Hockney in L.A.
To celebrate the opening of David Hockney’s exhibition 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life at the Royal Academy, we’ve republished an interview with Hockney, which originally appeared in The London Magazine‘s August/September Issue, Vol. 13 No. 3, in 1973. Within this lengthy interview, Robert Wennersten talks to Hockney about success, teaching in his early career, and the artwork that hung on his walls many years ago.
David Hockney was in Los Angeles the first three months of this year to do a series of lithographs. On the day of this interview, after the morning’s work, he was off to a café on Santa Monica Boulevard for lunch. He ordered a curry omelette and a litre of white wine, then began drawing on the tablecloth with a silver cigar cutter. A moment later he looked up and smiled: ‘Never drink red wine during the day unless you want to take a little nap.’ His Yorkshire accent is soft, sometimes almost languid.
Hockney is a tall, large man, but well-proportioned and unnecessarily concerned about his weight. His hair, trimmed to medium length, is straw blond; and his pale blue eyes look out through big, round glasses. He wore a white shirt under a green pullover, a loosely-knotted red bow tie, and baggy blue trousers with deep cuffs that swept the floor. Hockney never wears matching socks.
During lunch he talked about London in the early-Beatles era, about his vegetarianism that ended in illness, about one of his Hollywood prints being reproduced in knit on a limited edition of expensive sweaters—‘I wouldn’t pay that much for a sweater’ —and about his plans for the next several months: New York for a few weeks and then Paris, to illustrate Flaubert’s A Simple Heart.
The meal over, he lit a cigar and asked, ‘Do you like junk shops? There are two just next door. We’ll go to the second one. The quality of their junk isn’t so good, but their prices aren’t as high as the first one’s.’ Inside the store, he walked quickly, stopping only twice: once to examine a dented tin thermos and again to flip through a book titled Your Mexican Maid, elementary Spanish for American housewives.
Then he returned to the studio on Melrose Avenue. In the room where he worked, some of his lithographs, in various stages of completion, were pinned to the walls. A corner table was stacked with colour Polaroid photographs of him and his local friends. Here and there were things he’d bought on previous trips to junk shops: a 1927 tourist guide to Burma and Rangoon, an old picture post card of Land’s End. Hockney set to work immediately, tracing a design onto a large, flat stone and talking all the while. When one stone was finished, helpers wheeled it out to the press and brought back another. In the intervals, Hockney answered more questions, scrutinised the lithographs on the walls or, chuckling, read aloud some of the tourist guide’s dated advice. ‘I’ve been to Rangoon,’ he said, ‘and the people there still think it’s 1927.’
When he quit for the day, Hockney went to his rooms on the fifth floor of the Chateau Marmont, a run-down, but elegant, hotel on Sunset Strip. It was growing dark, and the billboards outside his windows began to light up. Hockney opened a bottle of white wine and stretched out on the couch. He talked a while longer, then changed for dinner. Thanked for his time, he nodded and said, ‘I’m always happy to answer any question as long as it’s not put by the police.’
R.W: How did you decide on a career as a painter?
D.H: It never occurred to me to do anything else. I always wanted to be one. When I was a child, I was always drawing; and people thought the drawings were quite good. Perhaps I was eight years old when I decided that I was going to be an artist. I didn’t know how you became one, but I thought: Well, that’s what I’d like to be; that’s what I’d like to do. As I got older, I wanted to leave school early and get on with it; but I couldn’t, because you’re supposed to be at least sixteen to leave. But I got out at the first legal opportunity.
My parents wanted me to go to work, because none of my older brothers or sisters had stayed on at school after that age; but, as a child, I’d been quite naïve about how one earns a living, and the difficulty of earning a living as an artist hadn’t occurred to me. So, when I left school, I thought I’d have to be a commercial artist, because that’s how you earned a living doing art. I went around Leeds with a folio of work trying to get a job in a commercial artist’s studio. They all said, ‘Oh, you should go to art school for a bit.’ I only went around to two or three studios, although I told my mother I’d been to twelve; and I said to her, ‘They told me that I must go to art school for a little bit.’ So I went. I went when I was sixteen.
The moment I got to art school, I decided I wouldn’t worry yet about making a living and that I’d spend some time drawing and learning a few things. So when the people at the school asked me what I wanted to be, I said that I wanted to be an artist. They said, ‘Do you have a private income?’ I said, ‘What’s a private income?’ When they explained it to me, I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And they said, ‘Oh, then you can’t be just an artist. It’s a ridiculous idea, because nobody makes a living as an artist. Be a commercial artist.’ My first reaction was: That’s a terrible thing to tell some sixteen-year-old. (At least you can have some ideals then; you can change your mind later.) But I was reasonably realistic and went along with them for a bit. Then, when they wanted me to study lettering and things like that, I got firmer and told them that I wanted to learn how to paint and draw. ‘Ah,’ they said, ‘what you want to be is an art teacher.’ I said, ‘All right. If that’s what I have to say to study painting and drawing, then that’s what I’m going to be.’ But I never really intended to be an art teacher.
You know, I was probably part of the last generation in England that went through art schools when they were still quite academically run. You simply did drawing and painting from life. They made you draw from a model all the time. The most elaborate thing you did was what they called figure composition: you had to compose pictures with at least three or four figures in them. That’s how I was trained. I don’t think that’s done anymore, because to find an art student who only draws from a model is extremely rare now. But fifteen years ago it was very common in England. I suppose today (though I’m not positive, because I’m not too involved with them) they’re more concerned with modern painting. Then, they weren’t. They didn’t think it was a necessary part of the student’s discipline. They simply felt that you should be taught some technical skills. Now they probably believe technical skills are irrelevant. Which, of course, they are to some kinds of art. But when I was sixteen, I believed everything they taught me; and later I realised that modern art wasn’t like they said it was. So, when I finally got to the Royal College of Art, I abandoned most of the things I’d been taught—other than drawing—and began again.
By the time I came to leave school, I was twenty-five—I’d spent four years in an art school in Bradford, two years National Service (I worked in a hospital) and three years at the Royal College of Art—and I’d already started selling pictures. I found that I could live on teaching just one day a week, so I taught etching at a school in Maidstone. I gave that up after about a year, when I’d finished a kind of ambitious work: I’d done sixteen etchings that made up my version of The Rake’s Progress and sold the whole lot. The publishers paid me £5,000 for an edition of fifty. With the money, I came to live in California and paint. I thought: well, I can live for a while off this money; and when it runs out, I’ll go back to teaching. Of course, what happens is that if you can work for a year on your own, you begin to get going and doing something. I sold more work, and I’ve never taught since.
Actually, you have done some teaching since then, haven’t you?
Occasionally. I taught once for six weeks at UCLA and for eight weeks once at Berkeley. Other than that, I’ve not done much teaching. I’m not very good at it. I don’t like it and get bored too quickly. I resent my time being taken up by teaching. I’m very conscious of time passing, so I’d rather do my own work. I much prefer working away on my own, as I suppose anybody would.
I’m not interested in art education systems. You can’t teach art. Well, you can’t teach it easily. I think you can teach certain skills, and I do enjoy teaching drawing a bit. But I’m not sure what use it is, how artistic it is, or how relevant it is to art.
Did any other students who were with you at the Royal College become prominent later?
Some became very influential. Allen Jones. Peter Phillips. Patrick Caulfield. Those are all people who were there when I was. I don’t know how well they’re known here, but in England they’re known reasonably well.
And do you know the work of R. B. Kitaj? Well, Ron Kitaj was in the same year. I got to know him pretty much straight away when we met there. He was a very influential person—and not just in the style of his painting. When I started at the Royal College of Art I was twenty-two, and he was probably about twenty-seven. That five-year difference in age was quite big then. Somebody who is a few years older usually knows a bit more and is a little more serious about work. That was one of his major influences on me. I mean, I was impressed with the seriousness and the diligence that he went about work. Somehow he was tougher and more serious than most of the students. The other students weren’t as clear in their views, as mature in their aesthetic ideas.
Often it can be a teacher who influences you. But in my case, it wasn’t. I didn’t respect the people who were teaching there at all, because none of them was quite an artist. So when I found somebody who was interesting and very serious about their study, it was stimulating in many ways. It really got me going.
You must realise that the average art student isn’t that serious about studying. In England, for probably, oh, seventy per cent of them, it’s a second or third choice. When I was a student, the only people I was interested in were those who seemed to have passion about art. Of course, that was a minority. It’s not as many as you’d think. But that’s probably true about anybody studying anything, isn’t it?
What did you think of London when you first got there?
When I first arrived from Bradford, I thought it was terrific; but I was a student, and I spent all my time working in the Royal College of Art, and I rarely left it. I used to get up very early in the morning and work there until ten at night, and then I’d just go and have a drink in a pub and go home and read. Very occasionally I went to the opera, in the balcony. I didn’t do much else. I mean, I couldn’t afford to do much else. A few years after that—after I’d come to America for the first time—I thought the city got dull. America was much more exciting. Now I enjoy London; but, you see, I’m always leaving it, I’m always travelling.
In some ways, I live a slightly domestic life there. All day I stay and paint, but in the evenings I do like to go out. I go to the opera—that’s the only thing I see in the live theatre—and I sit in restaurants and bars. There’s always something to do in London. You never get bored.
I’ve had the same flat in London for eleven years now. (In the end, I had to buy the building. Well, I didn’t have to buy it; but it was advisable, seeing I’d spent so much money on it.) Even when I lived in California, I kept it. I just locked it up or let people stay. I paid something like £200 a year for it, so it was cheap enough to pay the rent and go away for a year.
One of the reasons, of course, you don’t give up flats in London is that they’re very difficult to get. But once you’ve got one, as long as you pay the rent, you can’t really be evicted from it. It’s not like here, where you can find another place to live quite easily. In London you can’t; it’s very, very difficult. When I was a student, for instance, I lived in rooms, and at the end of each term I gave term I gave them up and found others. But the moment I found a rather large space to work in, I wasn’t going to give that up so easily. And you’ve got to have somewhere to keep everything—the paints and the books are things like that—and that’s as good a place as anywhere.
I like living in London as a kind of base. It’s very easy to go from there to Paris or Italy, or anywhere, so I do enjoy it.
Who are my friends in London? Well, I’m still very close and friendly with Ron Kitaj. He’s one of the few artists I’m close to. I’m close enough to him that I can discuss art with him a little. But most of my friends are not artists at all. They’re all kinds of people. Do you know Ossie Clark? He designs clothes, and he’s a close friend. Of my, say, twelve close friends, I’m sure you’ll never have heard of eight of them.
Several times you’ve mentioned living in California. When were you living here?
I lived here on and off for about four years. From January 1964 until July of 1968, most of my time was spent here. Say, eight months of each year was spent here and only four months in Europe. People in London thought I lived here. Every time I went back to London, they would say, ‘Oh, how long are you here for?’ I did regard it as going home, but they didn’t seem to think of it that way.
When I first came to California, I came on an intuition; and it was correct. I came because I thought it would be very sexy. One of the things that prompted me to come here was a magazine called Physique Pictorial. I noticed that it was published in Los Angeles, so I assumed that’s what life was like here. The photographs portrayed what a certain life was like in Los Angeles; and, in a way, it was true. They were accurate if you looked for it. So I thought the place would turn me on in many ways, in all kinds of ways. And it did.
I’d never seen a city like this before. In fact, there’s no city in Europe like this. I found Los Angeles quite exciting visually. Architecturally, it’s a fascinating city—especially the rows of houses that were probably put up in the ’thirties and ’forties in different styles and all made of stucco. Driving down streets like that, with the trees in front of the houses and along the curb, is beautiful. And buildings in Los Angeles often amuse me. This is the one place in the world where you can be driving around, and the buildings make you smile—laugh almost. You see buildings here that are caricatures of other styles. That’s funny, and it’s rare in architecture. Architecturally, I’ve always enjoyed Los Angeles. It’s very stimulating, and I’ve painted pictures of it and of life here.
But somehow it’s not as sexy now. In fact, America is less sexy now. At first I thought it was me getting older, but I don’t think so anymore. There was a marvellous, sexy tension here in Los Angeles a few years ago. Now it’s gone. It’s ironic, because today you can go see fuck movies, you can go in a bar and see naked people dancing about, yet it’s not as sexy. With everything being blatant, it’s lost a certain perverse appeal. It’s rather unerotic really. It used to be much sexier.
And people don’t look as attractive as they used to. I keep saying that I hate the Jed Clampett look. I hate moustaches. Or everyone trying to look like Robert Redford. It all seems too bland. I know people say everyone used to look alike in their crew cuts, too; but somehow that was more original, it was more Californian, it was more something you couldn’t see anywhere else. Now people look the same here as in New York. Los Angeles has lost a lot of its original look.
I don’t want to say that drugs have ruined things. Maybe there’s something in that, but I’m not an authority. People look a bit more haggard; they don’t look as beautiful. And they’ve got, or they seem to have, more interest in drugs than anything else. It’s a pity that people should be more interested in drugs than in other people or other aspects of life.
Speaking of fuck movies, have you ever seen a good one?
No, not a good one. Most of them are so awful. They’re all too medical. They look as though they were meant to do the community some good in passing on medical knowledge. I always think that I could make them far better, but I’ve never got around to it. Usually, if I decide to do something, I do it; so I suppose I’ve not yet been that serious about making one. Maybe one day I’ll have a go at it, but I’m too busy with everything else at the moment.
How are you spending your time in Los Angeles this trip?
I’m working away every day making six lithographs about the weather. I’m doing rain, sun, wind, snow, frost, lightning, mist and a rainbow. I’ve not done complicated colour lithographs in a long time, not since 1965. In the evenings I go home and read, which is a bit unusual for me. Although I do go out to movies a lot, catch up on movies I never saw in London. And I go to bars.
I know a lot of people here, but I don’t know many of the artists who live here that well. (Don Bachardy is the one I know best, I suppose.) I know other people better. I know Christopher Isherwood, for example, better than I know most any artist in Los Angeles. Then there’s Nick Wilder* and his friends. Nick’s friends aren’t all artists; they’re all kinds of people. The people I know here are similar to those I know in other places. You always get to know similar kinds of people, don’t you?
You were once planning to build a studio in the south of France. Does the south of France attract you for the same reasons as southern California?
In a way. It’s warm and pretty in the same way southern California is. In a sense, it’s a great deal prettier. Summer evenings in the south of France are very pleasant. Sitting in a little square or harbour and drinking is very nice. But there’s lots you don’t get there: you don’t get the fuck movies, you wouldn’t get the bars. (I mean, not the same kind of bars.) On the other hand, you get better food. I like the south of France a great deal, and I go a lot from London. I don’t think I’d actually live there, but I love going to stay for a month. I’ve taken a house down there for a month at a time and done drawings.
Does New York turn you on?
I’m sure it’s the art centre from every point of view, but it doesn’t attract me as much as California. New York is like a European city without the advantages. New York is quite beautiful if you live in Brooklyn and look over the river to it, or if you fly in an aeroplane above it. On street level, I find it ugly. The views you get are beautiful for a while, but they become incredibly monotonous. Those long, long streets, and all you see is a long avenue. And the buildings are too tall. At street level, New York is not exciting; whereas most European cities at street level are very beautiful. Paris exists only at street level, doesn’t it? Yet life in New York is exciting. Nobody would say it was dull, would they? When I first went there, I thought it was fantastic. I was terribly excited by it, but the more I come to California…
I go to New York frequently. I go to New York more than I come here, because it’s nearer. But I’ve never actually done any work there, other than just draw when I was passing through. I’ve never done any paintings there, never done any prints there. There’ll come a time when I have to try it and see what it’ll do for me.
But I’ve decided that I’m going to try working in Paris first. I’ve never worked there; and it’ll be change, after Los Angeles, to have a bit of French culture. I’ve always enjoyed Paris very much and done a lot of drawings there. But I’ve never stayed longer than a week or a few days; I’ve just made nips over from London. So I want to try Paris before I try New York.
You’ve been talking lots about architecture. Do you have a special interest in it?
Yes. I take a visual, figurative artist’s interest in it. When I travel, I look at architecture. In Europe I’m always interested in architecture, and I usually check guide books when I’m travelling and find out what’s nearby. I know what I like, and I read about certain kinds of buildings. I make the detours and visit Gothic cathedrals or Romanesque cathedrals. I love the one at Vézelay in France. That’s the most incredibly beautiful Romanesque cathedral. As for the other sorts of buildings, I like the turn-of-the-century hotels on the Mediterranean. They look good. And I love the colonnade in the park at Vichy. It’s glass and iron, which is a terrific combination in a building. Locally, one of my favourites—mind you, this is an interior—is the dining-room of the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco. That’s one of the prettiest rooms for breakfast in the United States.
I would say that I was a lay lover of architecture. Actually, I suppose my knowledge is slightly more than the layman’s, but it’s nothing like an architect’s. It’s not an incredible passion with me, but it is a strong interest. Architecture is a very solid art. You have to live with it for some time, so it should be good.
What’s the state of English art in general?
I suppose the state of English art is not as interesting as American art on the whole. But, to be honest, I don’t think American art is that interesting either. Perhaps American art is a little more interesting, but it’s like talking about the difference between numbers 35 and 37. The difference is slight.
There are some good things going on in England, and there is lots going on that I don’t have much sympathy for. I mean, I don’t care about it one way or another: I don’t think it’s bad and I don’t think it’s good. There are just lots of things in art that don’t interest me at all. For instance, I get more and more bored with abstract art. It does so little for me that I don’t care about it. I’m not involved in its aesthetic politics, so I tend to ignore it. I wouldn’t rush to any exhibition of it. Conceptual art interests me to an extent—there’s a certain amount of wit which I like—but I’m never moved incredibly by it.
So I have to admit that there aren’t many English artists that excite me right now. Apart from Ron Kitaj, there aren’t many figurative painters working in any serious way. There just aren’t many of us. Francis Bacon, certainly. Richard Hamilton. Peter Blake. Richard Smith. (In a way, Richard Smith is an abstract painter, but far the most interesting one.)
And there are Americans who are still interesting, I suppose. Andy Warhol doesn’t pain anymore, but I love his movies. And I might go out of my way to see what Jasper Johns is doing these day. But the bulk of American painting is abstract. There is all that photographic realism too, but I don’t find that very interesting either. It is for a short while, but it doesn’t offer enormous possibilities. It’s a vision which completely relies on the camera, and the camera has to look at things in a certain way. (What makes photography interesting is its choice of subject matter, not the way the picture’s done.) So you always have to look at the subject in the same way. I cannot see how that sort of vision can be developed a great deal. In short, there aren’t many interesting painters. There’s just not much good art being done. It’s the same everywhere. We’re going through a fallow period.
I used to, as it were, worry about the art activity of my time. Now I tend to withdraw more into my own ideas and carry on with them and ignore a lot of other things. If you don’t, you get a big bogged down in them.
But I’m not pessimistic, because what’s going to get exciting is that there will be a re-evaluation of many things. There’ll come a time when we’ll re-examine concepts which were accepted perhaps a bit too readily in the past. I mean, if in the end what we think of as modern art led up to a sterile intellectualism, then one will trace back to find out where something went wrong. Painting is still rooted in the past—as it probably should be—so one simply goes back a little into the past and re-examines. Perhaps then one will find out what was wrong about this or wrong about that. For instance, I think it was wrong to assume that abstract painting was the great thing it was, that it was the answer and that all modern painting should be abstract. I don’t think it should, because it’s all boring now. So, obviously, to look at it intelligently, one will re-examine it, look back to where it came from and re-examine a few concepts there. I think it was Kandinsky who said—what, in 1915? —that he saw pitfalls, and he saw how abstract paintings could become simply an ornamental art of interest but not very profound. That’s almost where we’ve gotten to recently.
You know, I do think that one thing that’s terribly good—well, it was very good for me—was the fact that living outside your own country for a number of years does put its art into perspective more. I suppose living outside any community does the same thing. If you’re an English artist and you’ve never left England, English art is much more important to you than if you go and live abroad. You’d tend to give it much more importance than it really has, because you’re always more in interested in the art of where you live. On the other hand, if you’ve never been to England, you’d probably go to the opposite extreme and dismiss it when you shouldn’t. You see, a lot of art is never exported; ideas aren’t exported; so one doesn’t know about them. As you well know, there must be artists here in Los Angeles who have quite a reputation locally and outside the city are not too well known; they are not well known, say, in England. And vice versa. There are a great number of English artists who in England are highly thought of as people who have done interesting work; and in America they’re hardly known, on the continent of Europe they’re hardly known. So when you live abroad, you’re able to look at things with more detachment and get a better perspective on ideas. Then you can see what is good, what is interesting, what is not interesting. That you can only get by living abroad for a long time.
What art do you live with? What’s on the walls of your London flat?
Not too much. I have a few things people have given me. I have some Picasso etchings. I’ve some etchings by Helleu, some prints of Richard Hamilton’s, some drawings by Peter Schlesinger and two or three paintings that I bought from a young English artist, Steve Buckley.
You once said that your style changed in 1965. What was so special about that year?
I must have just picked a year. My work didn’t change just like that. If you look at the work, you wouldn’t say it changed instantly. I suppose I chose 1965 as a kind of watershed. That was a year when ideas became a lot clearer, when I somehow made a bigger stride. I think I made a bigger stride in 1965, say, than in 1964 or 1963; and maybe there’s not been a year since then that I felt I’d made such a break from previous ideas.
Some artists, of course, do just stop doing a certain thing and start something else completely. I’ve actually never done that. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; often it’s good. People come up with a slightly different attitude and completely different solutions. I know artists who have done it, and they, of course, could be more precise. They could probably give you the year, the day and the hour. I can’t because it was a rather lengthy process.
Who influenced your early work?
Oh, on the early work there are an awful lot. They’re reasonably obvious. Like in style. One time I was quite influenced by Dubuffet. Quite influenced by abstract impressionist techniques: the way you put paint on, the way you might make a gesture with a brush. I was influenced, I think, by Klee and the people everybody is influenced by: Miro and Picasso. (I might mention that Picasso’s recent work still interests me. I bought a little etching of his from 1968 that’s fantastic. And, actually, Dubuffet still interests me too, as does Balthus.) But the influences did change, because I became more realistic; the style became more realistic.
I still like to fluctuate, but it’s more difficult in painting. In prints I can do it; I’ve found that there the solution is a little easier. For instance, I did a lot of etchings illustrating six stories from the Grimms, and within them they move about an enormous amount. One of them could be completely abstract. (What the design represents is not clear at all. It could be simply treated as these rather weird shapes. It’s only with the title that it becomes clear what it is and what it means.) Some of the others are incredibly literal, taken from the dramatic situation in the text. I found that graphic solutions are easier, perhaps, than painted solutions. I still haven’t quite, I think, been able to do it in paint. That’s why I keep trying.
You once mentioned that your taste was becoming less catholic. In what way?
What I meant was that I was getting more sure of my taste. When you’re a young artist, you go along with the general consensus of other artists and think: Well, yes, that’s very good. You don’t commit yourself too much. It’s a question of committing your taste in the same way you commit your ideas to canvas. You become more committed, more sure.
And as your idea of your own work is becoming clearer, you begin to drop things that you’re not that interested in. Such as, as I’ve said, abstract painting. Now a great deal of that obviously has a natural beauty about it in a sensual way, but for me that isn’t enough. I’m not that much of a sensualist in painting; my own pictures, I don’t think, are like that. So one tends to leave behind ideas about using things like that. Then you find that you’re clearing up, clearing up the edges. The periphery shifts. The whole centre shifts. It’s a natural process. I’m sure it must happen to any artist.
You just said that you didn’t consider your own work sensual. Well, that’s one of the points about your pictures, isn’t it? I mean, you can take an erotic subject—say, a naked boy lying in bed—and treat it in a very detached way.
I treat most of the subjects I do in a detached way. But I think all art is rather detached in that sense. The purely erotic in art isn’t finally, it seems to me, interesting enough. I’m not saying that it isn’t nice having sexy pictures, but the point of the art is not just to titillate. There are all kinds of different purposes for art. So one is better off having a certain distance from things, a kind of detachment. Sometimes I wish I could be more detached than I am. At times I could be as detached as Matisse was when he drew. I don’t think I could, and yet I’d love to. I admire it.
Often art can be better than nature. At times you can improve on nature. But I’m not sure you can in an erotic situation. I’m not sure art can improve on that. I guess the truth about erotic art is that if it’s just the sexiness of it you’re liking, the real thing is always better, isn’t it?
Your work seems to be very English, in that it’s usually narrative. In this respect, do you think of yourself as an English artist?
Well, English art has a narrative tradition more than, say, French art or even American art. (Although American art has a little narrative tradition.) But if you look at it that way, then, yes, my work falls in line with certain known English attitudes to the visual arts. I’d never thought about it, because it’s not something you sit down and think about until somebody asks you.
In English art there’s always been a certain element that the English have liked, and I would say that I fitted in with that a bit. The English have always tended to like artists on their own, rather than schools. Even within what was a very English school, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, there were very different attitudes. They were really quite idiosyncratic. Whereas in other countries—in America now, for instance—people talk about a mainstream of art. If there is an English mainstream, it meanders all over the place. In the American sense of the word, I’m not a mainstream artist at all.
At one time, when I was younger, I thought about that a bit. You know, one wants to be involved in the ideas of your time and what’s going on. Then I sorted things out. I realised what I was up to and abandoned ideas of belonging to a mainstream. It just doesn’t worry me.
What attracted you to the idea of illustrating Cavafy?
I’d liked his poetry for a long time. Some of the very first etchings I ever did were based on Cavafy poems. They were done four or five years before I did the book.
I mentioned earlier that I did a set of prints from 1961 to 1963 based on Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. That was published as a loose set. I thought about making another group of prints on a particular theme, and then I thought it would be nice to actually make a real book and print them in it. You know, a hand-printed book. All the time I kept thinking of Cavafy. I’d always wanted to illustrate his poems, so one day I stopped painting and sat down and did them. In the end I only did the love poems, though originally I wanted to illustrate a lot of the ones about the politics of ancient Egypt and the Ptolemies. There’s a terrific one called Waiting for the Barbarians. I’m still waiting to do it myself. Maybe I’ll do it one day. I meant to put that one in at the front of the book, but I never got around to it; and somehow the book had got large enough, so I stopped. But I think they’re very beautiful poems.
Poetry is one branch of literature I’ve always kept reading. I once read novels a great deal, then I stopped, and lately I’ve started reading them again. But poetry I’ve always read. I’ve read all the classic poets. I have my favourites, and occasionally they alter. I was a great fan of Walt Whitman, and I did paintings from his poems. And an English poet I like, though he’s not considered that much as a poet, is Thomas Hardy. (People read his novels, and his poetry is rather ignored.) The truth is that I do like poetry, and so I read anything that I come across. But, as I said, I have a weakness for what would generally be called the classics. And it’s the same with novels, because I hardly ever read trashy novels. I used to read other kinds of trashy books: semi-sociological things like The Arms of Krupp. I was always reading trash like that, and I got fed up with it. So I thought: Why waste your time, David, and why don’t you start reading something good again? So last year I started re-reading Proust. I got into it so quickly and enjoyed it so much, I’ve not stopped. I mean, I finished that and then kept on reading novels. Maybe I’ll stop now and go back to trash.
In the Cavafy etchings especially, isn’t there a certain amount of propaganda?
Yes, and I suppose it’s half intended. Earlier paintings contained what one could call propaganda for various things. At one time I was a very keen vegetarian, and I used to do paintings about that. I think I even used the word propaganda myself about them once. But it’s propaganda at a rather low level. If you really wanted to propagandize, you wouldn’t do etchings. Although you could always ask people to see them.
You once said that if you’d been able to find sexual satisfaction in Bradford, you might have become reconciled to the place. So at one time sexual happiness was a determining factor in your life. Is it still a major influence?
Not as much. When you’re eighteen or twenty and just starting out, you move where you think you might get it. It still plays a part; but now I wouldn’t mind, for instance, going to the desert and reading for a year. I’d like that actually. (It’d be something else that’d drive you to do that, wouldn’t it?)
Anybody from a small town, if they want to find out about people and things, naturally wants to leave. I used to think that the only thing that might have been strong enough to keep one back there would have been something that was sexually satisfying. Now I think that’s not true. It wouldn’t have been strong enough; because you’d always think you could get it somewhere else, and you’d want to go off.
Certainly your sexual inclinations have influenced your work.
They influence your life. So, of course they influence everything. And if you paint the way I do, your life influences your work and your attitudes. If you painted stripes, it wouldn’t influence your work too much, would it? Or maybe you’d paint them horizontally.
You’ve said that illusion and artificiality in art were related to illusion and artificiality in life. Were you making a point about your own work and life?
I don’t necessarily think so. What I meant was: What is real life and what is not? I do think that there is a distinction between art and life. Recently a lot of artists have tried to show that there is not, and that art and life are one. I don’t share that view. If art and life are one, then there’s no such thing as art. It’s cancelled out. Maybe life if very rich then, but what we know as art and the experience of art wouldn’t exist.
There are aspects of life that have artificiality about them that’s appealing. They’re appealing in the same way that art is appealing. Look at artificial flowers, for instance. One can look at them with horror and say how awful they look compared to real flowers; or you can look at them with a slight smile and think they were perhaps meant to be art, and that they could have been art. After all, one could do a sculpture of flowers, and, if it were done well enough, it would be art. But a normal artificial flower is not art. So one can smile at it and think that it was a attempt, a strange attempt at art. And you can stick them in a vase, and they do look real until you get up close.
That kind of artificiality, it borders. It borders on art without ever being art. One can see a connection, and things like that interest me. Even in the way, sitting here, I can look outside and there are all those horses galloping on that Marlboro ad. There’s a certain point where you can sit and think there’s a bright cornfield out of your window. Yet you know it’s not; it’s this great big poster out there. Even though I hate billboards and think they’re ugly and spoil things, it’s got some strange appeal. From here, looking through the curtains and seeing that scene, there’s something mad about it that’s terribly nice. There aren’t many places where you can look out and see brightly lit horses galloping through corn. And we’re five floors up!
You know, hardly anyone would have recognised Jackson Pollock, and few people would ever recognise Richard Lindner or Robert Rauschenberg. Yet you’re immediately recognisable. What difference has that made to you? Do you set out to create David Hockney?
Well, I didn’t consciously set out to do it. Often people create themselves, don’t they? I mean, they create the personality; they invent themselves. I probably did that. But one doesn’t do it in the sense that you’re inventing it for other people. You’re inventing the personality for yourself. That’s how it works.
I didn’t mean to be visible, and I can’t say that I enjoy it much. One of the pleasures of coming to Los Angeles is that I’m less visible here. There are people here who say: Oh, yes, I know your work. But certainly the ordinary person in the street wouldn’t recognise me. Whereas in London I’m well aware that some people know who I am, but they would never know a painting of mine. Sometimes it gets you down. At any rate, I don’t give it much thought.
Do blondes have more fun?
From my experience yes. I’ve been a blonde now for twelve years.
Didn’t you go through a gold-lamé phase in your life?
No. I only wore that gold coat twice. Once, because the Royal College of Art gave me a gold medal. I saw the absurdity of that medal, and, walking up Charing Cross Road, in Cecil Gee’s I saw a golden jacket for a band leader or someone like that. I suddenly thought: Oh, that’s what one should wear for a gold medal, because then the medal would disappear. So I went in and bought it on the spur of the moment, simply as an amusing thing to do. The second time I wore it was for some photographs which Anthony Armstrong-Jones took, and of course those made it rather famous. I hated that coat, and afterwards I wished I’d never worn it. I’d never wear it now.
What difference has money and success made in your life?
I don’t think it’s made much difference. Instead of hitchhiking, you can travel first-class. And you can eat better, which is one thing I do like.
I was always happy no matter how much money I had, because money doesn’t mean that much to me. I don’t care about it. I spend all I get. I throw it away. It just disappears. And the more money you have, the more dependants you have. It doesn’t make much difference.
At one time when I’d got quite a bit of money, some lawyer said to me, ‘If you go and live abroad, you won’t have to pay as much tax.’ Then he said, ‘That’s what I’d do too, but I thought I’d advise you.’ I mean, what’s the point? If you earn some money and you can’t do what you want to do, it’s terrible.
I’ve been told that you draw a great deal, and that the people around you virtually jerk the drawings out from under your pencil or pick up drawings you leave behind. Is this true? And if it is, does it annoy you?
It’s slightly annoying. I do draw a lot, because I like drawing. And drawing, for an artist like myself, is the most immediate form of expression. You just do it intuitively, straight away. Therefore, the drawings are the most personal form of expression one does.
I’m well aware that people like them or want them—even things I would consider scraps—so I’m more careful now. If I think they’re bad, I tear them up. A lot of them I put crosses through and keep and decide later. The fact is that they’re very expensive. (Although I’ve always thought my art was very expensive. Even when it was $200, I thought that was very expensive. For a painting, I thought that was a lot of money.)
Now I’m more careful what I let go from the studio. I do give a lot of drawings away; but I give them away, because I think they’re OK. That’s the same as giving them to a dealer. You just give things you’re proud of. I wouldn’t give away lousy drawings; I’d tear them up. People say, ‘Why don’t you give it to me?’ and I say: ‘Well, I’ll give you something else, because I shouldn’t give you something if I don’t think it’s good.’ But then they say, ‘Oh, let me have it.’ If I’ve drawn them, and I don’t like it—especially if I tear it up in front of them—they get a bit annoyed. Then I feel terrible, because I’ve wasted their time. I’ve made them sit for an hour, and then I just tear it up. But I can’t find any other solution. I don’t know what one should do.
Do the business aspects of art concern you much?
No, I never get too involved in it. I’ve stopped worrying about it. I run away from it. I hardly ever discuss money with dealers. I leave it to them and assume they’re trustworthy. I probably could be swindled very easily, but I prefer it that way. I can’t get worked up about money. (Mind you, the truth is I say that because money is the least of my problems at the moment. I have no idea what it costs me to live, but I do know that I’ve quite sufficient money to live how I want to live and work how I want to work.)
And, you know, there’s no fixed price for art. The price, obviously, is simply what somebody will pay for it. If somebody’s willing to pay a high price, that must mean they like it. I know there are other arguments about how they’re investing their money and that they think somebody else will pay more for it. But somebody else will pay more for it only if, in the end, that somebody else likes it. So it seems to me it’s not worth discussing at length. I don’t bother with all that myself. It’s a problem I push under the mat.
Have you ever felt any weariness with drawing and painting and a desire to try something new? Can you imagine a time when you might give them up and move on to other things?
I could imagine it, I suppose. But it’s not likely in the near future, because I still have a few things that I want to do. Ideas, as it were, that will keep me preoccupied for the next two years are still in my head. I’ve not got disillusioned about painting—not yet—not to do them. I’m an extremely visual person, and I believe that the static image has still got great power. Therefore, I’m not likely to reject it easily. Some people, you see, do. They think there’s no real point in painting anymore. They think the static image is not that powerful or that the photograph can do it. Well, I don’t believe that. Photography is pretty good, but there are lots of things it can’t do that painting can do. So I’m a defender of painting, and I imagine I’ll be painting for quite some time.
But I have occasionally thought of making a movie. I was thinking of making a movie based on Huysmans’ novel Against Nature, which I thought would make a good film. It’s a lot about the senses, isn’t it? Somebody could make a good film of it. I thought I could, actually. I assume I’ve not got around to it, because I’m not ready. I realise that I’m a person with a certain amount of energy’ so, as I said before, I usually do what I want to do. If I wanted to make that film very badly, I’d somehow get it together and do it next week. I’ve not done it yet, so…
Transcribed by Laura Garmeson. This interview first appeared in The London Magazine, August/September Issue in 1973, Vol. 12 No. 3, which was originally priced at 90p.
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