David Hockney: The colourful life of D. H.

David Hockney’s palette creates colours and perceptions.

Anyone responsible for advertising in a tobacco company would sign him on as an advertising ambassador straight away. ‘Want one?’ asks David Hockney, holding out a Davidoff Magnum Classic towards the visitor. The 82-year-old says he is a happy smoker. ‘Tobacco is good for my mental health. If I didn’t have my cigarettes and Cohiba cigars, I’d probably have been on psychotropic drugs by now.’ Hockney, son of a militant opponent of nicotine who in the fifties took part in street demonstrations demanding a ban on nicotine, has smoked for 65 years. ‘If there’s one social group I feel I do belong to, then it’s the bohemians, and the bohemian world doesn’t exist without tobacco smoking and drugs. We should keep the bohemian world alive because without it, society will run out of ideas.’

Since 1979, the Briton has lived in a house in Montcalm Avenue in the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles. The floor of his studio is littered with thousands of burn marks, the artist’s trousers and cardigans feature half a dozen burn holes. ‘When I step back from the easel and take a look at my picture, a cigarette helps my concentration. Smoking gives me time to think about the perspective from which I’m painting.’ As role models for his beliefs, he names three smoker colleagues who achieved lasting fame: ‘Picasso was 91 when he died, Monet 86 and Renoir 78.’

Eight years ago, Hockney had a mild stroke, which robbed him of his speech for a few weeks; otherwise, he says, aside from a few age-related malaises, he is perfectly healthy. ‘Unfortunately, there are very few sins left in my life. I haven’t drunk alcohol for over 20 years. If you see me drinking beer, it’ll be child’s beer in my glass.’ After two bottles of alcohol-free beer, he turns the light out at half ten in the evening and starts his day between four and five in the morning.

When your painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) was auctioned off in New York in November 2018, you became the most expensive living artist. Did you follow the nine-minute auction?
No, spectacles like that don’t interest me.

You destroyed the first version of your 1972 painting after six months of failed attempts. Why?
The perspective of the swimming pool and the relationship between the two figures wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure about the choice of background either. I tried it with a wall, with a glass partition and with mountains. Painting the new version of Portrait of an Artist was a race against the clock, because 14 days later the painting was due to be displayed at André Emmerich’s gallery in New York. I worked 18 hours a day and with greater intensity than ever before.

Portrait of an Artist is the representation of a traumatic separation. Peter Schlesinger, your first great love who you had recently broken up with, stands at the edge of the swimming pool. Schlesinger’s new boyfriend is swimming under water. Does the end of a love affair hurt less if you paint it?
Yes, if a separation becomes a problem of artistic representation, you gain distance. Unhappiness and sadness become the materials you work with, and you look at yourself as though from the outside. Take van Gogh. He loved painting and spent the majority of his life doing it. He therefore lived a life of love. His biographies, on the other hand, claim his life consisted of loneliness, pain and depression. This misunderstanding permeates through almost all the biographies that have been written about the artist. Why do I paint every day? Because I’m not that good at doing anything else.

How close or how far away is Portrait of an Artist from you now?
My separation from Peter Schlesinger was 48 years ago, but the picture shows something that could have happened yesterday. The picture captivates me to this day because of its timeless nature.

When your painting was sold, it was said to have been a trick. Your biographer Christopher Simon Sykes writes: ‘An unknown American came into André Emmerich’s gallery and made out as if he was friends with David Hockney. Emmerich sold him the painting for 18,000 dollars. After a few months, the painting was in the hands of a London dealer, who displayed it at an art fair in Germany. In the end, the painting was sold by a London collector for almost three times the price it had sold for in New York.’ Do you know this London collector?

The London collector sold Portrait of an Artist for an unknown price to David Geffen, a music and film producer living in Los Angeles, whose wealth is estimated at seven billion dollars. Has Geffen ever offered for you to see the painting?
We both lived in Malibu in the nineties. Every so often, I used to visit him to watch a new film. One day, my painting was hanging up on the wall in his house. A few months later, my visits to Geffen came to an end because he was annoyed that my dog had peed on his carpet.

In 1995, Geffen sold the picture for an unknown price to Joe Lewis, a British financier who lives in the Bahamas and whose wealth is estimated at 5.2 billion euros. He owns 85% of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, three superyachts and an art collection worth an estimated one billion euros with works by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Your picture reportedly hangs in one of the lounges of his 98-metre motor yacht Aviva.
I haven’t met this man. He’s also never offered me the opportunity to pay the picture a visit. So I can’t really say if that is correct.

When Lewis instructed Christie’s to auction off the painting two years ago, the first bid was 18 million dollars; 30 seconds later, the bid was 50 million. In the end, an anonymous telephone bidder paid 90,312,500 dollars for it. Do you know who purchased the picture at the auction?
No, I rang Christie’s and asked about the buyer’s identity, but they told me they were bound to absolute secrecy.

Portrait of an Artist is one of the most intimate images you have painted. Does it offend you when plutocrats buy your painting as a status symbol?
I don’t think about it. I am a painter. I paint the here and now. I don’t look back. Nostalgia is a dull mentality. There has only been one time in my life when I have confronted my past. Four years ago, I put together the monograph A Bigger Book with the book designer Hans Werner Hozwarth. The book weighs 35 kilogrammes and is one-and-a-half metres wide. For six months, Holzwarth and I went through my work spanning 60 years. It was like psychoanalysis that made me realise how I had developed as an artist. Our aspiration for the book was for every turn of the page to show a new aspect of painting, and I think we were successful in doing that. The journey through my past churned me up so much I was unable to paint for six months afterwards. That had never happened before. No matter how down in the dumps I was, I could always paint.

Does it really not matter to you at all who has your pictures on their wall?
Yes. It doesn’t matter who the legal owner of Portrait of an Artist is; it is and remains my image. I painted it and I have the copyright. That’s what counts. The owner merely owns a piece of painted canvas, which will probably change hands again sooner or later. The only possible way to own a picture is to paint it.

Before the auction, a Christie’s representative proclaimed: ‘We are rarely able to say: “This is your opportunity to buy the best painting by an artist.” But in this case, we actually can.’ Do you share this expert opinion?
No, that’s thinly veiled PR to push up the auction price. As Oscar Wilde said: ‘It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art.’ For these people, it’s all about getting more money. If the woman at Christie’s was right, it would mean that I had already painted my best work 48 years ago. What a slap in the face! I am a long way from thinking that Portrait of an Artist was my best work.

Did you feel a sense of triumph when you heard about your world record?
No; ‘most expensive living artist’ is not the title I was after. I felt a little triumphant when A Bigger Book was published. For me, this book was the more meaningful achievement.

You maintained your world record for Portrait of an Artist for six months. In May last year, Rabbit, the hare sculpture by Jeff Koons, was auctioned off for 91.1 million dollars. Do you follow the latest record sales on the art market?
Because the sums are so crazy, I try to ignore the art market as much as possible. The good thing about the astronomical prices is that they guarantee the picture will be protected and carefully looked after. If you pay millions, you’ll want to keep your investment in the best possible state, in order to be able to sell it again at some point for maximum profit. For the artist, that is a reassuring feeling. From the outset, I have painted my pictures so they have a long life. The colours on my early pictures still look good now because I knew how to use colour even then. If you mix in too much white, for example, the colour will change over time.

Who do you think of when you are painting?
I don’t think of anyone. I just paint my pictures for myself; however, my hope is that whatever I find interesting others find interesting too. I would still paint if no-one was interested in my pictures. Without painting I wouldn’t know where to start and would feel completely superfluous. After a few months in the mire of idle rumination, I would go mad. You could see that as a curse, but I don’t.

Does it influence your painting to know that every square centimetre of canvas you cover with paint is worth a small fortune?
No. Greed is not alien to me, but mine is not aimed at money, rather at exciting moments. I’m lucky that it can make me happy, like raindrops running down a window pane. The meaning and purpose of my paintings are pleasure and joy. That’s all they are for.

Anger, desperation, suffering, depression, illness, death: The dark side of human experience is rarely seen in your work. How do you explain that?
I take it as a compliment if my pictures are criticised for being overly playful. Even a scientist in the laboratory needs a sense of playfulness to make a discovery. Without play, there is no art.

If you are asked how wealthy you are, you shake your head and tell them that money doesn’t interest you because you were already ‘restaurant-rich’ by your mid-20s. What do you mean by this term?
I ate out in restaurants every day and was not compelled to order the cheapest dish on the menu. If I felt like having lobster and caviar, I ordered lobster and caviar. That’s why I’ve felt rich for 60 years. Since my early 20s, I’ve spent every day of my life doing exactly as I’ve wanted. How many people do you know who could say that of themselves?

Your German colleague Gerhard Richter – whose wealth is estimated at 550 million euros – said recently, with a mixture of sadness and anger: ‘It isn’t fair for a picture to cost more than a house.’ Do you agree with him?
The most expensive work in my first exhibition cost £300. Any teacher or lawyer could have managed to afford that, and would now be rich. So I don’t think it makes sense to think the price of a work of art is either fair or unfair.

Two years ago, the publisher and art collector Benedikt Taschen was asked by the magazine Robb Report which artist has kept him most on tenterhooks. He replied: ‘David Hockney is my friend and neighbour. I visit him twice a week. A few years ago, he began a painting, and I quickly knew I just had to have it. When he finished it twelve months later, I asked him to sell it to me. He shook his head and said: “I love my paintings, and fortunately am now wealthy enough not to have to sell them anymore.” That was the start of a game between us, half in jest, half serious. After two years, he ultimately did sell me the painting.’ Which painting was that?
Garden with Blue Terrace.

The painting shows the view of the blue terrace of your house in the garden. How much did Taschen have to stump up for it?
Two million dollars, possibly. I don’t remember exactly. Either way, it was mates’ rates.

Your close friend Henry Geldzahler, who died in 1994, tore your pictures up if he thought they didn’t work. Who is allowed to critique you, the living monument, nowadays?
I miss Henry, both as a person and his infallible eye. In theory, my assistants could say: ‘David, your new picture doesn’t really work.’ But is that the job I am paying them to do? I think I am my best critic. Over and over again, I read that I am a very prolific painter, but it isn’t true. Last year, apart from drawings, I painted no more than a dozen pictures.

Do you wish it was more?
No. I’m 82 and could drop down dead any minute, but if that was to happen, I would have left more of a mark on art than most painters do.

Artists whose power of imagination is fading also start making work public which they would have rejected in better times. Have you become more self-critical or more complacent as you age?
More self-critical. That’s why for more than 20, 30 years now, I’ve kept more than half of the pictures I’ve painted out of the public eye. As I said, I am my own harshest critic, and sometimes this critic is not sure just how good a picture I’ve done is.

Fear of failure, floundering, blocks: Have you experienced any of that?
No; if you knuckle down to work every morning, as I do, any problem you have with painting sooner or later disappears into thin air.

Your foundation has more than 8,000 Hockney works in its possession. What will happen to them after your death?
I haven’t decided yet.

Because you don’t have any children, it might make sense to donate your collection to a museum.
The advantage of museums is that they are not allowed to sell the pictures on for a profit. The disadvantage is that most works will disappear into dark warehouses, never to be seen again. For an artist, however, being forgotten is even more mortifying than dying.

Painters who have become rich, such as Julian Schnabel, buy their own works back. Have you done this?
Forking out 90 million dollars for a Hockney is beyond my means. If I were drowning in money, I would love to buy back Play Within a Play from 1963.

In an interview with Axel Springer’s CEO Mathias Döpfner, the art dealer Larry Gagosian was asked whether there will always be ‘gigantism’ in his industry. Gagosian replied: ‘With basketball players, they say anything over 2.10 metres is no good.’ Could you interpret this cryptic statement?
I’ve known Larry for 45 years. In 1975, he was still selling posters with kitschy motifs on them in a backyard in Westwood. Today, he is the most powerful art dealer in the world. It has to be said, he produces excellent exhibitions and catalogues, but don’t ask me if the art market has reached 2.09 metres or 2.11 metres and the bubble is about to burst. A Rembrandt was also too expensive while Rembrandt was still alive, but unfortunately, the price of an artwork is still more important today than its value. In museums, the longest queue forms in front of the most expensive picture. Many visitors don’t come for the art, but rather to gawp at a giant pile of money.

By the end of the sixties, even those people not interested in painting knew who David Hockney was. How have you managed to attain more than 50 years of stardom?
Even the humblest of artists harbour the desire for their work to be seen by as many people as possible, because art is about sharing. I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t want to share my perceptions and thoughts with others. I am not someone, however, who secretly enjoys it when my private concerns are hauled out into the public eye. My pictures belong in the public eye; I don’t.

In 1990 you rejected a knighthood in your home country because you didn’t want to be, in your words, ‘Sir Somebody’. What would you say if Buckingham Palace asked you to paint a portrait of Elizabeth II tomorrow?
She is an amazing lady – and a test for any portrait painter. I don’t know how you are supposed to paint a royal person like her. She has majesty, but how do you paint majesty in 2020? If I were to paint the Queen, the picture would be printed in every newspaper. Lucian Freud experienced this brouhaha when he presented his picture HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001. I’ll spare myself that.

World fame, record numbers of visitors at exhibitions, undisputed reputation among art critics, wealth: You have achieved pretty much everything artists dream of. Would a portrait of your Queen not be the final big challenge for you?
Probably yes, but the picture would take up months of my time and I already have something else to work on. Two years ago, I bought a house near Pont-l’Évêque in Normandy. I am going to spend the next few months there painting the arrival of spring. I don’t get any visitors in Normandy, so I’m three times as productive there. For an old man who doesn’t know how much time he has left to live, every day spent working uninterrupted is precious. I’m fed up with Los Angeles because here smokers are demonised as perverse criminals. I’d like to eat in a restaurant and be able to smoke, but if I did that in this country I would be taken away in handcuffs. The Americans have lost their sense of humour; hysteria and repression prevail.

There are packets of cigarette papers in your studio. Do you roll cigarettes as well?
No, I use the cigarette papers to roll my evening joint. Cannabis makes me laugh and if you laugh, you aren’t afraid. That’s why cannabis is healthy.

When spring comes to an end, will you go back to Los Angeles or England?
I don’t know yet. Travelling has become a bit of an ordeal for me. At the airport, they have to push me around in a wheelchair because it’s often several miles from baggage check-in to the boarding gate. How could mankind allow investors to pervert airports into being shopping centres?

One of your most vivid self portraits shows you as a deaf person, grimacing as you hold a hand behind your ear. When did your hearing problems start?
When I got my first hearing aid in 1979, I had already lost a fifth of my hearing. Extreme hearing loss isolates you because you stop going to parties or exhibition openings. You feel cut off from people and you withdraw into yourself. After a few years, you feel trapped inside yourself. I always loved going to the opera or classical concerts. Now, it would depress me because I can’t hear the high or low notes anymore. I can’t listen to music anymore without headphones. I also can’t place noises. If a phone rings, I have no idea where the ringing is coming from.

Most of your romantic partners and peers have long since passed away. How lonely are you?
Early on, I expected to be lonely and without love at some point. That makes it easier to bear now. When I feel melancholy, I go into the studio and try to imagine it is my duty to cheer the world up with a new picture. I daren’t decide whether painting can change the world, but I know from my own experience that art can relieve depression. People who are blind to art need shaking up.

Can you put up with being on your own?
I pretty much get along okay because I find it interesting what goes on inside my head. In that sense, I am enough for me. However, that doesn’t mean that I am without yearning or desires.

Do you remember the moment you first thought: I want to be an artist?
I knew at the age of eleven who I was and who I wanted to be. Where I got this self-assurance from I don’t know, but it has meant that I have never cared too much about the opinions of professors, critics and curators. My father was an accountant all his life and was anything but a revolutionary; however, he impressed on me, even as a child, not to pay attention to what the neighbours say about me. In the sixties, everyone was painting abstract images; I was the only one not to because something in me told me that abstract painting would soon come to an end. The fact that I went my own way in my painting rather than conforming was down to my father’s obstinacy.

In the sixties, figurative painting and drawing was frowned upon. You brought it back to its former state of mastery.
I experienced first-hand how art colleges stopped teaching drawing. An unforgivable mistake, because drawing is a basic human instinct, like singing or dancing. Every child does it. I drew cartoons in the margins of my school books; I drew the faces of the passengers in the bus on my ticket. If I ran out of paper at home I drew with chalk on the lino floor of our kitchen. My mother would comment: ‘David, just remember: Don’t paint on the wallpaper!’ To teach someone to draw means teaching them to see and nurture sensuality. Drawing intensifies our view and makes us perceive things that had previously been hidden. This adventurous way of looking at things is much more fun than just blearily scanning your own field of vision. A Turner prize winner once mocked drawing as obsolete, like riding a horse to get to work. I had this sentence printed in large letters on a poster and hung up in my studio. Many years later, we crossed paths. He sheepishly said his horse comparison had been juvenile folly.

From 2005 to 2013, you lived in a house overlooking the sea in Bridlington on the north-east coast of England. There, you painted still lifes on your iPhone and iPad, which are now being published in a book entitled My Window. How did you get into using your phone to produce art?
In 2009 I bought an iPhone. In the beginning, I mostly used it to look at digitally animated goldfish. But then my sister Margaret showed me the Brushes app. That was the discovery of a new artistic medium.

What did you paint on your glass screen?
When I woke up the next day, I painted flowers with my thumb and mailed them to 20 friends. It’s a lovely thing to get fresh flowers in the morning that will never wilt. After a few weeks, I also painted detailed landscapes and sunrises over the sea. I found out how to vary the width of the line and achieve soft colour gradients. In the first few weeks, I missed the resistance of paper, but on the other hand, the iPhone made me bold because I could easily correct any mistakes. Watercolours, on the other hand, will not forgive you even the slightest mistake. With the illuminated screen, I was able to paint early in the morning without artificial light. I didn’t even have to leave my bed to get the paintbrush and paint. If I wanted to paint a tiny detail, I enlarged that part of the screen using the zoom function. My screen images also didn’t need time to dry.

In 2010 you bought an iPad.
Not just one, it was half a dozen. The screen was eight times bigger and the digital pen gave me greater precision and more differentiation than my thumb. After that, my iPad took the place of what had previously been my omnipresent sketch book. Artists such as van Gogh, William Turner or Picasso would have been excited by an iPad. The colour palette enables endless variations, and when painting outdoors, you can respond to every change of light using a new shade of colour within seconds. What I found so amazing was that, if you click on the repeat button, you can watch a video of the painting process from the first base coat to the last splashes of colour, line by line, layer by layer. It was the first time that I could observe myself painting. My head is a fraction of a second ahead of my paintbrush, so up until that point I didn’t know how I paint. Since studying these videos, I paint more economically.

The 120 still lifes in My Window show the view from your bedroom window, from sunflowers to orchids and pink roses to snow-covered branches...
Do you miss the crappiness of the world in my pictures? I now feel responsible for the passing of the seasons, rather than for Brexit. Or take the shimmer at first light which opens up the world: People with lazy eyes just shrug it off. I, on the other hand, see in this shimmer an amazing spectacle with constantly changing subtleties.

In 2010, you were the first renowned artist to put on a big exhibition with just images created with iPhones and iPads. Did you wonder why a younger artist hadn’t come up with the idea first?
No, because certain technical inventions immediately fire up my imagination. It started in the eighties, when I used computers, Polaroids, video cameras, Adobe Photoshop, laser copiers and fax machines for my work. In 1989, I had an exhibition in Brazil, which was just made up of pictures I had faxed. To see the world through the same lens all my life would disenchant the world and would feel like a slow death to me. Seeing technical inventions in a new way means getting to know a new way of feeling. For me, it’s a re-enchantment of the world because suddenly certainties no longer apply. It is the refusal to copy themselves that makes an artist progress. I want to show something in my pictures as if it is being looked at, wide-eyed, for the first time. How are you supposed to surprise others if you can no longer be surprised yourself?

How old do you feel?
In the studio, I’m 30. When I leave it, I feel 82, grouchy and plagued with aches and pains. This disparity also pushes me into the studio every morning. If I lost the ability to paint, I would probably kill myself, like my friend R.B. Kitaj did. He had Parkinson’s. It’s an artist’s worst nightmare for your hands to start to shake. That would be the end of you.

How will you know when it is time to stop painting?
In my view, most old people die of boredom. Goosebumps and tears of joy are just meaningless words for them. Their curiosity has disappeared, and the empty routines of their daily lives leads to tedium and desolation. I, on the other hand, still want to be surprised and discover things because I find the world beautiful, exciting and mysterious. I have painted since my childhood, but even now, I don’t know what my paintbrush will do in the next second. The day I no longer feel any curiosity in front of a canvas will be the day I retire. Until then, I will look forward to the arrival of spring. As Frank sang: 'I did it my way.'

No items found.
Button Text
HOCHEDEL Print Magazin abonnieren
Weitere Beiträge

Das könnte Ihnen auch gefallen.

No items found.
alle Beiträge anzeigen