The Vanity Of An Artist: An Interview Of Legendary Artist David Hockney

text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper


At almost 80 years old, David Hockney – who is perhaps the world’s most famous living artist – is more productive than ever. We got a rare chance to visit his busy, paint-splattered and cigarette-littered studio tucked away in the hills of Los Angeles. We had an in-depth conversation over multiple boxes of his favorite brands of cigarettes – Camel Wides and Davidoff, which he keeps cartons of in a drawer marked ‘first aid’ – just between 'sketchbooks' and 'rulers.' Hockney is an avid supporter of smoker’s rights – even in the face of the ocean of studies and laws surrounding the lethality of smoking cigarettes. Hockney can list a number of famous artists that smoked and lived long lives. Indeed, he is a true bon vivant – the last of a breed of artists that lived through multiple generations of bohemia and decadence. The only difference between Hockney and a lot of other artists is that he has survived to tell the tale. Some of those closest to him have not – a most recent tragedy was the death of his 23-year-old personal assistant Dominic Elliott. The incident prompted Hockney to move back to the Hollywood Hills from his studio in Bridlington, east Yorkshire. Whereas in Bridlington Hockney painted his natural surroundings with a glittering array of landscapes – in Hollywood, Hockney got back to doing something he does so well: portraits. What started off as a few portraits of friends in the Los Angeles art world – some transplants and some natives – soon turned into a feverish and inexhaustible obsession. This weekend at the Royal Academy of Arts, 82 of those portraits, set against a monotone blue background, will be on view. They include portraits of John Baldessari, Frank Gehry, Larry Gagosian, Tacita Dean (and her son), Benedikt Taschen and many more. Before the interview, Hockney’s studio manager granted us one hour, which was generous enough – Hockney wound up giving us two. At the end, it still felt like the iconic and legendary artist had so much more to say. The following transcript is a condensed excerpt from our conversation and pertains mainly to his current exhibition in London, which opens tomorrow. The full interview will be published in a future print issue of Autre.

OLIVER KUPPER: Do you enjoy being back in Los Angeles? Has it been productive?

DAVID HOCKNEY: Yes, it’s been very productive. I was in England about ten years, but I was always coming back and forth. I didn’t mean to stay in England. I just got working there. One thing lead to another, and I just worked. I thought, “If I’m working here, that’s fine. I could come back eventually.” We came back to do the show in San Francisco.

KUPPER: Which we saw. It was beautiful.

HOCKNEY: Yeah. We’re doing a show in Australia a bit like that in November. In Melbourne. And it’s even bigger. There are fifteen screens showing the drawing being done. With fifteen screens, it means you really see the drawing being done. Whereas on the playback on an iPad, it plays it back quick. You can’t quite see it when it gets heavy. And then there’s a show at the Tate.

KUPPER: Being back in Los Angeles, do you see any changes since the last time you were here?

HOCKEY: I don’t go out much, you see. I’m sure it changed a bit. Some things have changed. It’s still like it was. I like it. 

KUPPER: There’s a certain mystery about LA that’s always been here.

HOCKNEY: Yeah. I pointed out, it’s an acquired taste, LA. You have to stay a bit. Then, you realize it isn’t all just freeways. There’s the mountains and the plains. I enjoy going up in the mountains. Then you drive back to the nonsense.

KUPPER: You’re in the studio a lot. How often do you get out of the studio? What do you like to do for fun in LA?

HOCKNEY: Actually, the only fun I have is watching The Borgias on Netflix. I don’t really go out that much. I go to bed at nine. I read a lot. But I’m too deaf. I don’t go to the opera. And concerts. I used to go. Now, when I go, I get a bit depressed because I can’t hear that well.

KUPPER: [And] you have just finished 72 portraits?

HOCKNEY: 82 portraits and one still life. [pointing to a model of his exhibition at the Royal Academy] That’s the model of the Royal Academy.

KUPPER: These are people in the LA art world?

HOCKNEY: Yeah. There are some English people. My sister. My brother. But they’re mostly people in LA.

KUPPER: I recognize Frank [Gehry].


KUPPER: There are some really fascinating people in LA. It seems like there is a difference in the art world in LA.

HOCKNEY: I have said that men dress very badly. But look at the variety I’ve got.

KUPPER: Very fashionable.

HOCKNEY: Thirty years ago, there would have been more ties and suits.

KUPPER: I’m seeing some vests and bowties. You don’t see a lot of those these days.

HOCKNEY: There are some ties. That one in the yellow shirt, he said, “It looks like a refrigerator salesman.” Because of the pen in his pocket.

KUPPER: There’s John Baldessari.

HOCKNEY: I’m not really stopping. They’re all painted here. They’re all done in three days. Some were done in two days. Larry Gagosian was done in two days. He gave me two days and I did it.

KUPPER: Of course he’d give you two days.

HOCKNEY: He enjoyed it actually. The moment I got going, he really liked it.

KUPPER: It’s a bit of an honor to sit for a portrait.

HOCKNEY: Oh, I didn’t know that. When I began them, I didn’t really begin thinking I’d do this many. The first thing I painted was this one of JP. We had just come from England, and this boy died. We were all a bit depressed. I did this in July. Then, I started putting them on a platform. Then, my eyes could just be across. Otherwise, you’re looking down. And his feet just came off. Then, I made sure the feet were all in. Feet. Shoes are interesting. In LA, you get all kinds of variety. Look at your shoes. They’re rather good. I’m just going to go on. We’ll show them [in Los Angeles] eventually. They were all painted here, and they’ll stay here. I’m going to show them in London first and then Australia. Then they might come back, go to Venice. Eventually, they’ll all come back here. I think it’s one body of work really. I think if you just took one individual one, they’re okay, but when you see quite a few with the simplicity of the background, you see all the little differences. They’re all sitting on the same chair, but everybody sits there in a different way. Everybody has a little different shape. They’re all seen as individuals.

KUPPER: They’re really beautiful. And very contemporary.

HOCKNEY: I kept putting them up there. Then, I did something else for a while, and then started again later on the portraits. When I had done about 45, I thought, “Well, I could show them all.” I’m a member of the Royal Academy. So I thought we could show them in the gallery there. I suggested it to them. I could have shown them in LA, but the LA County Museum had done a few shows of mine. It’s good, but in the Royal Academy, you can do things. We decided to do it, and I just went on. 82 is the max number you can put just in a straight line. So I have to take some out. I’ll see it for the first time only when it’s there. I can’t see them all here. It’s going to be a very psychological exhibition. I’m assuming, really, the people who go will be looking at themselves. They’re looking at people like themselves.

KUPPER: Does it ever get emotional to see your work in a museum setting, outside of the studio?

HOCKNEY: Well, I have the vanity of an artist. I want my work to be seen. I don’t have to be seen, but I want the work to be seen. And I’ve always arranged that. So, when I did 45 [paintings], I realized it was quite a lot. I mean, 82 portraits is an odd thing to do. They were each done, like I said, in about three days. I worked for about seven hours a day.

KUPPER: After this exhibition, do you plan on continuing this series?

HOCKNEY: Yeah, yeah, I could go on forever, because people are interesting - I paint everyone. 

David Hockney "82 portraits and 1 Still Life" will be on view starting July 2 and will run until October 2, 2016 at Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. photographs by Summer Bowie. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE