Arts feature

David Hockney interview: ‘The avant-garde have lost their authority’

A new film on Hockney opens next week. At Pace Gallery New York his latest paintings are on show. Martin Gayford talks to the celebrated Yorkshire artist about 60 years of ignoring art fashion

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

‘I just stay here and do my thing,’ David Hockney told me soon after I arrived at his house and studio in Los Angeles this August. ‘I’m not that interested in what happens outside. I live the same way as I have for years. I’m just a worker.’ Hockney has been labouring prodigiously for more than 60 years now, since he entered Bradford School of Art at the age of 16.

‘There is something inside David,’ his assistant Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima noted, ‘that drives him to make pictures.’ In the summer of 2013, after a series of disasters — including a minor stroke and the terrible death of a young assistant — Hockney moved back to California after a long period of working in Bridlington. It was a dark period. Nonetheless for the past 12 months Hockney has been on an intense creative roll, which has included painting a cycle of more than 50 portraits, plus another series of groups of people in conversation, dancing and playing cards, and, in the past few months, the invention of a novel variety of digital photographic collage. Examples of the last two series are currently on show at the Pace Gallery, New York, in an exhibition entitled Some New Painting (and Photography).

This month a film is released that chronicles this immensely productive life to date. Directed by Randall Wright and simply entitled Hockney, it is itself a kind of collage, cut together from an archive of 19 films made by Hockney himself since the 1960s about his own activities along with new footage of the artist and friends, old and new. The result is somewhere between biography and autobiography, in cinematic terms. Hockney pops up, non-sequentially, at various ages sporting a wide variety of outfits, hairstyles and colours; while others who have known him at various stages since his childhood contribute their own memories.

In the film Hockney makes a point that he also made to me in conversation. ‘I spent most of my life living in bohemia, and I expected to spend my whole life there. But bohemia has almost disappeared.’ This strange death of bohemian England — and everywhere else, for that matter — was a topic of discussion while I was staying with Hockney this summer to work on a book project. We did not really come up with a full explanation, although we speculated that a more earnest zeitgeist and the disappearance of cheap rented property both played a part.

In any case, Hockney was always an unusual bohemian. He moved from London to Paris, partly because friends persisted in dropping in at his studio, chatting and staying for hours. Then the same thing happened in Paris, which was one reason why he ended up in LA and subsequently, for a decade up to last year, in East Yorkshire. He wanted peace and solitude to work.

Though he is a famously eloquent man and has been a public personality for much of his life, Hockney spends a great deal of time thinking and reading. ‘I sit in the studio a lot,’ he says, ‘just taking in the pictures.’

However, the fact that he was a citizen of this informal community bohemia — a state of mind, if not a political entity — explains some aspects of his life. When people ask him whether it took courage to be gay in the 1960s, he demurs. ‘I was living in bohemia, and bohemia was a tolerant place.’

However, courage clearly is a crucial element in Hockney’s approach to life. In the film, he describes how his father — a pacifist and vegetarian in wartime Bradford — advised him not to pay too much attention to what the neighbours thought. It was a lesson he learnt well. Hockney has always had the nerve required to be himself. As a teenager, he wheeled his paints and materials around the streets of Bradford wearing a dandyish costume of his own devising: proudly, even defiantly, an individual and an artist.

Subsequently, like his older contemporaries among British figurative artists, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, he had the audacity to ignore the dictates of art fashion. ‘Nobody’s taking any notice of the avant-garde any more,’ Hockney notes. ‘They’re finding they’ve lost their authority.’

He’s probably correct about that. For the past decade or two, it has been hard to say what the cutting edge might be. In a world without rules it is impossible for anyone to break any. ‘They thought they would get authority by damaging the other, earlier establishment,’ Hockney suggests. ‘But by doing that you damage all authority.’

Hockney himself has never been a member of the avant-garde, or any other team; more an expeditionary force of one, determinedly pursuing his own explorations. The centre of his interest has always been what he calls ‘the depiction of the visible world’. And his crucial skill has been drawing, which he was thoroughly taught at Bradford and practised late into every evening, thus developing an extraordinary virtuosity.

He laments the neglect of drawing in recent art education. ‘People had been drawing for 40,000 years, and they gave it up in 1975. It’s almost funny. But they couldn’t give it up really. You can’t: it’s always back to the drawing board!’ By that, he means that any new way of seeing the world will have to be produced by the human eye, heart and hand, working together. And this applies as much to new types of photographic imagery as it does to paintings.

At the end of Wright’s film, Hockney wanders out of his studio in the hills above Los Angeles to the garden and swimming pool (a miniature world, in which even the bricks in the wall are painted in his own colours). He is, the commentary suggests, still searching.

David Hockney, ‘The Group XIII, 4-9 August, 2014’. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

Since that sequence was filmed, he has not only sought but found new artistic directions. His new group paintings are a novel way of resolving a dissatisfaction he has long felt with traditional single-point perspective. This, Hockney argues, is untrue to the way human beings see. ‘When my eye moves, the perspective alters according to the way I’m looking, so it’s constantly changing; in real life when you are looking at five people there are a thousand perspectives.’

The recent group of paintings deals with this problem by including multiple viewpoints, so a figure will be viewed from various angles — just as in life if standing in a room with someone, you’d look down to see their feet and then across at their face.

One day, when we were sitting in the studio just before lunch, Hockney was musing that he might be able to produce the same effect by taking multiple shots of people and the room they were standing in, then editing them together on his iPad. ‘In fact,’ he suddenly said, ‘I think I’ll do it now!’

So he did, producing the first of a stream of works that appeared at the rate of one every day or so over the following weeks. They are in a way an updated, digital version of the celebrated photo-collages he made in the 1980s. In those, he made a mosaic of hundreds of shots taken from differing positions creating a sort of photographic cubism.

What’s the subject of these brand-new pictures? ‘The space between where you end and I begin, which is the most interesting space of all. It’s far more interesting than outer space. It’s all about me, looking. That’s what any picture is, an account of looking at something.’

It’s what David Hockney has been doing all these years, and the fascination both of looking and of making pictures of what he sees has only intensified with time. ‘I’ve always been interested in how we see, and what we see. I’m 77 now but I don’t bother about that.’ If anything he seems to be speeding up.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

‘Some New Painting (and Photography)’ is at Pace Gallery, New York, until 10 January 2015. ‘Hockney’, directed by Randall Wright, goes on general release on 28 November.

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  • commenteer

    Oddly enough, my art student son and his girlfriend found that the Slade (and everywhere else, as far as he could ascertain) allowed no breaches of the contemporary approach to art. Anyone who attempted any such breach, and tried to produce something original, was reprimanded as having no authority to stand against the prevailing orthodoxy. What was acceptable were artworks which ‘referenced’ (i.e., copied) the ideas of such luminaries of the art world as Martin Creed, Sarah Lucas, et al. Any artwork had to be presented with the ‘journey’ that had gone into its gestation. The tuition consisted largely of ‘crits’, in which students were encouraged to criticise each others’ work, assisted by tutors; and nasty, back-stabbing, group-think exercises these could be.

    Most of the students buckled under because degrees are expensive these days, and necessary for future employment.

    • PublicOpinion

      God, this sounds just like creative writing! Is it the story across the board? Which came first, art’s loss of value or the devaluing of art by schools and programs?

  • Fenman

    Best comment he ever made was on the over-priced post modern London artists, to the effect that to be an artist you had to be able to draw!

  • tomgreaves

    Yes, lovely to read. Hockney is an artist, a real artist, which requires reaching into the depths of the soul to capture something transcendental, something so deeply embedded in the conditions of human life that only a spiritual vision can reveal. Contrast him with the charlatans of so much abstract art today, who are in bed with bankers, market makers and who pander to the selfishness of consumerism. Yes, the avant-garde has disappeared along with Bohemia in the narcissistic age of self aggrandisement and gross materialism. It’s downhill all the way from here.

  • Gerbarnes

    Thanks to an outstanding British artist David Hockney for speaking plainly about art matters.

  • balance_and_reason

    Without being too controversial about it , I truly suspect Hockney is an elaborate player of the art zeitgeist and very much doubt he will be remembered in 100 years time…gone..forgotten….nothing of particular interest here.

  • Terry Field

    Hw can an ‘avante garde’ have an ‘authority’
    The arriere garde are the ones with ‘authoriity’!!!!

    Stick to painting, Hockers!

  • Charles

    He is right about the avant garde but unfortunately his own art is not much better. A diverse lot of superficial, brightly colored paintings without any profundity, intellectual or emotional depth. An ice skater on the surface of reality. A Raoul Dufy for our time.

    • Devastatingly accurate; the reproduction they use to illustrate this article looks like nothing more than a slightly overwrought “New Yorker” cartoon. Now, Lucian, on the other hand…

      • mimi

        I believe this calls for a Caption Contest!

        • Indeed, Mlle Mimi! And your entry wins by default!

          • mimi

            Ahh, one of my two back-pocket, default ‘when-I-can’t-come-up-with-a-good-one’ Caption Contest captions* (the latter) wins by default.

            * “I am SO HIGH.”, “Who farted?!”

    • Dominic Hills

      Ha. That tells him, and Dufy for that matter. This is why I always cite Dufy as my main influence, he is SO offensive.. And they say you can’t brake the rules.. Well try mentioning Dufy or Bonnard to the curator of the haunch of venison. It’s such a great joke being told all the time there are no rules, we are in one of the most restrictive conservative eras ever . The rules are never spoken but they are enforced with an iron will, fail to follow them and languish in obscurity. The funniest thing is the way the conformist pull rank and accuse us outsiders of being stuck.
      Here are the rules
      No colour
      No female nudes (unless you are a female artist and are making a point about the subjection of women)
      No paintiness (unless it’s faux paintiness).

      Follow them or else be condemned to obscurity or worse .. Regional galleries

      • Charles

        The rules are actually: Conceptual, Dadaist-type art is what we all should be doing. A political, literary or social idea forms the meaning of your work, not the visual aspect which has little or nothing to do with it. The idea must be provocative and anti-society, and if it is also anti-art, as we have known art for thousands of years, that is all the better. The Mona Lisa with a mustache is more correct than the the original Mona Lisa. Everything you think or do must channel Duchamp is some way. Freedom is all, anything goes, anything at all, except just make sure it goes strictly by these straight and narrow rules.

        Also, the history of modern art was marked by a new movement every five or ten years or so, until the beginning of the Conceptual movement. Now that movement has been in dominance for over 40 years, as artist after artist comes along and does basically the same Dada. Which is all hugely boring by this time. Rather than avant-garde, this is just a new orthodox academy exactly like the French academy the earliest modern artists rebelled against. It also speaks to the weight of monied interests whose collections must, must hold their value lest this huge house of cards collapse. Why the critics cannot see better is a good question. Probably the same weight of money.

    • Not sure I agree with you, but I’m glad you said it, because it’s an interesting challenge. His work also always looks superficial to me, especially as compared to Bacon, Freud, or Auerbach. And I feel exactly the same about Matisse. I’m willing to entertain that I’m missing something, but, yeah, on the face of it, his work seems a bit sugary for my palette.

  • “In a world without rules it is impossible for anyone to break any.” Just one way: Make some rules and follow them. And the great liberal re-learning rolls on, or should. We’re still waiting on this one.