In a rare visit to David Hockney’s studio in the Hollywood Hills, meet the celebrated British artist

David Hockney
David Hockney

 

David Hockney’s home studio is set deep in the Hollywood Hills. We drive there from Sunset Boulevard, past sweeping views of the canyon below, 1920s Art Deco homes and modernist glass boxes perched at intervals on the hillside.
The “English Angelino,” as he sometimes refers to himself, lives in a corner house off the main road, just where the hill flattens out. A verdant, anonymous compound behind high gray fences, it’s quiet, with no through traffic. With only a four-figure number on the door and a buzzer, there is no hint that this has, since 1979, been home to one of the world’s most recognizable and popular artists.
We are buzzed in and directed up a short path to Hockney’s studio, a building set aside from his home. From here, it is hard to make out his actual house, which is apparently a series of one- and two-story buildings — bungalows almost — enveloped in plants and shrubs. There are steps down, and somewhere tantalizingly out of sight is Hockney’s famous swimming pool, a recurring subject in his paintings.
The studio — a long, white, airy space with a staircase leading up to a gallery — is a converted paddle tennis court. Upon entering, we see half a dozen or so works in progress. Hockney is preparing for a show at Pace Gallery in New York in April.
We hear him before we see him — his hacking smoker’s cough, to be precise. At 80 (and a half), Hockney is sitting in a favorite comfy armchair, reading the Financial Times. He peers up inquisitively through owlish glasses, before struggling up to greet us. He’s wearing a blue and green striped cardigan (familiar to me from recent photos) and paint-spattered trousers, his once vibrantly dyed blonde hair now gray and thinning. He clutches a cigarette packet in one hand.
I’m little nervous at the beginning and don’t want the interview to start before the cameras are ready to roll. We’ve arrived with three cameras to capture Hockney’s every gesture, every laugh and every cigarette drag (he smokes three or four cigarettes during the interview).
“I think I’ve not done so bad in my life for the last 64 years … Every day I’ve done what I want to do.”
Making polite conversation, his assistant J.P. asks where I’m staying. I name a new boutique hotel on Sunset that he hasn’t heard of. I complain about the lighting design in my room, which was so moodily dim that I couldn’t find the bedside light switches. Evidently no one reads in bed these days — the dominant fixture is a giant TV.
Hockney quickly interjects: “Yes, they are just big voids,” he says, referring to the TV screens. “I don’t like voids.”

Painting the pool

Hockney says that his swimming pool was also looking “a bit like a void,” so in the summer, the day before his 80th birthday, he had it drained so he could repaint the bottom himself with arcs of blue.
“Once it was painted, it made you see all the plants,” he says. The job took him two and half hours, “and that’s how long it took me 20 years ago.”

Hockney’s ex-lover, Gregory Evans, who lives next door and runs the business side of things for him, apparently questioned whether he was up to the job. “Of course, I thought I could do it,” he says a little defiantly.

He admits that he is stubborn, and you can sense a fierce willpower. He is not happy with the shade of blue — it’s “a bit too pale” — and he may do it again. An hour or so later, after the interview is over, I politely ask if we can film his swimming pool. No, says Hockney — “Gregory wouldn’t like it.”
"Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)" (1972) by David Hockney Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales/Jenni Carter
“Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” (1972) by David Hockney Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales/Jenni Carter

A bigger retrospective

The pretext for our visit is Hockney’s 80th birthday retrospective, which has already drawn well over a million visitors to London’s Tate Britain, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“I realize it is the last time (a retrospective) will be done in my lifetime,” says Hockney. And that’s the truth of it.
I ask him how this retrospective compares with the one in 1988 (around the time of his 50th birthday). “Well,” comes the blunt reply, “it’s 30 years later, 30 years more painting. A big difference, 30 years.”
We both laugh and I blush a little with embarrassment. It’s arguably a stupid question, but there is also a feeling that Hockney wants his later work to receive the same attention that his paintings from the 1960s and 70s did.
"Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy" (1970-1971) by David Hockney Credit: Tate
“Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” (1970-1971) by David Hockney Credit: Tate

“I mean I say I feel 30 when I’m in the studio. Well you want to be 30 don’t you if you’re 80? So I come in the studio every day and work because then I feel 30.”

Key quotes

“I’ve always loved looking. I’ve always loved looking. When I could go on the Bradford buses on my own, I used to run right upstairs, run to the front of the buses. You could see more.”

On his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou:
“I thought it was a marvellous show actually yes I did. We went back to see it in September because I realized … well it’s the last time this will be done in my lifetime, I’m sure.”

“I think in painting you can do things you can’t do in photography, what Edvard Munch said about photography, it can’t compete with painting because it can’t deal with heaven or hell, which I think is rather profound.”

“Swimming pools I always loved. I mean all the wiggly lines they make. If you photograph them, it freezes them whereas if you use paint you can have wiggly lines that wiggle.”

“I hadn’t really looked back. I tend to think…well I live in the now. You paint in the now.  And it’s always now anyway.”

“I think I’ve not done so bad in my life for the last 64 years. Every day I’ve done what I want to do… I know I’m privileged, I’ve always known that I was privileged.”

On painting every day:

“I mean I say I feel 30 when I’m in the studio. Well you want to be 30 don’t you if you’re 80? So I come in the studio every day and work because then I feel 30.”

 

Credit: CNN STYLE

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