to experiment keeps everybody busy. The main aim is that nothing must interfere with the daily routine of work, which is the central part of the artist’s life.
Hockney has just completed a two-and-a-half year painting marathon that saw him finishing a portrait every three days in between other projects. The completed series of 82 identically sized works is to be shown at the Royal Academy in London, from 2 July – 2 October, and then at the National Gallery of Victoria in November.
The subjects of the portraits are all friends of the artist, or children of those friends. He has worked with an industrial efficiency unthinkable in his younger days, when a celebrated portrait such as Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71), would take him months of sustained effort. Some portraits were never finished, as the problems they posed proved almost insurmountable.
Hockney protests: “I never took as long over a portrait as Lucian Freud did, but I never wanted to do a commissioned portrait because then you have to please someone else and I only wanted to please myself. With these pictures I began by just doing people who were around. I accepted whatever they looked like, whatever they were wearing. All I did was arrange the chair against a blue or green backdrop. I’d draw them quite quickly and intensively, in about 40 minutes, then begin painting. It would take about 22 or 23 hours.”
He admits he has probably become a more fluent portraitist because of his research into the camera lucida, which preoccupied him from 1999-2001 and resulted in the book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost techniques of the Old Masters (2001).
“I only ever made about 320 drawings with the camera lucida,” he says. ” You use it for about a minute, and just make one or two little dots. That’s all I did, and then I drew. That’s what Ingres did. With these portraits I’m drawing to paint, I’m not drawing for drawing’s sake.”
“I’ve always worked in silence. Years ago, if I was drawing someone I might put on some music for them, but then I wouldn’t hear it. I’d be drawing in too concentrated a way. I don’t even chat with the model. I might smile at them to get a smile back, but I don’t insist. Nobody can smile for 20 hours.”
“These portraits are quite realistic, but not photographic. If you look at a photograph it’s the same in the top corners and the bottom corners. But we can’t escape time, and when I’m painting a portrait I want to put the element of time into the picture.”
“After using the camera lucida I began to ask myself: ‘The moment someone sits down, what do I see? What do I see first? Second? Third? What I saw first was the silhouette. If you know a person you can recognise their silhouette a long way away. Then I see the face, especially the eyes, because you’re forced to look at eyes. Then I see the hands, then the feet. There’s an order to this. There has to be an order.”
Hockney’s analytical mind and his taste for experimentation has kept him at the forefront technological innovation in art. When the fax machine appeared he made thousands of images that he sent to friends all over the world. By 2007, when he bought his first iPhone, he had already created images on an electronic tablet. It was an easy matter to start working on the screens of the iPhone and iPad, creating images with his thumb and a small stylus.
Today he is able to blow up these images to the size of a wall, and record each stage of a drawing as it is created. The show in Melbourne will include 15 screens on which pictures will appear, line by line. “It’s like an endless piece of paper,” he says.
The impact of the blown-up iPad pictures is impossible to describe. When I saw the 2013 show in San Francisco, Hockney’s gigantic, colourful renditions of the Yorkshire landscape were a revelation, partly because they read like huge paintings rather than pixellated images.
Hockney will also be showing a nine-screen video called The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods (2010-11), made by mounting nine digital cameras on a moving vehicle; and an 18-screen piece called The Jugglers (2012).
“In this work I’m playing with time and space,” he says. “we’re using 18 static cameras, and that’s an unusual thing. With a single camera, if a juggler was walking he’d always stay in the centre of the picture and it would be the background that moves. Here the background is still and the jugglers move.”
Hockney argues that The Jugglers provides a visual experience that is much closer to the way we actually see things in everyday life.
He doesn’t accept there is anything unusual in this eager embrace of technology, or in the fact that he might go from working on a nine-channel video to an oil painting or a suite of charcoal drawings. Unlike most artists, Hockney doesn’t even admit a preference for oils, acrylics or watercolours. To his way of thinking they are all ways of producing an image, or simply “making a mark”.
For Hockney everything ultimately comes back to drawing. He believes anybody can be taught to draw competently, but there is no right or wrong way to draw, merely conventions. “The Chinese say you need three things for art – the hand, the eye and the heart,” he says. “It’s very good that!”
“Did you know,” he continues, “that in the art of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians and the Persians, there are never any shadows? Why did Europeans need shadows and other cultures didn’t? The Chinese didn’t need abstraction either, because they always knew what it was. A scholar’s rock is an abstraction, isn’t it? I think Europe needed abstraction because of the photograph.”
There can be few artists anywhere with such reserves of curiosity, and such a desire to keep pushing the boundaries. When I suggest to Hockney it would be unimaginable for other British painters of his generation, such as Frank Auerbach or Leon Kossoff, to start making videos, he laughs, and coughs, and says: “There are so many views of art, we need all kinds of artists. The more the better!”