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

Chaos Theory: An Interview With Multifaceted and Legendary Artist Nick Waplington

Talking with photographer and painter Nick Waplington is akin to viewing and pondering his work. There is a lot of information to sort through. But if you can find some order in the onslaught of ideas, or the “chaos” as he likes to call it, you will find a perspective wildly and almost enviably unique. The subjects of his conversation are as varied as those within his photographs and his paintings. While Waplington’s work has dealt with environmental concerns, rave culture, the creative processes and inner struggles of the late Alexander McQueen, and (as in his paintings) his own inner monologue, a 40-minute conversation with Waplington darts around discussions about his creative process, international politics, the contemporary art world and the business surrounding it, and even skateboarding.

It’s sometimes difficult, as a journalist, to dilineate between being a journalist and a fan. And I am a super fan of Nick Waplington. He was one of the photographers that radically altered my perceptions of the form, and it was difficult to not lean all my questions towards his photographic practice even when now his paintings are a large part of his artistic output, especially with his incredible exhibition of recent paintings at These Days gallery in Los Angeles entitled, ‘A Display of Panic in a Moment of Absolute Certainty.’ In that, it’s important to note that Waplington is not simply, “Nick Waplington the painter,” or “Nick Waplington the photographer,” but that he is “Nick Waplington the artist.” All the mediums he works in (also including video, computer-generated imagery, sculpture, and found material) become part of a cohesive, if almost manically diverse, body of work. While his photos reveal an almost poetically chaotic point of view on Waplington’s external world, his paintings offer the viewer a look inside his internal world allowing us to examine his beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. “I’ve been making art daily since I was 15-years-old.” Now, I’m nearly 51,” says Waplington. Ultimately, what you get is this large body of work that progresses. A lot of artists, especially photographers, have a short phase. To stay fresh, and to not make the same work over and over, is a challenge.”

The These Days exhibition is a result of Waplington living in Los Angeles for the past year and devoting his entire practice to painting. As with his photography, the paintings are sensitive to the environment that Waplington created them in. They are exploding in color and contrast, mimicking the city’s consistently beautiful weather in the face of global climate challenge. There is a glorious randomness to the imagery, almost as if Waplington finds himself searching for beauty amidst cultural marginalization Waplington and I caught up via Skype while he was at a skate park in England with his son.

NICK WAPLINGTON: This is the only spot where I can get Wifi in the skate park.

LEHRER: Are you skating right now?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah, I’m skating with my son.

LEHRER: That’s fantastic. I wish my dad skateboarded with me.  He was always trying to get me to golf, and then would get frustrated when I couldn’t make the shot.

WAPLINGTON: [Laughs.] It’s a nice day here.

LEHRER: I’ve been looking at your paintings, and they’re beautiful. First, I was really curious, do you feel like you artwork is reflective of the environment you created it in? I ask because I felt like your early photographs had this chilly, muted feel to them. While your paintings, which were primarily done in Los Angeles, were more bright, exploding in color and contrast. Is that at all accurate?

WAPLINGTON: Well, these are not the first paintings I made, but I can’t help but be affected by [the LA] kind of environment. The light really influenced my time in LA. I have an outdoor studio that I enjoy painting in. I’ve been immersed in painting since I’ve been in LA. There’s a flow [to my paintings]. Ideas move from one painting to the next. Everything is a progression like that.

LEHRER: And you like Los Angeles?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah, yeah. I’ve lived there before, so for me, it’s very easy to get back to where I left off.

LEHRER: Do you feel like you’re the type who can find something to love about every type of place you go?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. I find everything interesting. Being in different places for long periods of time - I really feed off that. In my life, I’ve spent extensive periods in Sao Paolo, Zurich, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, New York… I’ve used that as a catalyst for making work. It’s always good to throw everything up in the air every once in a while, you know?

LEHRER: Absolutely. One thing I’ve found most compelling in your work is that there always seems to be, at least to me, a central conflict driving it. With the McQueen photos, there was this contrast between this masterful artisan at work and a guy struggling with exhaustion and massive expectations. With West Bank, there were obvious political conflicts inherent in that region. Are you purposefully looking for these conflicts?

WAPLINGTON: I have all sorts of problems. I certainly wouldn’t want to do therapy to straighten myself out. I deal with my own personal edginess. Often, within my work, there’s a kind of autobiographical stream to it. All the projects – including McQueen, to a certain degree – were characters similar [to me] in some respects. The title of the McQueen book refers to my working process as much as his.

LEHRER: I feel like that’s why you’ve been so successful. Your subjects are so varied, in painting and photography. But they all feel a part of one, definitive vision. Is that something that you strive for?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. I’m always trying to order out some chaos. I’m not an artist that has one thing. I can’t really understand that limited scope. “I’m a geometric artist… I’m a body artist…” You know? I’m always looking for the next thing – reading, meeting people and finding new things to make work about.

LEHRER: I feel like it’s almost implemented by the industry. Even on the media side of things, I like to write about everything – music, art, news, fashion, whatever. But I have editors that will tell me to stay in my lane, to pick one thing and focus on that. I can’t imagine ever writing about one thing.

WAPLINGTON: That’s the problem with the galleries. They want artists who are known for a type of work. Collectors want to collect a type of work. There’s a narrowing of perspective. It makes it harder to sell work. But in the long term, it makes the work much more interesting. I haven’t allowed my work to be defined by people other than myself.If people like it, they like it. If not, it’s okay.

LEHRER: So it’s not Nick Waplington, the Photographer AND Nick Waplington, the Painter? It’s just Nick Waplington, the Artist?

WAPLINGTON: I just see it all as my work. I don’t need to separate things.

LEHRER: I feel like These Days was an appropriate gallery choice in that way because they do anti-establishment stuff. Your work’s core has a sense of, “I’m going to do what I want.”

WAPLINGTON: It’s not a gallery that’s functioning in the art world, as such. It’s basically a space where they put on shows that they like. It It was interesting to take over the space and use the space as functioning for the art world, even though it’s not known for having art world shows. We like that. I like that side of Downtown. I’ve been interested in Downtown [Los Angeles] since the late 90s when I was living in Eaglerock. I was going to a lot of rave parties down there at that point. 

LEHRER: Yeah, for sure. LA, at that time, was really defined by skateboarding and surf culture.

WAPLINGTON: That’s changing too. But all these new concrete skateparks are popping up. I try to get to Glendale skatepark whenever I get a moment. At my age, if you want to keep skating, you have to skate. 

LEHRER: I see some of these guys, like Andrew Reynolds, frontside flipping twenty stairs at age 38. How are his knees not collapsing right now?

WAPLINGTON: I saw a video of a 55 year old Lance Mountain kickflipping a table. It’s crazy. 

LEHRER: I don’t want to get too off on a tangent, but I remember when I was really into skateboarding in the early 2000s, and the first Flip video came out. I remember thinking, “This is the best that skateboarding is ever going to be.” I watch a video now, and the kids who are skating now are sorcerers. 

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. But you have a generation of kids who are growing up with concrete skateparks. My son is 11, and he’s here every day he can be here. Obviously, they’re going to be doing all sorts of shit that wasn’t possible 10 or 15 years ago. 

LEHRER: I wanted to talk to you about the chaos you refer to in your work. Is this chaos an internal or external chaos?

WAPLINGTON: I am dyslexic and left handed, so everything is slightly chaotic with me. I’m drawn to the fringes of society, in the world in general, but especially in LA. Republican states have been sending all their homeless people on buses to California. I’ve been quite influenced by these very large tent cities that have been growing along the freeways, as you go down towards Long Beach. I’ve been hanging out there and vibeing off that a little bit. I’ve been thinking about how these things compare with the 1940s when people were moving from Oklahoma and Tennessee to California, and they were living in the LA River in tents instead. Somehow, it seems like America is in need of a New Deal again, as you were lucky enough to get with Roosevelt. There’s a strangulation of the economy right now. It doesn’t transpose itself directly into the work, but there’s a psycho-geographical feel to some of the paintings. 

LEHRER: It is an interesting time to live in the US. It feels like the US it at a huge crossroads. A good portion of the country wants to move forward – vote for Bernie Sanders, get universal free healthcare, raise the minimum wage. And then there’s this other half that is completely reactionary and places all the blame of minorities and immigrants.

WAPLINGTON: There’s a contradiction in the GOP point of view. They want to bring down the trade barriers that exist between America and the rest of the world, so there is a mobile free trade area. But then they want America to be separatist from the rest of the world and still have the higher stander of living. They don’t want to engage with the rest of the world; they want to use the rest of the world as a production facility. If they’re going to remove the trade barriers, they’re going to have to engage with everyone else. They can’t have it both ways, but they don’t really understand that. It’s interesting times, definitely. 

LEHRER: What feels more at peace for you in art? Is it photography or painting?

WAPLINGTON: I like doing both, I really do. Maybe as I get older, I might be out there taking pictures less than I am in the studio. But I’m still taking pictures all the time. I had this book a couple of years ago, the Patriarch’s Wardrobe, in which I combined photograph and painting. Now, I’m making a new body of work that includes some of the paintings in the show. I’m going to combine photos and paintings again. I might add text, too. I’m very much a solo worker. I don’t have a team of people working with me. Everything that’s made by me is really made by me.

LEHRER: I really loved the Brooklyn Museum exhibit you were featured in, ‘This Place.’ I included it an article for Forbes about the best exhibitions of the winter. I got a weird email about it from a publicist. I wrote something about it being political, and she said, “No, no, can you take that out? It’s not political.” I was thinking, “How can anything about the West Bank be not political?” I want to know what your take was on that experience, and if you think politics can be removed from a discussion about The West Bank.

WAPLINGTON: I don’t think politics can be removed, but I tried to make work that wasn’t dealing directly with politics. I wanted to make work that had connectivity and time to it. I wanted my work to be a catalyst for dialogue about the West Bank. I want to make work about Jews in the West Bank that wasn’t about conflict with the Palestinians. It was, “Here is the landscape. Here are the Jewish people. What do you think about that?” The sculptural element was adding the Palestinians into the equation in a hidden way. It reminded me of being in South Africa during apartheid, when they managed to hide black people away somehow. I know that it’s very contentious to compare the West Bank to South Africa, especially amongst Jewish people, but the parallels are there, unfortunately. I am Jewish, you know that?

LEHRER: Yeah, I’m Jewish too. I don’t think, from a moral standpoint, that I can totally condone the hiding of an entire group of people who have lived there forever.

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. It’s just not fair, this collective punishment. I really believe that it would be possible to make a kind of deal that was to everyone’s advantage. I think it’s really doable and possible. There’s this idea that the other group will just go away at some point. It’s ridiculous.

LEHRER: It’s insane to me that Bernie Sanders is our first Jewish presidential candidate. He just said that he would support a two-state deal, and he was called anti-Israel by every publication in the country.

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. Well, the West Bank is the biblical land of Israel. They’re not going to give it up. Let’s be honest about that. I think the two-state solution looks great on paper, but it seems impossible. It’s not going to be split, so it’s about finding a solution with both groups of people within one state, in my opinion.

LEHRER: It does seem like that. The optimist in me wants to think anything is possible, but I haven’t been there.

WAPLINGTON: 25% of the people in Israel are Arab. I just believe that if it’s one state, they might as well incorporate the West Bank, give everyone the vote, and have a constitution that gives people their rights. They can be called Israel and Palestine. Why not? We already have a country with two different populations. Half of Malaysia is Chinese and secular, whereas the other half is Muslim. And they make it work. I think if they do it, after a few years, they’ll be wondering what all the fuss as about.

LEHRER: Once peace is actually achieved, people start to realize, what was the fighting for? This is so much better.

WAPLINGTON: I believe it can be worked out. People think I’m crazy for believing that. 

Nick Waplington "A Display of Panic at a Moment of Absolute Certainty" will be on view at These Days LA until June 5, 2016. Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Photographs by Flo Kohl. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE