“One of things that’s so interesting about David Hockney is that for many of us he taught us to see Los Angeles. I grew up in L.A. and for an awful lot of people all over the world but especially in L.A. he taught us how to look at things here — apartment buildings, street signs, swimming pools — that have become absolutely emblematic, iconic of L.A. But he was the one who saw them and saw them clearly for us.”
That is how New Yorker writer and art critic Lawrence Weschler characterized David Hockney’s work, in an interview on this DnA broadcast, about the work of young artist Ramiro Gomez that riffs on David Hockney’s early paintings.
I was one of those “people all over the world” who was completely captivated by Hockney’s paintings when I first saw them as a child. To those of us growing up in rainy older cities, his blue, blue pools, flat-roofed modern houses, shiny green lawns and upward raining sprinklers were astonishing in their sunny surreality.
So it was immensely exciting for DnA to get a chance to meet him earlier this month, on the eve of a new film about his life.
The film, called simply Hockney and directed by Randall Wright, takes a look back, starting with his working class childhood in Yorkshire, through his art school years in London and then of course to his discovery of Los Angeles. It’s full of insights into his process, his sexual self-discovery and very funny stories, such as how he bought a bicycle on his arrival in Santa Monica, so as to go find the “lowlife and hustlers” on Santa Monica boulevard, only to find he’d have to pedal for 16 miles.
But the artist himself, now 78, keeps looking forward, as we found out in this interview.
Hockney is working on book, called A History of Pictures, with art historian Martin Gayford, about paintings, photography and film, due out this fall. He has exhibitions of his work opening next year in London and Melbourne. And he’s in the midst of a huge project called 82 Portraits and A Still Life, that will be a book and an exhibition this summer at the Royal Academy in London.
The portraits line the white walls of his skylit studio, nestled into the slopes of the Hollywood Hills. There are rows and rows of them; each featuring the sitter in a chair against a blue and turquoise-green background. Some of the faces are recognizable; others not. He’s painted men, women, children, old and young, rich and poor. And he’s done around a hundred already.
“When I began them I didn’t know I was going to do 82,” he says, adding, “I didn’t really plan them. But when it grew to 20, I realized I could go on probably forever. Because it’s always interesting. People are always interesting. They come and sit down. Everybody is interesting to me.”
Hockney was fascinating on how he goes about painting his portrait, each of which takes three days: “The main thing I do is the first thing you see when you recognize somebody, which is a silhouette. And then you see the face. Then you see the hands. Then you see the feet. And that’s what I’ve done. So I drew everybody who came and I drew them in about an hour. And then I painted them. But the faces I’d work on and work on.”
We spent around an hour talking and went from topic to topic, starting with the initial impact of Los Angeles.
“LA was the first city I ever painted,” he says, “I started painting the architecture. I started painting the palm trees. When I first came to LA I much preferred it to New York because I preferred the horizontal — because I’m a bit claustrophobic I think. . .You know it’s fifty years ago I first came here. . . it’s a long time ago. But I always loved it. I’ve always been inspired by it really, always.”
LA’s openness and horizontality inspired him to paint landscapes. And he adds, “the light here is ten times what it was in England.”
Hockney does not go out much because he has become very hard of hearing, so when he is not creating artworks, he is reading — and ruminating, often on questions of art and art history.
He is fascinating on the nature of perception — such as his theory on how the Renaissance artist Brunelleschi used a concave mirror to achieve one-point perspective in his painting of the Baptistry of San Giovanni, or his thoughts about Chinese art and why it lacks shadows.
And he talks about the relationship between photography and painting (photography’s problem is that it is not real, relative to painting, due to the theatricality necessitated by lighting, and the uniformity of time in a photograph).
For him, life is an endless opportunity to depict what he sees.
“I look at the world. I think about it. And then think, how do I depict it? I mean most people don’t look very hard at things. I think most people just look in front of them. So long as it’s clear and they can walk straight ahead they do. But they don’t really look at things; well, not very hard. Well, I look at things.
There are a number of topics Hockney comes back to several times, but perhaps his favorite hobby horse is smoking.
He has famously puffed away for years, and as he talks and smokes he simply drops the still-lit butts on the floor, dotting the linoleum with brown smudges. He’s proudly defiant of naysayers, including his own father, who he says died at 76 thanks to. . .
. . . chocolate biscuits.
“It was chocolate biscuits that killed him,” says Hockney, telling this absurd story in a hilariously laconic way, “they killed him because he was a diabetic and he’d go walk up the street and go in the park and eat a whole packet of chocolate biscuits and go into a coma. And every time you go into a coma you damage the heart, and he went into four and (on) the fourth coma he went into, he had a heart attack and died.
“Well, I mean, chocolate biscuits are a killer and I say, well, everything’s a killer. Life’s a killer. We all get a lifetime. And there’s only now. So that’s why I smoke.”
“Hockney,” a film about David Hockney’s life, directed by Randall Wright, will screen for a limited run starting on April 22 at Laemmle Royal in West LA and at Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Read the New York Times review, here.
Below, listen to DnA’s story about Ramiro Gomez, the young artist whose riffs on Hockney’s early L.A. paintings endeavor to make the “invisible visible”; and about the critic, Lawrence Weschler, who brought him to meet David Hockney.
All photos on this page are by Avishay Artsy.