Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

david hockney

los angeles
art
david hockney

interview by DONATIEN GRAU
photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

“I’m English: I can’t be anything else. But I’m also a Los Angeleno, and I think of myself as an English Los Angeleno,” says David Hockney in this interview, in which he pays tribute  to LA — the city that changed his palette, his life, made him famous,  and still reverses him. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA] just showed his recent works, “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life.” Constantly traveling back and forth between LA and London since the mid-’60s, he is the first painter to capture the LA lifestyle.

DONATIEN GRAU — Coming to live here in Los Angeles in the 1960s must have been a great change for you.
DAVID HOCKNEY — Well, I came because I was being pestered in London. I’m always being pestered in London, in fact. I came here really because of Hollywood, because of all the gay photographers who were here. I’d heard it had marvelous light. I was in London in 1963. I wanted to come to LA to paint for a bit. I’d just had my first show, and I’d just sold A Rake’s Progress for £5,000 — which was a lot of money then — and with that money, I came to LA. I stayed here six months and had a show at the end of it, in September, in New York, in 1964.

DONATIEN GRAU — Not many artists at the time were coming here in 1964. Did you know anyone from the art world?
HOCKNEY — When I arrived here, I didn’t know a soul. An artist, Oliver, who was in the same gallery I was in, in New York, came to meet me. He drove me to a motel in Santa Monica and just left me there. I walked out to the Pacific and saw some bright lights in the north. I walked toward them and realized, after I’d gotten halfway, that it was just a very brightly lit garage… I bought a bicycle. I couldn’t drive, so I thought I could bike around. The first evening, I biked down to Pershing Square, which I’d read about in John Rechy’s City of Night. There was nobody in Pershing Square. I thought there would be lots of people. I had a drink and then cycled back. I realized you need a car here. I went back to Oliver’s and told him: “I need a driver’s license.” He gave me a lesson in his truck and then took me to pass my license. They said, “Fill out this question-and-answer form.” I filled it out, and they said: “You’ve got three wrong, but that’s okay. Where’s your vehicle?” I said, “Oh Lord, I do the test now?” They said: “Yes… Well, if you fail, you can come back this afternoon.” I thought, “Well, I’ll have a go.” I did. And I succeeded. And it frightened me to death.

DONATIEN GRAU — Were you afraid of driving here in LA?
DAVID HOCKNEY — Yes, but now that I had a driving license, I had to buy a car. Then I had to really learn to drive it. I did. This was all within one week of arriving in LA. I thought, “Well, this is a nice place for me.”

DONATIEN GRAU — Did this new place inspire you to paint?
DAVID HOCKNEY — It was the first place that I started painting the city and places. I’d never painted London. LA was the first city that I liked — loved, really — and painted. But then, I realized there were no artists. I mean, there’d never been artists here. I said one time: “It needs its Piranesi. And I’m it,” or something like that.

DONATIEN GRAU — How long have you lived here?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I’ve lived here on and off ever since the mid-’60s. In the 1970s, I was back in England a bit. I came back here and over three years did some portraits. The longest period I had back in England was about seven or eight years, back in Bridlington. Then I came back here in 1979, with the intention of staying. I was always planning on coming back. LA suits me. One reason why I live in LA is that I’ve always been able to work here. I couldn’t work in London. There were always people coming to see me. There are always people wanting this, that, or the other. In LA, I could work. I could in Yorkshire, and in Bridlington, too, but I didn’t have much space in London. And there were always too many interruptions. I’m best when I’m working under no pressure. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do: work. That’s all I’ve done. So, I like LA. It’s a really fascinating city, full of all kinds of people, an enormous range of … mathematicians, the people at Caltech. I like that.

DONATIEN GRAU — But you were an outsider, coming here from Britain, from Yorkshire. And you made some of the most iconic artworks about LA.
DAVID HOCKNEY — I remember, in 1964, the wife of artist Billy Brice saying that until my paintings, she hadn’t noticed the beauty of the palm trees in LA. I noticed it straight away because they’re not in England … and they look so elegant, don’t they?

DONATIEN GRAU — Did LA instantly change what you were doing as a painter?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I changed the paint itself — to acrylic. The colors got bolder because I saw more color here. I first painted swimming pools here.

DONATIEN GRAU — You said one of the reasons you came here was because of the gay Hollywood photographers. Was that in the context of ’60s sexual liberation? For you, coming from northern England, from Yorkshire, I imagine it wasn’t so open.
DAVID HOCKNEY — When I first went to London, I felt quite free, but coming here I felt a lot freer. I was only 25, and it was amazing. There were very large gay bars here. There weren’t any in New York or London like here. It was amazing, actually. Sometimes they were raided by the police. But then it changed … and it changed around 1970. The Stonewall riots in New York changed things and opened the door to gay liberation in the summer of 1969.

DONATIEN GRAU — Was LA’s sexual liberation so different from England’s?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I remember going to see Bob Mizer, who ran a business here called the Athletic Model Guild, taking pictures of men. He published a magazine called Physique Pictorial, which I’d bought in England. He’d say, “Remember, we are AMG [Athletic Model Guild], not MGM.” He also did these little black-and-white films. I bought one or two of them, I remember, and a lot of photographs. He was an amazing character — he’s dead now — and it was an amazing place, with bathrooms outside because of the light. His amazing archive is being looked after now. All those gay magazines came from here. They were all published in LA.
I mean, they still make lots of pornography in the valley, and they’ll always be making it. That’s all virtual reality’s good for, I think: pornography.

DONATIEN GRAU — Why pornography?
DAVID HOCKNEY — Because you can get volumes of tits and arses. You need volume for pornography.

DONATIEN GRAU — Were you attracted by Hollywood and the cinema world as a young man?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I was born in 1937 and brought up in Bradford, in England, on radio and cinema. I’d always loved the movies. We didn’t get a television in our house till I was 18. In those days, the cinema was a magical thing. We always sat in the first three rows because they were the cheapest seats. But even if I’d had more money, I’d have sat in the same place. Most of the films were from Hollywood. They were everywhere. And they were very good because, as I’ve always pointed out, you could always see and hear them: they always had good lighting and good sound. Whereas English films sometimes didn’t have very good sound and so-so lighting. The lighting was amazing in Hollywood films, wasn’t it? They’d light faces, not for the room, but to show you on the screen there … the tear in the eye. They’d light it so you could always see and hear them. I remember my father wouldn’t go to a cinema quite near to us because he said it didn’t have an over-the-door Western Electric sound system, which was the Hollywood sound system. This was when I was very young. I realized my father would have had difficulty hearing crude speakers in that little fleapit suburban cinema. He was going deaf then… I always remember that. But I didn’t really remember the edge of the screen until later on, when I became more aware of it, and how it was like a letterbox or something. Today, there are screens everywhere.

DONATIEN GRAU — So, you saw a relationship between cinema and painting…
DAVID HOCKNEY — Picture-making came from basically three places: Florence, Bruges, and Hollywood. Those two European cities took pictures very seriously, and so did Hollywood. I remember Susan Sontag squirming because she thought Hollywood was nothing compared with Bruges and Florence. But I think otherwise. It’s all about pictures, and they’re very serious about them here. I knew a few directors. I knew George Cukor. I got to know Billy Wilder very well. Billy was very funny. There won’t be directors like him anymore. He was a refugee from Vienna. We always talked about motion pictures.

DONATIEN GRAU — Can a painting be as realistic as a movie to you?
DAVID HOCKNEY — People always saw the motion picture as reality. Of course I was always aware that Cubism had come along at the same time as the motion picture. Cubism was about reality, too, and it’s there in the paintings. Juan Gris said Cubism wasn’t a style. He said, “It’s a way of life.” Cubism changed things in a way that Impressionism or Fauvism didn’t. I thought it changed perspective … and I’m still researching this today.

DONATIEN GRAU — Has your palette changed?
DAVID HOCKNEY — Today, there’s a marvelous range of colors available, but who’s using them? Why don’t people use more colors? Today, in addition, colors will last. I think that’s true of acrylic paint: the colors will stay. I’ve always painted my pictures to last. They’re not painted too thickly or too thinly. And my paintings are lasting. Looking at them in the exhibition at the Tate and the Centre Pompidou — each one 50 years old — and they’re all okay.

DONATIEN GRAU — What about art and fashion? You were very close to Yves Saint Laurent. Do you care about the way people dress when you paint their portrait?
DAVID HOCKNEY — People dress terribly today. But, looking at the portraits I painted in the last few years, I realized if they’d been painted 30 years ago, there might’ve been more elegance, more suits. Yet these new ones had a lot of variety in the clothes. They actually look better, I think. Well, sometimes I think there’s hardly any fashion anymore. But then I think, “No, there’s lots of fashion.” But it’s all going to be different. I notice Vogue sends out things daily now, on the iPhone. When I did an issue of French Vogue in 1986, I handwrote it all. It was a very different time.

DONATIEN GRAU — Is LA a happier place for you? And are you happy in your life?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I think people are probably happier today in general. I was reading a book about the Romanovs. Nicholas II wrote a diary, which was published five, six years ago. In 1862, I think, he had a mistress. He described how they’d devour each other like cats, how he’d had her on the sofa, on chairs, on the table. I was thinking: in 1862, you had to be a rich man to live like this. Today, you don’t. People live like that. There’s a lot less frustration. I mean,
how do you know when people are happy? You never read such things in a newspaper. But if you think about it — and I was thinking about it — nobody now has to be married for life. Before, when you were married for life, and it wasn’t very good, what could you do but lead a miserable life? You don’t have to do that now. So, how can you measure happiness? For that reason, I suspect people are indeed happier now.
In my case, I’m perfectly happy just working in LA and doing my things.

DONATIEN GRAU — Is that why you always return to LA?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I’m not tired of it. I’m not. And LA always seems to be developing. I don’t go out much now. I don’t really want to go out much, or to big dinners. I’m pretty deaf now and only go to some dinners under protest. When there are four people talking, I can’t hear because I don’t know the direction of the sound. It all sounds the same. With just one person talking, I can sit for quite a long time and enjoy it. But if there are more than a couple of people, and somebody else starts talking, then I’m out of it. If I’m at home, I’ll just go off to bed and read. I don’t mind. I don’t want to spoil things for everybody. Anyway, I’m reading more now than I ever did, just for my own pleasure.

DONATIEN GRAU — Artists from all over are coming here.
DAVID HOCKNEY — They do now. New York is more difficult because it’s so much more expensive. Young artists come to LA because they can live here quite well. There’s also an art market:
people buy art.

DONATIEN GRAU — Are there other differences?
DAVID HOCKNEY — New York is a perspective nightmare. LA is more horizontal. I’ve always preferred that. I’m a bit claustrophobic and am probably an agoraphile: I like big open spaces. I think that has an effect. The space of the city has an effect. When you’ve just arrived, you can really feel it … and I’ve always preferred it.

DONATIEN GRAU — So, the Yorkshire man became Californian. Did you see Yorkshire differently?
DAVID HOCKNEY — I did. I saw everything a bit differently. Because when I went back to paint in Yorkshire, I’d been painting in California for 30 years. That’s bound to affect you. At the end of the day, I’m English: I can’t be anything else. But I’m also a Los Angeleno, and I think of myself as an English Los Angeleno.

DONATIEN GRAU — Is the city also developing in a bad way?
DAVID HOCKNEY — LA’s changed a lot. Well, in some ways, not in others. There are a lot more cars now than there were 50 years ago. Because of that, it’s harder to get around, so one tends to live in neighborhoods more. You don’t go to other parts of the city because it might take an hour to get there. It takes an hour to get to Santa Monica. But it’s still an amazing city. Well, I’m not that keen to drive in the traffic. What I like is to drive in nature. In 20 minutes, I can be 5,000 feet up in the mountains, up north from this house. I go up there quite a lot just to get out. I drive around a bit, and then I come back. Those trips are very good. I know lots of people living in LA who’ve never been up there. Never. An artist friend told me she’d never been up there. I told her, “They should take your driving license away.”

END

DAVID HOCKNEY STUDIO AND HOUSE
HOLLYWOOD HILLS
LOS ANGELES CA 90046

 

[Table of contents]

Los Angeles issue #30

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