“You have to come in daylight, because I have this little Wagner drive….”
‘Wagner drive?” “You’ll see.” That’s all he would say. I hung up the phone. David Hockney had agreed to be interviewed, and I headed to his Malibu, California, home to meet him, arriving there in the midafternoon. After an hour or so of talking, he told me it was time to go. When I suggested bringing my tape recorder – to continue the interview while we drove – he shook his head. “I don’t think it will do you any good,” he said. I eased myself into Hockney’s chrome red two-seater Mercedes – a vintage convertible – and he backed the sleek machine out of his garage. He began to push buttons on a control panel that looked like something NASA had made and said, almost apologetically, “I’m losing my hearing, so I treated myself to a pretty good system….” He put the car in gear and sped north on the Pacific Coast Highway. “Twelve speakers.”
David Hockney is best known for his work with paint and canvas, but he has also worked in media as diverse as Polaroid-photo collage and fax painting. He has designed opera sets and living rooms. So this piece – the Wagner drive – must be his latest. Hockney has been called the most important artist of the latter half of this century. He is inarguably one of the best known and most successful artists of our time, probably the most famous living artist. Yet his status as a great artist is hotly debated. The reaction against him is based partly on the accessibility of his work – it is intensely colorful, with friendly, palatable images. He paints interiors, portraits and landscapes; he is best known for his paintings of swimming pools. Although many of his paintings are abstract (he is obsessed by cubism), and intellectual games layer his work, most of Hockney’s paintings are also very, very pretty. The critic Robert Hughes called Hockney the Cole Porter of modern art. He has been written off as an illustrator or a pop artist because he embraces unconventional forms, making art with laser printers and Xerox machines. And his paintings show up in places other than museums and galleries: He recently painted the cover of a telephone book.
In a way, Hockney is his own worst enemy – and not only because of the images he chooses to paint. He lives quietly in Los Angeles rather than in a fancy loft in New York’s West Village. He likes his parents. He loves opera. In a world populated by shameless self-promoters, he is known for his grace, wit and charm – no bad drug habits. He has always been candid yet discreet about his sexuality. Hockney was born in 1937 in the small town of Bradford, in the north of England. He moved to London in 1959 to attend the prestigious Royal College of Art. There he became immersed in the counterculture that created Swinging London in the early Sixties. He first visited California in 1964 – discovering a paradise of sunshine, pools and boys – and moved there in 1978. From his studio in the hills above Hollywood, the prolific Hockney turns out a steady stream of work in traditional and experimental media.
In December the André Emmerich Gallery, in New York, will exhibit his new work, including large new paintings and a series of laser prints made from images taken with a still video camera. In January opera goers will see the sets he designed for the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Currently he is working on sets for Puccini’s Turandot, commissioned by the San Francisco and Chicago operas. When I arrived at his beach house in Malibu, his dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley, met me with yelps and yaps. Hockney answered the door in wool slippers, green trousers and a green striped oxford shirt. Midway through the first interview session, he peered at me through glasses with root-beer-colored frames. “It’s time,” he said. “Time for the Wagner drive.”
Jetting up the highway – the dachshunds curled under Hockney’s feet – we whipped past the ocean on our left, fast-food restaurants on our right. From the twelve speakers blared “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by a medley from West Side Story. We turned off the coast highway and headed toward the mountains. His hand moved to the switches and buttons on the control panel. Lights flickered. In a second, as we cruised onto a quiet road that sliced a tree-spotted valley, a piece from Wagner’s Ring began. Hockney made several turns, slowing down or speeding up with the music. He had obviously choreographed this drive, and soon we – and the music – were winding through the mountains above Malibu. The music spiraled, and we spiraled, and then it built as we climbed. It soared as we soared, rounding another mountainous turn. Lights in a tunnel passed, synchronized with the staccato blasts of the music. And then, as we approached the crest of the mountain, Hockney slowed the car. We reached the top. Cymbals crashed. We wound around the last corner. More cymbals. The car picked up speed. The music reached a crescendo. We rounded the western slope of the mountain, and the sun appeared – a fiery orb, searing the green ocean. Pink clouds parted to let it slide – pffft – over the edge of the earth. There was silence for a moment, and then the music was softer and sweeter, and it began dancing lightly as we wound our way back toward earth, toward Hockney’s seaside retreat, where we continued the interview.
I sort of enjoy it, actually. See, what’s called the art world is actually a very tiny world, really. And anyway, didn’t the early pioneers of modern art feel it wasn’t just about art? They were changing many things.
Then why the extreme reaction against the fact that you’ve done more than painting on canvas?
They lost that belief. I didn’t. In a sense, what I’ve done is subversive to all that the traditional art world is built upon.
In what way is it subversive?
On one hand, there is a movement towards unbelievable prices in art. On the other is a countermovement – fax art is essentially a Xerox copy, isn’t it? What’s it worth? Nothing. It makes them very nervous. They don’t know what to do with it. But to me, that’s what makes it great: You can send the exhibition anywhere. You can glue them on any wall.
Galleries must love that.
Especially since you can never get them off the walls; they’ll be ruined. The work then becomes about one thing only. It’s just for the pleasure of the eye. It can’t be anything else. They’re worthless financially, because you can make another just as good, really, or almost as good, or a hundred.
But you’re also giving away your artwork.
Many artists can’t afford to do that.
I subsidize it from the paintings. But I used to give away paintings and drawings anyway. When they were cheap, who cared? That’s what most artists do. But as they got more and more expensive, I found I couldn’t give them away. You’d give them to some friend, and he thinks they’re very nice, but eventually he just sees a pile of dollars on the wall and sells them.
Your paintings now sell for literally millions of dollars. How has that affected you?
I’ve always had sufficient money to do what I wanted to do, even when I didn’t have much. Once you’ve got enough to do what you want to do, you’re very rich, and you realize that. If you’re painting away, which is what you want to do, what on earth would you want a lot of money for?
How did it feel when ‘A Grand Procession of Dignitaries’ went for $2 million?
It made me stop painting for a few years. I was very troubled by it. Someone must be very, very rich to buy a painting of mine. But if an artist can’t really sell his work anymore to, say, professional people around his age, you wonder what they’re being done for, or for whom. But with faxes or Xeroxes or laser prints, you can do any-thing you want. You can give them away, you can send them to Brazil or to Moscow, anywhere where there is a telephone, fax machine and a bit of paper.
Do you stay on top of what’s going on in the art world?
I don’t go out and see as much as I used to. I don’t feel the desperate need for it. I have to work things out myself, as it were. When you’re very young, you wish to be in the middle of a lot of activity because it’s stimulating to you. You are adding to it and taking out of it. But there’s a point in life where you don’t need that crowd to do it. You have enough in your head to sort out. But I do go see shows.
And what do you find?
I must admit I’m pretty indifferent to what I see.
Do you follow pop culture – do you listen to rock & roll?
Yet one of your earliest subjects for a painting was Cliff Richard.
I just thought he was sexy. I found a newspaper cutting once that said, ‘Boy clings to cliff all night.’ I put that in a picture. It was a cliff, of course, not Cliff, but I thought it was just funny. I never saw him in person, only on television. I did see Elvis – in Las Vegas in 1973. But I was brought up with opera and going to symphony concerts.
Since your first, ‘Rake’s Progress,’ you have done more and more opera sets. What is it about opera that intrigues you?
Opera doesn’t exist until the performance begins. A group of artists works together to bring it to life. The collaboration fascinates me. You can make people see the music.
Are you still taking lots of photographs?
I’ve lost interest in photography. I believe that the photograph is on its way to losing its veracity.
For 150 years the photograph has had a special position amongst pictures. You believed that at one point in time and space, something similar to what was in the photograph had been in front of a camera. Drawing and painting did not have that veracity. We don’t necessarily believe photographs anymore. They can be used in manipulative ways – such as when Stalin took Trotsky out of a photograph to imply that he wasn’t at Lenin’s side when the revolution was happening. With computer technology, it will happen easier and more and more.
With what effect?
Now we see photography with a cynical eye. There will be less and less belief in photos or television-news footage, because we know it could well be altered. Soon there will be nothing more objective about a photograph than a painting. Nothing will be sacred. In the final scene of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart walks off with Claude Rains. But a computer can now scan the whole movie and reconstruct it, so that you could have Bogart get on the plane.
Wouldn’t you oppose that?
It’s like the people who say we should not colorize old movies. They say it is taking a work of art and ruining it. That’s a lot of poppycock. Those are not the arguments of artists, but the arguments of conservators. Artists have always taken other works of art and done things with them. It’s like complaining that Duchamp put a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
Your newest paintings are very intimate – people’s faces, your living room, the view from your porch, flowers.
Well, I hardly ever go out these days. Partly it’s because I’m slowly losing my hearing.
Does it affect your painting?
Hearing helps locate you in space. When someone loses their eyesight, their hearing generally intensifies in some way. They learn to locate things spatially through sound. Without sound, you start locating things visually in a more intense way.
If you were only seeing, what would that mean to your painting?
Goya was stone deaf, and he painted all those screaming faces. I think deaf people are forced to move into a more intimate world.
The critic Gert Schiff used your picture of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy as an example of your view that two people can spend a lifetime together and still really not know each other. Does that summarize how you feel about relationships?
Yes, actually. I’m deeply fascinated by relationships, especially that one. They shared a bed for thirty-two years. Not many people do that, straight or gay. And they were both artists. The fact they somehow made their life together fascinated me. I don’t get it together that way.
What’s the longest you’ve ever been able to maintain a relationship?
I lived with Peter Schlesinger five years. Certainly, four of them were very good. But I’ve always assumed, frankly, I would be alone most of the time.
First of all, because I’m an artist. Artists are not great people to live with. They tend to put their work first. Beyond that, a straight person starts a family. It’s different if you are gay. You don’t quite know how to organize your life.
But isn’t that mostly because there aren’t many models? I know gay men whose lives are organized quite similarly, although there are no children.
Chris and Don, for a lot of people, were a model. They seemed to me to lead honest lives. They seemed stable and honest with themselves. But homosexual men haven’t figured it out.
Most heterosexuals haven’t figured it out
They probably feel marriage is about love, which is a big mistake. When they get divorced, they find out it’s all about property. I suppose that’s why people get divorced so quick. They think marriage is about love or sexual passion. Well, that won’t last.
If work comes first at the expense of a relationship, do you feel it’s worth the trade-off?
I’m not sure you get the choice, really.
Has your life been more difficult because you are gay?
For me, homosexuality is just part of the texture of life. Life isn’t smooth, thank goodness. Anyone who is aware of that is more tolerant about it. No two human beings are alike, and that seems to me the way it should be. All people are frail, so of course we should be tolerant.
You were showing homosexuality in your paintings from very early on. Many people wrestle with it for years before they are so free in their expression of it.
I just accepted it. If you’re an artist, you have to understand your own feelings and not hide them.
Were you ever shy about painting nudity?
In every art school you paint nudes, although somehow they expected them not to be erotic. The male nude was always a very masculine, aggressive figure and wasn’t seen as erotic at all.
Do you agree that there is a responsibility for any prominent homosexual to be open and honest about it – are you a proponent of outing?
I never actually announce anything unless people ask me about it. I’m a reasonably private person. I don’t really think it’s my job to go out and give big public lectures about it. Somebody else can do that. Nevertheless, one does one’s bit by being who you are. Frankly, if anything comes up against me, I will act up strongly. I wouldn’t let anybody tread on me, officials or anyone.
Did you get up in arms over the National Endowment for the Arts’ handling of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit?
Not particularly. I don’t think it was a question of censorship much. If it had been, I would have got up in arms, but I don’t actually think it was. Nor do I think the pictures are that erotic, either. It’s very, very good photography, but there’s a coldness there, a terrible coldness. The point is that I know perfectly well art will go on, whether governments commit money or not.
Do you consider any of your art political?
First of all, what is political art? Painting is not just about content. To make an art that’s really going to do something, then a painting has to be reproducible, because it has to be seen. If it’s only seen by a few people, it’s not a very good form of propaganda. And a lot of what’s passed off as political art frankly doesn’t even work as art. Still, I do feel I’m giving a message in my art: You shouldn’t expect life to be great, but there are joys in it, sometimes very small and very close to you. That’s a political message.
How important is art in society?
We need art. There’s no society that never had it. Most of it might be pretty low, most of it might be pretty bad, but we need it. High art and low art is a critic’s concept, not artists’ concepts. Artists know that there is no real division between high art and low art. We need Johann Strauss, and we need Beethoven. Strauss might be about the froth of life, but the froth is there.
Is your work closer to Strauss or Beethoven?
That’s not my job to answer. In some book, some critic said, “In the Thirties, if a movie critic had said Laurel and Hardy were great artists, most of the critics would have thought they were being facetious.” I think that’s unbelievably arrogant. In the Thirties millions of people did think they were great artists. Millions of people flocked to the movies and responded to them. Now we know they’re lasting, which means they touch the universal much better than we thought.
But popular appeal can’t be the arbiter: Millions of people love ‘Rambo.’
Well, part of it is how long it lasts. Masses of art are made and immediately disappear. The Rambo films came, and an awful lot of people saw them, but how many people in the future will see them? If a few generations think the art is good, they’re probably right.
How would you respond to the critic who said you’re the most important artist of the last half century?
I would simply laugh at that.
On the other hand, some discount your work as illustration.
Illustration is used as a pejorative word. But Rembrandt’s work is illustration, and a lot of marvelous art was illustration. I don’t see it as a pejorative word at all.
Do you find it ironic that although you’re British, your most well-known works are paintings of swimming pools? Why are you so fascinated by them?
If you’ve been to England, you know what a lovely blue, hedonistic pool means.
Besides the images themselves – swimming pools, palm trees – how did California affect your paintings?
There was more color here. I think van Gogh said, “There’s more joy in the sun.” He, too, was rather a puritanical northerner. Seeing the sun every day is a revelation if you were brought up in Gothic gloom like I was.
Your work has been criticized for exactly that: that it is bright and happy.
I think that’s in one’s personality.
Do you agree that internal angst or external repression is often what causes great art?
It depends. If you think everything was that bleak, why would you even make art? If you make art, you must feel it can be communicated in some way.
But isn’t the truest art sometimes a primal expression of anguish – as in Munch or even van Gogh?
Well, van Gogh painted a lot of very, very happy pictures. But I believe that if you put van Gogh in the dullest room at a Holiday Inn for a week, he’d still come out with interesting paintings. He’d paint a frayed carpet He’d find something.
Do your paintings reflect your life?
My life is, I admit, a lot sadder than what my paintings might suggest. I can’t see the sadness lifting, actually.
Sadness because of what?
Friends dying. of AIDS. When you have a lot of friends, your contemporaries, that die at relatively young ages, it’s highly unusual. At first you think, “This is odd; he was younger than me.” But when it gets to be about eighteen people, it is not simply odd. These are people whom I expected to grow old with.
Why doesn’t that sadness filter into your paintings?
I don’t see the world that way. In spite of it all, I do also see the world as beautiful. If we don’t, I think, we’re doomed.
Don’t you, though, paint from your feelings – whether joy or sadness? Wouldn’t you therefore paint a black canvas, at least metaphorically black?
Do you mean it’s not that bad yet?
I hope it never gets that bad. It’s the difference between American and Russian literature. Russians are pessimistic people, and Americans on the whole are optimistic people. It’s our nature. I live in California. Look at the faces of the people in Romania or East Berlin. Faces in California are a lot more innocent. But it has gotten very bad for me, and it’s getting worse. I have other friends who are sick now. I made the flower paintings for friends. I made laser prints of the paintings and sent them to friends who were ill, to pin up on the wall. The flowers I’ve been painting are not cut flowers, they’re little plants growing. They’re alive. And that’s what it is about everything I paint: It’s all about affirming life, isn’t it?