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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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