Artists Habitat

L.A. Habitat: David Hockney

A visit with the artist as he paints new portraits. ‘I wasn’t planning on doing this many at first,’ he says, ‘but when I got to about 15 I realized I could probably go on forever.’

David Hockney photographed in his Hollywood Hills studio on December 8, 2015. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

David Hockney photographed in his Hollywood Hills studio on December 8, 2015.

©KATHERINE MCMAHON

L.A. Habitat is a weekly series that visits with artists in their workspaces.

This week’s studio: David Hockney; Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles.

“I moved here in 1964,” David Hockney told me one sunny afternoon in December at his Hollywood Hills studio. “I flew out here direct. I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t drive. Within a week I got a driver’s license, I got a studio, I got a little apartment, and I thought, ‘This is the place to be—in the land of swimming pools.’ ”

Hockney had recently made £5,000 from the sale of A Rake’s Progress, a series of 16 etchings, at his first show in London. “With that money I came to California in January,” he told me. Two years later he moved back to England with his then-boyfriend Peter Schlesinger, but he returned to Los Angeles in 1979, and has owned his current place in the Hollywood Hills since 1982. Though he decamped for Yorkshire in 2005 and spent eight or nine years painting landscapes, he has returned to California. He missed the sun, he said. “I was back and forth a bit, but I always intended to come back here.”

At 78, Hockney is one of the rare contemporary artists who truly needs no introduction. Rarer still, he is beloved by the general public, for his lush landscapes, his blazingly cool depictions of L.A., and his astute portraits. He has spent more than half a century gallivanting from one medium to another, taking up photography, stage design, and even iPad drawing in recent years, thanks to an app called Brushes, earning fans all along the way.

When I visited the studio, Hockney was hard at work making paintings for an exhibition that opens at the Royal Academy of Art in London in July, which will have 79 portraits depicting people he’s crossed paths with over the past two and a half years in the L.A. art world. “I wasn’t planning on doing this many at first,” he said, “but when I got to about 15 I realized I could probably go on forever.”

Subjects include friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. The first portrait in the series is his studio manager. Larry Gagosian, John Baldessari, and Benedikt Taschen (a neighbor) all sat in the same chair against the same blue backdrop for the works, and that uniformity amplifies each sitters’ personality in the works. “The last one I did was the son of Tacita Dean,” Hockney said. “Tacita came to the studio and she brought her son. I was so taken with him and she said yes because he was off all week for Thanksgiving break.” He paused to offer me a cigarette and lit one himself.

Hockney said that he was just back from a trip to New York, where he had taken in the “Picasso Sculpture” show at the Museum of Modern Art. “Great sculptor, great painter,” Hockney said. “Picasso had everything. There’s comedy, there’s tragedy.” Another recent highlight was MoMA’s Matisse cutouts show, which he said reminded him of how “marvelously” the artist used yellow.

Hockney said that he is not one for openings these days, but he is an avid reader, usually spending three to four hours every night with a book before he turns in for bed at 9 p.m. Having just finished Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, he seemed to be on an ancient Rome kick. “I even watched Cleopatra the other night with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” Hockney said. “She looked terrific, the eyes are marvelous.”

He has had a lifelong interest in cinema (and made a few film works himself), no doubt spurred on by his proximity to Hollywood. He lit another cigarette and spoke about his friendships with directors George Cukor, Tony Richardson, and Billy Wilder, whom he called one of the great artists of Hollywood. “Some Like It Hot is a flawless film,” he said. “It’s an amazing film because of it’s suggestions.”

“The French used to say, all the talent that used to be in painting is now in film,” Hockney continued. “Maybe it did, but film is a lot more ephemeral then painting. You have to give it time, which is why you don’t want to watch something terrible from the past. You haven’t got the time. The arts of time have to be edited a lot more than the arts of space.”

For the foreseeable future, Hockney was planning to hunker down in his studio to finish work for the London show. “I don’t leave this place much,” he said. “I’m too deaf to go out, really. I live in a silent world, but I like silence.” He said that he believes this helps him see space more clearly. “I can’t do a lot of things now,” he continued, “but it’s no good complaining. I just paint.”

Hockney’s upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, “82 Portraits and 2 Still Lifes,” opens on July 2. Next February, Tate Britain will present the most extensive retrospective of his work to date, which will travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the fall, two books will be released, David Hockney: A Bigger Book, a limited-edition production by Taschen, and A History of Pictures with Martin Gayford, which will study depictions of the world from prehistoric days to the 21st century and is being published by Thames & Hudson. Below, a look around Hockney’s Hollywood Hills studio.

ALL PHOTOS: KATHERINE MCMAHON

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