On the eve of a visit to Melbourne for an NGV survey of his recent works, David Hockney tells Michaela Boland why he remains active in his 80th year
An Uber driver named Jesus is expertly dodging parked cars as he tackles the blind corners of Mulholland Drive, leaving behind the Los Angeles flatlands and climbing into the Hollywood Hills. The hills are the midpoint between the fake Hollywood that entraps tourists on the Sunset and Hollywood boulevards and the Studio City area around Ventura where the movie studios — the real business of Hollywood — are housed. It’s not the most likely place to be the home and art studio of arguably Britain’s greatest living artist, David Hockney.
After about 20 minutes the concrete streets have narrowed to little more than single lanes. Jesus stops the car outside a bland grey wall.
The nondescript street frontage conceals a leafy oasis hugging a hillside, home for most of the past four decades to Hockney, 79, a Yorkshire native who settled in LA in 1978 after a decade of living peripatetically between the US and Europe.
The door is answered by Hockney’s studio manager Jean-Pierre Goncalves De Lima, known within the compound walls as JP.
JP offers a warm albeit practised welcome; Review is hardly the first reporter to have travelled across the globe for a peek inside the artist’s studio. He leads the way along a marine blue painted path shrouded by dense tropical foliage and into a bright, sunlit workroom humming with activity.
Hockey is perched on a chair in the centre of the room, smoking contentedly, master of all he surveys. Any misconception the artist might be a Morrissey-like LA misfit, still grousing about his homeland and defiantly taking elevenses in the stark Californian sun, quickly dissipates. He beams a warm welcome and on the subject of his adopted homeland says: “I felt liberated there. I felt emboldened.”
On the day of my visit this charming English grandfather of contemporary art is trying to decide whether he will come to Melbourne for the November 11 opening of the National Gallery of Victoria’s summer survey focusing on his work in the past 10 years. (The gallery has since confirmed he will be making the journey.)
He’s no stranger to the antipodes. Two brothers emigrated to Australia, and he has previously visited Canberra to see where his epic 60-canvas series from 1998, Bigger Grand Canyon, had been displayed in the National Gallery of Australia.
“It was OK, could be better,” he says of the hanging in a rare moment of discontent.
Moments later he wrings some fun out of the subject, wondering aloud if he could compare Canberra with San Francisco. “A million different people, a hundred different stories,” he chuckles.
Hockney has also visited Sydney a few times. One particularly memorable trip to the harbour city was in 1996 for a season of the Covent Garden production of the Strauss opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, for which he designed the sets.
Hockney had made an off-the-cuff comment that one of his brothers, who lives outside Sydney, wouldn’t appreciate the opera. He laughs as he recalls how he had to eat his words after his brother, an engineer, came to the opening night and enjoyed it so much that he came back for every performance.
These days, Australia seems somewhat farther away. The prospect of a 16-hour flight at the age of 79 is not to be taken lightly, mostly on account of the smoking prohibition.
Hockney is possibly the most committed smoker you will ever encounter. He advocates The Jugglers for smokers’ rights, rails against the nanny state and has built up a mental database of the benefits of tobacco.
He leans forward, his blue eyes twinkling, and says in his gentle Yorkshire lilt: “When they stopped the smoking on the planes they used to change the air every 20 minutes, but now they change it every two hours and that gives you colds and things. I know all about it.
He continues: “I write to the newspapers: I back it up, I point out my colleagues Picasso smoked [and] died at 93; Monet smoked, died at 86; Renoir smoked, died at 86; Matisse smoked, died at 85. Could you now tell me the young smokers who died?”
He recalls picking up smoking in 1953 when they were called “coffin nails” and battling his fanatically anti-smoking father. Yet he’s convinced of the “benefit”: “You don’t get Parkinson’s disease and you don’t get dementia because would you forget to smoke?”
During a two-hour conversation in the studio before we move into his house, Hockney chain-smokes, switching between Camels and Davidoff, letting ash from the cigarettes tumble on to the floor around his feet.
When we break for a joyous lunch — in what is a grand tradition enjoyed by many visual artists, with six of us gathered around a circular dining table — his place is denoted by a giant ashtray and a huge lighter. He takes just a few bites of the fish before putting down his cutlery and lighting up.
“Davidoff I love,” he says, a satisfied grin spreading across his face. “These are the best cigarettes of all. But you can’t buy them here, you have to buy them in Germany, but I have a lot of them.” Hockney is considered one of Britain’s greatest living artists — if not the greatest, in what appears to be a split decision, with the immovable Londoner Frank Auerbach — even if he has lived abroad for much of the past 50 years.
And Los Angeles has adopted Hockney. He doesn’t go out much these days but the artist has been active in the city’s arts firmament, a champion and sponsor of some of LA’s key cultural infrastructure developments of the past half-century, among them the growth of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in 2003.
His 6m x 2m painting Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio hangs in all its sunstruck saturated colour at the entrance to the American galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Never mind it’s painted by an Englishman and it’s been there for the longest time,” he says with a chuckle. “Well, they don’t take it down much because its 20 feet long!” Born and raised in Yorkshire, Hockney moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and lived there for two years before returning to Britain and then moving to Paris. He eventually settled in LA again in 1978, buying the Hollywood Hills bungalow that is still his home.
In 2004 he returned to live in Yorkshire, but after remaining there for nine years he returned once more to LA in 2013.
The Yorkshire years were slower and more contemplative than his life in the Hollywood Hills, resulting in work that is at odds with the colour-saturated acrylic canvases that became
David Hockney in his studio in LA’s Hollywood Hills, above; digital video work (2012), below