David HockneyNovember 24, 2016
David Hockney is crazy about those tiny drawings Vincent Van Gogh would include in letters to his brother, Theo. “These days he’d be sending them on his iPhone,” says Hockney, who has emailed thousands of iPhone drawings to friends around the world. His romance with the iPhone continued until the iPad came along. In a recent book of conversations with British art writer, Martin Gayford, Hockney enthuses that the iPad is “a fantastic medium for landscape” because one can capture changes of light and colour with such rapidity. “Turner would have loved it!”
In his willingness to involve the old masters in his own artistic fantasies – he once said that Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting – Hockney reveals the grand scale of his ambitions. We see his vision of art as a continuum in which themes and subjects remain the same throughout the ages but the means of image-making continues to evolve.
Although he will be 80 years old next July, Hockney embraces each piece of new technology with the eagerness of a teenager. In the 1980s he experimented with the fax machine, quickly realising the limitations of the medium. “I found if I put down a wash it couldn’t be seen, but if I used opaque grey it would read as a wash. When I was happy with an image I’d send out loads of sheets, once as many as 288.”
The artist’s infatuation with new technology will be on display in the National Gallery of Victoria’s summer blockbuster, David Hockney: Current – the latest in a series of mega-exhibitions that began with A Bigger Picture at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in January 2012. That show attracted more than 600,000 visitors, before continuing on to successful seasons in Bilbao and Cologne. In October the following year, the de Young Museum in San Francisco hosted David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition, which drew another 240,000 viewers.
No living artist has greater pulling power than Hockney, the boy from Bradford who has never lost his Yorkshire accent, even after spending half his working life in Los Angeles. He came to worldwide attention in the 1960s as part of a generation of British Pop artists, although he was never part of any movement and rejects the “Pop” label. With his bleached blonde hair and round rimmed glasses, Hockney was instantly recognisable everywhere. He was also one of the first artists to be open about his homosexuality, and has never suffered because of his honesty.
I first met Hockney in 2000 and was struck by his naturalness. Today he is pretty much the same person, a little greyer and slower but still bubbling with curiosity. In the lead-up to the RA show he was painting with unbelievable energy, but a small stroke in late 2012 brought him back to earth. For a time he struggled with his speech, although his motor skills were unimpaired. His feeling was: “As long as I can draw I’m still OK.”
His illness didn’t stop Hockney smoking. It is the one vice he refuses to relinquish. He doesn’t drink and gets to bed early most nights, but is almost evangelical in his passion for cigarettes. He claims to have left LA in 2002 because of the anti-smoking laws, and has insisted that the NGV find him a hotel room where he can puff away as much as he likes. Predictably his conversation is punctuated by coughs, but this doesn’t stop him expounding one pet theory after another.
Hockney started to go deaf in the 1970s and now wears a state-of-the-art hearing aid. This doesn’t help in a crowded room where everything blends into a hideous cacophony, which may be one of the reasons he has become so reclusive. Nowadays the artist gets his thrills from books, movies and the occasional great exhibition. Even music, which has been a lifelong preoccupation, no longer holds the same attraction. In LA, where he returned to live in 2013, he is surrounded by a faithful entourage of friends and assistants who help him realise his ambitious schemes.
Those schemes have led him into an ever-greater experimentation with new technology at the same time as his subject matter remains rooted in tradition. For the past two decades Hockney has focused on landscape and portraiture, although one week he might be working with charcoal on paper, the next with nine cameras attached to the roof of a slow-moving car.
Hockney likes to think of these varied activities as different ways of drawing, or “making a mark”.
“Drawing is older than language, isn’t it? It’s a very deep thing within us. The first man to make a mark was drawing animals on the walls of a cave… I’ve always loved drawing. I started at a very early age and by the time I went to art school in Bradford I could already draw rather well.”
“People thought the computer had killed drawing, but you can draw with a computer!”
Judging by Hockney’s recent work one might go further and say that an artist can draw with a computer in a way never possible with traditional media. Visitors to the NGV will see a series of iPad works on 15 screens on which progressive stages of a drawing are recorded. In Hockney’s words, it’s like “an endless sheet of paper” on which an image magically appears.
Then there are those brightly coloured landscapes drawn on the iPad and printed out on a large scale. At first glance these pictures look exactly like paintings. Seeing them in San Francisco it felt akin to being enclosed in a towering forest.
Hockney’s reacquaintance with landscape began with a move back to Yorkshire in 2004. He fitted out a 10,000-square-foot factory in the town of Bridlington and began making intensive observations of the changing seasons, the forests and fields. The first monumental work to emerge was a 12-metre, 50-panel painting called Bigger Trees near Warter, or/Ou Peinture Sur Le Motif Pour Le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique.
The work was a sensation in the Royal Academy’s 2007 Summer Exhibition, and led to the invitation to hold the solo show of 2012. Hockney gifted Bigger Trees’ to the Tate, which has made the work available to the NGV.
In the period between 2007-2012 East Yorkshire became Hockney’s answer to Monet’s garden in Giverny. He would revisit the same locations, recording them in different seasons and at different times of day. It was here he discovered how rapidly he could capture impressions on an iPad rather than scratching away with a pencil or a brush as the weather closed in.
Of more than 150 works in the RA show, the majority were oils on canvas created within the past decade. As a sign of things to come there was also a suite of iPad drawings and multi-screen video works recording the colours and forms of the countryside, the key piece being The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods (2010-11), which will also be shown in Melbourne. Yorkshire has a reputation for being dank and gloomy, but in Hockney’s pictures it became as colourful as Las Vegas.
The RA exhibition may have had crowds queuing around the block but wasn’t quite good enough to win the approval of the London critics. This is now a source of amusement to Hockney who has grown accustomed to the negative comments inspired by each new phase of his work. After the RA show he was prompted to write his own school report card:
“To have broken open the the locked-up paint store was another utterly wicked thing to do, and then getting all the wrong colours out was, I’m sad to say, just typical behaviour from this wretched pupil.”
The stroke of 2012 was the beginning of the end of Hockney’s late Yorkshire period. While recovering he learned that vandals had chopped down a favourite tree called “the Totem”, and he became bitterly depressed. When a young assistant commited suicide by drinking drain cleaner, he could no longer find the same appeal in the local landscape.
Hockney returned to Los Angeles mid-way through 2013, and says he has no desire to live anywhere else. When the San Francisco show opened in October of that year it revealed a renewed fascination with portraiture. This time there were more than 300 works, including oils, delicate charcoal drawings, iPad and iPhone works, and the multi-panelled videos, notably an 18-screen piece called The Jugglers (2012), which will also be shown in Melbourne. It features a performance shot by 18 static cameras in a manner that has been described as “Cubist cinema”. Hockney argues that the 18 cameras allow a superior form of realism, letting us see things in the same way that the eye scans the world around us. It is the lens of a single movie camera that provides a distorted view.
Like so much of Hockney’s work from the 1960s onwards, The Jugglers is an investigation of the nature of perception. Hockney understands that realism in western art is merely a convention by which we have become accustomed to see the world in a certain way. We can train ourselves to see things differently, although this is not an option with new techniques of virtual reality which enclose us within a purely fictional world. Hockney sampled the technology in a Hollywood studio but came away unimpressed.
“I put on a helmet and a monster came up to me. I wanted to touch it because I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t because in virtual reality you don’t have a hand, you don’t have feet and you don’t really have a body. I think that’s a mistake.”
For the past two-and-a-half years, Hockney has devoted himself to a marathon portrait project that saw him complete 82 identically sized works that were shown at the RA in July this year under the title, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. The subjects were all friends or the children of friends, the chair was always the same, the backdrops were either blue or green. Hockney left the choice of costume and pose to individual sitters. He estimates that each painting took between 22 and 23 hours. The entire show will be included within the Melbourne exhibition.
In the 1960s and 70s Hockney would slave away for months at a portrait, constantly altering small details. In the film A Bigger Splash (1974) there is a scene where the art dealer, John Kasmin, is complaining that Hockney is working all the time but hardly producing anything. “What’s wrong with that?” the artist replies.
Hockney’s newfound productivity is testimony to how much he has loosened up in both technique and attitude, but the portraits remain remarkably fresh, with the simple format forcing a close focus on the subject. One might also detect intimations of mortality as Hockney races to work through all the ideas being tossed around by his restless imagination. He thinks in terms of productivity rather than longevity. “I live in the now,” he says. “Life’s a killer. There’s only now, and we all get one lifetime. That’s why I go on smoking.”
John McDonald travelled to Los Angeles courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria
Published in The Age, October 2016