Writers & Company

Artist David Hockney is a master of reinvention — from the swimming pools of LA, to the forests of England

In this 2011 conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the celebrated British artist and designer reflects on a life of art and challenging the norm.
British artist David Hockney spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2011 in Toronto, where he was exhibiting new paintings created on an iPad. (CBC)

This interview originally aired on Nov. 15, 2011.

David Hockney was once described as "cooler than Warhol, more enduring than Lucien Freud." Never afraid to reinvent himself, his work ranges from abstract to 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 found fame in 1960s London, painting overtly homosexual scenes. But it was after relocating to Los Angeles that he created some of his best known work — realistic depictions of swimming pools and Hollywood architecture. His six-metre-long painting, Santa Monica Boulevard, is currently on display — for the first time in North America — at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

In works of photographic collage, Hockney explored his fascination with cameras while challenging the belief that they show the world the way it really is. In the mid-1970s, he began working in yet another form — as a set designer for opera.

In 2004, Hockney returned to his Yorkshire homeland to care for his aging mother. There, he rediscovered the beauty of the northern English landscape and his paintings grew bigger — with one stretching 12 metres wide by four metres high.

Hockney spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2011 in Toronto, where he was exhibiting new paintings created 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 artwork made up of a hundred drawings he made on an iPad. (Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

"Because of the iPad, I'm drawing wider subjects. Last week, I went to Yosemite and drew on the iPad, knowing I was going to print them 12 feet high — and we did, in L.A.

"You probably wouldn't know they were drawn on an iPad. But there's a lot to explore there; I've really only just started on it. The great thing is it's always there — I carry it about with me.

There's a speed to the iPad that's fascinating, because any draftsman is interested in speed, quickness.

"There's a speed to the iPad that's fascinating, because any draftsman is interested in speed, quickness. I was sitting on my bed in Bridlington and I said, 'Look at that cup just there. Now watch.' I just opened the iPad and drew it.

"I hadn't moved. I hadn't got up for a glass of water. I hadn't got up to get a brush. I hadn't got up to get anything. So I drew the cup at the moment of inspiration. I simply said, 'Oh, it's a good shape. I'll draw it.' Whereas even a little box of watercolours, you might have to get up, get a glass, do this, do that. So there's a fantastic speed to it, if you carry it about like I do and treat it like a sketchpad."

David Hockney: Fresh Flowers

11 years ago
Duration 2:23
'Fresh Flowers,' an exhibit of artist David Hockney’s iPad and iPhone drawings, is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The L.A. appeal

"Los Angeles offered me freedom. First of all, it was a marvellous climate. I knew there was quite a bit of gay life there. I looked at magazines and things like that. I thought it was a sunny place. I'd been to New York first in 1961 and I thought that it was very lively. I remember I viewed England as a very stodgy place then.

People in Los Angeles hinted, 'Well, you've come to 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 had been made there actually: the movies.

"I was only about 23, 24. I found it very lively. I had no idea when I first went, whether there were artists — I knew Hollywood was there. And that was the arts for me. People in Los Angeles hinted, 'Well, you've come to 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 had been made there actually: the movies. 

"I felt very, very free. When I look back now, it was a lot more free and easy in those days."

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

Reflecting on pools

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

To quote George Herbert:

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye;
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the heaven espy.

"In England, a swimming pool would have been seen as a sign of luxury, because the climate in England is not very good for outdoor pools. But in Southern California, it's not — they're simply everywhere because you can enjoy them year-round.

Painting water presents a graphic challenge. How do you paint the transparency of water? How do you paint the transparency of glass?

"The first place I lived, I rented a small apartment with an outdoor swimming pool. I mean, I didn't own the pool, but nevertheless it was there.

"Also, Los Angeles was a bit unknown visually then, partly because Hollywood deliberately avoided showing itself. Hollywood avoided itself physically. I realized 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 exhibit is called The Bigger Picture so I've begun to think the paintings should be big.

"Scale makes a difference. There were arguments from about 30 years ago where, it wasn't 'painting was dead,' but they said 'easel painting was dead,' meaning smaller painting. And remember, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, they thought they were making very, very big paintings — and they were at the time.

Bigger Trees Near Warter took up a whole wall. I only had a very, very small studio at that time in my Bridlington house [in Yorkshire, England]. It was painted outside mostly. I'd figured out how to do it without a ladder. Any kind of work of art that's big, there are problems because of its bigness.

Any kind of work of art that's big, there are problems because of its bigness.

"We're not just talking about bigness in picture. We're talking about scale.

"Scale, therefore, is in relation to you. What size am I? And you're going to stand and look at it. I realize that we were solving some technical problem. I also did it on 50 separate canvases. If it was one canvas, it would have been impossible to move. 

"The largest canvas Monet painted was outdoors (en plein air). He had to build a trench to put it in. That's the equivalent of the ladder. It was this combination of the technical problem and my arm length, as it were, which was interesting."

British artist David Hockney stands before 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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