Artist David Hockney is a master of reinvention – from the swimming pools of LA to the forests of England – CBC.ca | WHs Answers

This interview originally aired on November 15, 2011.

David Hockney was once described as “cooler than Warhol, more enduring than Lucien Freud”. His work is not afraid to reinvent itself and ranges from the abstract to the naturalistic; from huge landscape paintings to iPad drawings in his pocket.

English artist David Hockney, left, with American pop artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Hockney rose to fame in 1960s London painting openly homosexual scenes. But it wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles that he created some of his best-known work – realistic depictions of swimming pools and Hollywood architecture. His six meter long painting, Santa Monica Boulevardis currently on view – for the first time in North America – at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

In photographic collages, Hockney explored his fascination with cameras while challenging beliefs that they depict the world as it really is. In the mid-1970s he began to work in a different form – as a set designer for operas.

In 2004, Hockney returned to his native Yorkshire to care for his aging mother. There he rediscovered the beauty of the northern English countryside and his paintings grew larger – one was 12 meters wide and four meters high.

Hockney spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in 2011 where he was exhibiting new paintings made on an iPad.

A new medium

British painter David Hockney poses at the Orangerie Museum in Paris in front of his painting A year in Normandy, a 91-metre-long work of art made up of a hundred drawings he made on an iPad. (Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

“Because of the iPad, I draw wider subjects. Last week I went to Yosemite and drew on the iPad knowing I was going to print them 12 feet tall – and we did that in LA

“You probably wouldn’t know they were drawn on an iPad. But there is a lot to discover there; I’ve really just started this. The great thing is that it’s always there – I carry it around with me.

The iPad has a fascinating speed, because every draftsman is interested in speed, speed.

“The iPad has an amazing speed, because every draftsman is interested in speed, speed. I was sitting on my bed in Bridlington and I said, ‘Look at that cup over there. I just opened the iPad and drew.

“I hadn’t moved. I hadn’t gotten up for a glass of water. I hadn’t gotten up to get a brush. I hadn’t gotten up to get anything. So, in the moment of inspiration, I pulled the cup… I simply said, “Oh, it’s good form. I’m going to draw it.” Whereas, even with a small box of watercolors, you might have to get up, get a jar, do this, do that. So it has fantastic speed if you carry it around like I do and treat it like a sketchpad. “

David Hockney: Fresh Flowers

Fresh Flowers, an exhibition of artist David Hockney’s iPad and iPhone drawings, is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The LA Appeal

“Los Angeles offered me freedom. First, it was a wonderful climate. I knew there was quite a bit of gay life there. I looked at magazines and things like that. I thought it would be a sunny place. I first went to New York in 1961 and found it very lively, I remember thinking of England as a very sluggish country at the time.

People in Los Angeles hinted, “Well, you’ve arrived in a cultural desert.” But I didn’t see it as a cultural desert. I thought some of the great works of art of the 20th century were actually made there: the movies.

“I was only about 23, 24. I found it very lively. I had no idea when I first went if there were artists – I knew Hollywood was there. And that was the art for me. People in Los Angeles were like, ‘Well, you’ve gotten into a culture desert.’ But I didn’t see it as a cultural desert, I thought some of the great works of art of the 20th century were actually created there: the films.

“I felt very, very free. When I look back now, it was much freer and easier back then.”

A woman looks at David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) during a press preview at Christie’s New York September 13, 2018. (Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Thinking about pools

“Painting water presents a graphic challenge: how do you paint the transparency of water? How to paint the transparency of glass?

To quote George Herbert:

A man looking at glass
His eye may remain on that;
Or, if he likes it, walk through it
And then the sky spy.

“In England a swimming pool would have been considered a sign of luxury because the climate in England is not very good for outdoor pools. But Southern California isn’t — they’re just everywhere because you can enjoy them year-round — round.

Painting water is a graphic challenge. How to paint the transparency of water? How to paint the transparency of glass?

“In my first apartment I rented a small apartment with an outdoor pool. I mean, the pool didn’t belong to me, but it was there anyway.

“Also, Los Angeles was a bit visually unknown at the time, in part because Hollywood deliberately avoided showing itself. Hollywood has shunned each other physically. I noticed that it wasn’t that well known.”

David Hockney, Santa Monica Boulevard, 1978-80. Acrylic on canvas, 218.44 x 609.6 cm. Collection The David Hockney Foundation © David Hockney. (Photo: David Egan)

Bigger in scale

“The exhibition is called The Bigger Picture So I started thinking that the pictures should be big.

“Scale makes a difference. About 30 years ago there were arguments where they didn’t say ‘painting was dead’ but they said ‘easel painting was dead’ which meant smaller painting. And remember, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, they thought they were doing very, very big paintings – and they were doing that at the time.

Larger trees near Warter took up an entire wall. I only had a very, very small studio in my house in Bridlington at the time [in Yorkshire, England]. It was mainly painted outdoors. I had figured out how to do it without a ladder. Any type of artwork that is large has problems because of its size.

Any type of artwork that is large has problems because of its size.

“We’re not just talking about size in the picture. We’re talking about scaling.

“So scale refers to you. What size am I? And you will stand and watch it. I realize that we have solved a technical problem. I also did it on 50 separate canvases. If there was a canvas it would have been impossible to move it.

“The largest canvas Monet painted was outdoors (outdoors). He had to dig a ditch to put them in. This is the equivalent of the ladder. It was that combination of the technical issue and sort of my arm length that was interesting.”

British artist David Hockney stands in front of his work Bigger Trees Near Warter at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2007. (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

David Hockney’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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