Art icon David Hockney at home in LA.
At 79, DAVID HOCKNEY is busier than ever, with two new books and a host of upcoming exhibitions, including a major show in Melbourne. He talks portraiture, bohemia and art-icon status with
-It’s another busy morning at David Hockney’s home studio on Montcalm Avenue, a gorgeous sun-dappled cul-de-sac in the Hollywood Hills. His studio manager, Jean-pierre (JP), is focused on his laptop. His personal assistant, Jonathan, is working a projector at the back. And the artist himself, with paint on his trousers and small round glasses under a thatch of hair — looking very Hockney, it must be said — is giving a tour to a guest: me.
“When I bought the house in 1979, this was a paddle-tennis court,” he says in his gentle yorkshire brogue. “but I have no interest in paddle tennis or any other sports, for that matter.” So he converted it into a studio, an expansive white cuboid of a room where he can work, which is what he’s really interested in.and in recent years, he has been especially active. On the walls today are portraits against blue from his most recent show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, at the Royal Academy (RA) in London — and he finished them all in just two years. “i would take two or three days each, painting for seven hours a day,” he says. “Well, to ask someone to sit for a week, they’ve got to rearrange their lives, haven’t they? But three days is a long weekend.”
We stop in the centre of his studio, where Hockney points to the floor and smiles. “there, that’s the whole thing,” he says. And at our feet is a knee-high model of the RA gallery itself, with thumbnail miniatures of his portraits affixed to its tiny walls. It’s like a school diorama, a Lilliputian exhibition. “It’s a good thing we made the model,” he explains, “because we realised we couldn’t fit all the portraits in.”
“You mean, you had more?” I ask. And he nods. “Oh, yes. what was the total, jp? Ninety-something?”
Picasso, Monet, Matisse, O’keeffe — a lot of great artists have had creative streaks in their old age. Hockney is another. Having just turned 79, he’s as prolific as he was in the ’60s, when he burst onto the scene alongside Pop Art contemporaries such as Warhol and Rauschenberg. He was last at the Royal Academy only four years ago, for A Bigger Picture, his landmark exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes. The following year, he unveiled Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, followed by The Arrival of Spring in 2014 (charcoal sketches and ipad paintings), and, in 2015, Painting and Photography at the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery in London.
This year, in addition to the portraits, there’s a whole slew of projects on his proverbial desk. taschen is releasing a book of his life’s work: David Hockney Sumo is so big, at nearly one metre tall and 30 kilograms, that it takes a trolley to cart it around. “we had to take some pages out because it was too heavy,” he says. He has another book out, titled A History of Pictures (Thames & Hudson), which he co-wrote with the critic Martin Gayford. “it’s not just about art, but photography, television, movies … selfies!” he says, laughing. then there’s his forthcoming exhibition in Melbourne, at the National Gallery of victoria, about art and technology — fitting for an artist who has harnessed new technologies throughout his career, from fax machines to Polaroids to the ipad, which he still carries around for sketching. And next year, there will be a full retrospective at the Tate Britain, London, which will travel on to the Pompidou Centre in Paris and then the Met in Newyork. So how does he do it?
“Well, I don’t go out much,” he says with a shrug. “i’m too deaf. If you go out of an evening, you’re usually going to listen to something, even if it’s only people in a restaurant.” He hasn’t been to an opening since the 1970s, when his hearing problems began. Even today, with a hearing aid, he can’t distinguish one sound from the next. So as we speak, everyone else in the studio must remain silent.
But deafness isn’t the only reason Hockney works from nine to three every day, weekends included; or why his studio manager, JP, lives in the bedroom below his, and his business manager, Gregory Evans, lives next door; why his world revolves around his work. “i’ve always been a worker,” he says. “I prefer it to anything else I do. I wasn’t a party boy at all. you’ll see that in the Taschen book.” He stamps his cigarette out on the floor and reaches for another. “as an artist, I’m driven, always have been, really. And I feel OK. I can still stand up seven hours a day painting. artists don’t retire. they go on.”
The portraits began at a difficult time in Hockney’s life — a blue period in more ways than one. after the success of A Bigger Picture in 2012, he suffered a mild stroke, and then, in early 2013, his 23-year-old studio assistant Dominic Elliott committed suicide by drinking a bottle of drain cleaner in Hockney’s home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. It was a sordid story of drugs and sex, involving Hockney’s ex-boyfriend John Fitzherbert. while Hockney himself was never implicated, the episode devastated him. When he returned to Montcalm Avenue, he didn’t paint for four months, his longest ever dry spell.
Then one day, he asked JP to sit for him. “I just happened to be sitting with my head in my hands,” JP tells me in his mild French accent.“and he said, ‘Hold it there,’ because we were all feeling like that at the time. In a way, it was a self-portrait.”
It got the juices flowing. Hockney says he quickly moved onto friends and acquaintances, “and almost anyone who’d come”. He whips out his ipad and flicks through some of the names — the gallerist Larry Gagosian (“He only gave me two days”) and the publisher Benedikt Taschen (“He’s my neighbour; he lives in that spaceship house”). “after about 10, I thought, ‘Well, they’re getting rather good!’ So I just kept going. And I could go on forever. I mean, it’s endlessly fascinating, looking at people. Everybody is always interesting. we’re all individuals, you see.”
It seems inevitable that, with this show, Hockney will yet again be described as Britain’s greatest living artist, especially since the death of Lucian Freud. But he shoos away such honorifics. “It’s meaningless to me. That’s just the press doing that,” he says. He turned down a knighthood in 1990 because “I didn’t want to be Sir David, frankly”, and only accepted the Queen’s Order of Merit in 2012 because “there’s only 24 people who get it, so I thought I might as well. But it doesn’t mean much to me.the exhibition will mean more.”
Does he get nervous before a big show? “No, I don’t care.why would you? I think you need critics, because you need publicity. That’s all they’re doing, really. Serious criticism is not done in newspapers.” Besides, Picasso didn’t care about critics, and there’s no artist that Hockney admires more. “There’s no repeats in Picasso.you can go on discovering him 30 years after he died.”
His portraits are all priced at a handsome $2.2 million, so I ask him what he makes of the price of art these days. “Oh, it’s so
“It’s endlessly fascinating, looking at people. Everybody is always interesting. We’re all individuals, you see.”
ridiculous,” he says. “I just assume it’s drug money. Because that money isn’t sitting in cardboard boxes in Colombia. It’s being invested.” Does he know what his personal record is? “Somewhere in the £7 to £8 million [about $13 million] range, I think. But I don’t think about it. I’ve always had enough money to do what I wanted to do, for the past 55 years, even when I didn’t have much. And that’s all I’m interested in. what’s money for if not that?”
He didn’t come from money. His parents were a modest couple from Bradford in westyorkshire — his father a clerk and outspoken Communist, and his mother a housewife who raised Hockney and his four siblings. His childhood was a happy one. He adored his parents. Remarkably for the time, they accepted that he was gay and that we wanted to paint for a living — not the easiest path for ayorkshire teenager in the 1940s. and with their blessing, at 16 he went from Bradford School of Art to the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, where he fell in with R.B. Kitaj and Peter Blake. Straightaway, his talents and confidence were obvious. When the RCA refused to graduate him because he hadn’t submitted an essay, Hockney demanded they judge him soley on his art, and ultimately, the RCA changed its rules to pass him.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1964 because “no one asked you where you’d been or where you’d come from”. He’d been teased in art school for his Yorkshire accent, but in LA, there was none of that. And it was easier to be gay. “There was a big gay bar here in 1964, the Red Raven, when there wasn’t even one in New York.” His career blossomed. He became known for his pool paintings, his depictions of gay relationships, the sweet portraits of his parents. He moved to London, then Paris, then LA again, but wherever he went, he was, in his words, in “bohemia” — a state of mind and a way of living that he has cherished his whole life. “in 1960, it was illegal to be gay, but I pointed out that I lived in bohemia, and in bohemia you can be gay.” A flick of the wrist. “you can be anything.”
Naturally, there were drugs in bohemia, and Hockney dabbled, but work always came first. “I’d take cocaine with Gregory [Evans] — who’s now sober — and he’d always want more,” he chuckles. “I’d say, ‘Don’t you think that’s enough for the time being? There’s work to do!’” He misses bohemia now. “newyork is boring.the rents are too high for bohemia. If the young can’t go to a place, it’s going to die … What happened was you had bohemia and suburbia, and then the suburban became a bit more bohemian. But they started on their no smoking, no this, no that. Well, that’s not bohemia … With minorities you’ve got to be tolerant, and smokers are a minority. So you shouldn’t go on about smoking, because it’s a bit intolerant.” For Hockney, cigarettes are a symbol of bohemia, and he proudly described himself as a “militant smoker”. when he asks if I smoke and offers a Davidoff Magnum Classic — “Bigger, wider, very, very smooth” — there seems only one polite response.
“I know how fanatical anti-smoking people can be because my father was one,” he says. “in 1999, I was invited to a Labour
Party conference in Brighton to talk about smoking, and there was this man with a big sign saying ‘100 million people were killed by tobacco in the 20th century’. and I thought, that’s my father — he’d be like this. So I pointed out that 100 million people were killed in the 20th century for political reasons, and their deaths were terrible.the ones from smoking die in their beds.you can’t use the word ‘kill’.” His father died at 76 from complications associated with type-2 diabetes. “i’ve outlived him now by three years. Say no more!” he says, grinning. “I’ve been smoking for 62 years, so why stop now? Picasso smoked, died at 91. Matisse smoked, died at 84. Monet smoked, died at 86.What are they going on about?”
The decline of smoking aside, he’s a fan of modernity. For one thing, he finds it more peaceful.“have you read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature?” he asks. “Violence is going down.” He also loves the technological advances, and not only for their artistic potential. Smartphones, he says, have transferred power from the aristocracy to individuals. “would you have had the slaughter of the Firstworldwar if everybody had an iphone? I doubt it. People would be sending their messages: ‘Don’t come to the Somme!’”
As for gay marriage, he didn’t see that coming at all. Not that he was ever tempted himself to get married or raise a family. His last lover was Fitzherbert, and they split in 2009.“I always thought I’d be single,” he says. “But I have a family of another sort. Everybody does, in a way. And I think artists are not that good parents — I’ve known a few. they think about their work too much.” He pauses for a moment. “So I’ve missed out on some things, I would say that. But you manage in life, don’t you? I remember once at Glyndebourne [opera festival], The New York Times had an article about the social scene, the picnics and things, and they asked the press secretary, ‘What do you do if it rains?’ And she said, ‘We manage.’ That’s a very good answer. That’s what I’ve done.you make up with some things what you lose on others.”
Perhaps the greatest loss Hockney has had to bear has been his hearing. It started to recede in the 1970s, and has worsened ever since. “that was why I didn’t like Studio 54, because I couldn’t stand the sound,” he says. It was hereditary — both his father and sister went deaf. “i’m sure my father never heard a word my mother said in the last 10 years of his life, because she spoke so softly. But I knew why,” he says. And he walks over to me and puts his arm around my shoulders and leans in. “because then we had to go close and listen like this.”
Deafness has dramatically curtailed his social life. He avoids crowds and seldom goes into town. occasionally, he’ll invite friends over, but even then, he struggles if more than one person is talking at a time.and there’s no music. No more concerts of opera. “i leave depressed. It’s just not rich anymore. It gets me down sometimes.”
In his biography of the artist, the author Christopher Simon Sykes speaks of periods of depression and darkness, but Hockney shakes his head, ever so subtly. “he didn’t get everything right in that book.” He was never depressed in the clinical sense, he says. Although, there was one time when he wouldn’t get out of bed for three days, and Evans despatched him for treatment to a clinic in Pasadena. “it was absolutely charmless. Not a single flower.t hey put me in this room and the only picture on the wall said ‘No smoking’. and then the man asked how many times had I tried to kill myself. well, I hadn’t, so I got out of there. But when I went to the doctor, he told me, ‘You’re prone to pancreatitis, so I’d advise you give up alcohol and caffeine.’ I said ‘Well, as long as I can smoke.’ And I’ve never experienced that since, so now I realise. It was always after a drink.”
It’s time to take some pictures, so we head out to his garden, into a classic LA scene, the kind he might paint — blue skies and palm trees, a crystalline pool, of course, and a shoot in progress. The portrait artist getting his portrait taken.
As the photographer snaps away, Hockney’s thoughts turn to his adoptive home. For, as English as he feels, home is here now, in the balmy idyll of Montcalm Avenue. “you live very privately in LA,” he says. “You get in your car and go to someone else’s house, and you’re not meeting people on the street like in London and New York.” Not that he drives himself about anymore, not since 2013. Jonathan takes care of that now. “i’ve always loved LA because it’s spread out, and Newyork is vertical, which is a perspective nightmare for me.”
Hockney can talk about perspective all day long. Few artists have studied it in such depth. So he happily ambles down a tangent about how Chinese painting has no shadows, only European painting does, and that’s because Renaissance artists used a camera obscura, which he famously proved and can show you if you’ve got a minute … But JP is looking at his watch. He’s the keeper of Hockney’s schedule, and he runs a tight ship. “five minutes,” he announces. “David must break at 1pm.” The whiff of lunch wafts across the garden — Hockney’s two housekeepers have the table set and ready. So I ask him about mortality. After all, he’s in his autumn, if not his winter quite yet. “well, I know I’m going to die,” he says with a grin. “And I think about it more now. But what do artists do? They go on to live all over. And I think maybe my art will go on, because the young are interested in it.”
He produces a fresh packet of Camel Lights, and sparks up maybe his sixth of the interview, savouring the smoke and squinting into the sunshine. “You know, I live to live in the now, but this Taschen book has made me look back. And there’s all this work.and I’m quite impressed with it!” he says, laughing. “some’s better than others, but I haven’t wasted my time. No, it’s going to be a very nice book, and everyone will see that I was always just an artist, concerned with how do you represent the 3-D world in 2-D. I’ve always been asking questions about that, really.”
“I think maybe my art will go on.”
Barry Humphries, 26–28 March, 2015. The solo exhibition David Hockney: Current is on at NGV International, Melbourne, from November 11 until March 13, 2017; ngv.vic.gov.au.
Self Portrait, ipad drawing, 2012.