David Hockney is one of our best-loved living artists, and in 2010 we were let into his world thanks to A Bigger Message, a book by Martin Gayford detailing conversations with Hockney about his life and practise. Recently republished with new and updated materials, the publisher Thames & Hudson has kindly let us reprint an extract where we learn more about Hockney’s LA studio.
In Los Angeles, the studio is the centre of Hockney’s world. It is the place where he spends most of his waking hours. The structure, built higher up than the house and at a slight angle, is much smaller than the one in Bridlington, but still a big room, high and spacious, with an upper gallery at one end and comfortable chairs disposed on the floor.
On most days Hockney goes there after breakfast, stays until lunch, and usually returns in the afternoon following a rest. For him it is as much a place for thinking as for working. On the walls are hung pictures in progress and also finished ones, in arrangements that frequently change. It is a private exhibition of very recent work, out of which the next pictures, yet to be made, will grow.
DH: I sit in the studio a lot, just taking in the pictures. I like being in here. A bed in the studio would suit me. It would be great. You need to do an awful lot of looking. I think unless you do that, you’re not going to “get” a lot of things.
MG: A studio is a place for looking, and also a place for thinking about looking. And there is a tradition of paintings about studios, which are therefore pictures about the act of making pictures and in a way about what pictures are.
DH: Yes, for example, Vermeer’s Art of Painting is a painting about sitting in the studio and looking. It shows Vermeer at an easel in front of you, painting it. There are paintings of studios by Braque, Matisse, Picasso, and many others.
In the early summer of 2014, Hockney’s interest metamorphosed again. By that stage, he had produced over fifty portraits in the Comédie humaine series. Then, he began to paint groups of people in his studio, who were also the sitters for some of the portraits, gazing at the paintings on the wall (which of course were created in this same space).
MG: The new series started as pictures of people looking at pictures, which suggests that they are paintings about looking and pictures about pictures.
DH: Yes, they are. The earlier groups are people in conversation, or just contemplating something. I had them all posing simultaneously at the start. The largest group is of eleven people. So I’m putting the people in the space, and then looking at them.
MG: It is actually very unusual, historically, to paint multi-figure compositions like this from life in that way. The normal procedure from the Renaissance onwards has been to study each figure separately, then fit them into a space. You are doing it all at once.
DH: Yes, I am. Rodrigo Moynihan did a large figure composition of the Penguin editors at a supposed cocktail party After the Conference, 1955]. But because there was a large number of people involved, he filmed it, then took stills. That was a terrible idea. A filmed picture – like any photograph – will only have one perspective. In real life when you are looking at ten people in a room there are a thousand. Because the moment the eye moves, it changes. That’s what real life is. The eye moves all the time. When my eye moves in one direction, the perspective goes that way. So it’s constantly changing with my eye.
MG: In a sense, what you are doing with these group paintings is putting yourself in the picture. Everything is seen from your viewpoint, which is inside the picture space, not outside it, as a normal photograph or single-point perspective picture would be.
DH Yes. There’s a weird spatial thing going on which seems to me to be about the centre of the picture, not the edges. In these groups, there’s a general perspective for the room but also for each person, because I’m looking at them. In fact, they may have several. If a figure is close to me, I am seeing his face head on, but also looking down at his feet. So you are moving in to view just that one individual. Then, you have to turn to look at another person, if he is close too. You cannot actually see both at the same time. In moving, you see another figure, then another. You make space through time, I think. And the space between where you end and I begin is the most interesting space of all. It’s far more interesting than outer space.
From painting groups of people standing around looking at pictures or talking to each other, Hockney moved on to depicting people in movement. On 27 August 2014, I watched him paint a group of dancers. In a way, it was a reworking of Matisse’s great compositions of 1909 and 1910, La Danse. He was doing something quite different from simply imitating the original, however. His idea recalled Cézanne’s famous remark that he wanted to “refaire Poussin sur nature” (“redo Poussin from nature”). Hockney was painting Matisse’s dancers from life. To do so, he followed a highly unusual, perhaps unique, procedure.
In the morning, a group of five young dancers assembled in Hockney’s Los Angeles studio. When everybody was there Hockney stood, charcoal in hand, at the easel and gave his first instruction: “Hold hands, spread out a bit, start going round.” And they began to rotate with slow, graceful steps.
For a short while, Hockney just watched. Then he told them to stop and drew one of the dancers. The position in which this young man was frozen – poised with one leg on tiptoe – looked extremely hard to hold, but he remained amazingly steady while Hockney captured his outline. When that was finished, the dancers moved round for a few more revolutions, then Hockney paused them and drew one of the women in an even more awkward posture, leaning forward, her arms held out behind her. This continued until all five were sketched, after which they returned – one by one and in groups – while Hockney began to lay on the paint.
DH: The very first picture of the dancers was of them stood in a circle, it was ok, but they weren’t moving, they weren’t dancing. I got them to go round in a circle, then I would say stop, and draw one and I slowly built it up. Now I’ve moved out of the room and put them in a landscape – on top of the world, really.
The paintings of dancers were connected with the remarkable eighteen-screen films made in 2011 and 2012. These were not landscapes, in which the multiple cameras moved along a road, but interiors in which the cameras were static but people constantly moved. They included a marvellous one of the York Juggling Club processing and performing in the Bridlington studio.
DH: I thought the jugglers would be good because there is constant movement from each juggler, wherever they were, and that would keep each screen lively. With one camera you can’t show many people in a room, each doing something different in this way – because you are seeing them all at once. But with nine separate cameras you can have a different exposure in different parts of the image. You are being forced to do what you would in reality: scan through space. So this is the opposite of MTV. We’re not telling you what to look at; you can choose where to look.
The experience of making the group paintings led Hockney to devise a new kind of photograph, if, as we shall see, it is indeed a photograph and not a drawing. I happened to be in the studio at the moment when this came into being. Hockney was musing that he could see a way to create a similar kind of multiple-perspective space to that in the paintings by taking photographs on his iPad. “In fact”, he concluded, “I think I’ll do it now.”
Quickly, he asked J-P and Jonathan Mills to take up poses – two each – in different parts of the studio, photographed the room separately, and melded the results together. This was the embryonic first in a succession of works that rapidly appeared in the weeks that followed, containing more and more figures.
“The photographs (if that’s what they are) have many perspectives”, he said of the later, more developed examples. “There are about four for the room, and each figure has four, and I am convinced they are all visible: that’s what is creating the space.” In some, there are multitudes of figures, and the studio itself has expanded into much larger dimensions than it actually has; after a while, furnishings entered the scene: tables, vases of flowers and a multitude of chairs that have populated one entire image. In these, the studio itself becomes a performer, its dimensions magically expanding, as if it were some art-world Tardis.
Later in 2014, Hockney went on to paint a version of Cézanne’s three-figure _Card Players", using a similar method to the one he had used for the group portraits and the dancers. He painted them, and also made his new digitally collaged photographs of the models, posed playing cards. Next, he took photographs of the digital collages and the paintings beside each other on the walls: pictures about pictures, pictures growing out of other pictures, material for contemplation in the studio.
Are these new works the end of David Hockney’s search for a bigger and better picture of the world? Probably not. His investigation will go on, because the perfect picture of the world – capturing everything we could possibly see in it, and feel about it, the way we move through it and peer into it – is an impossible ideal. The quest for it, however, reveals an enormous amount, not just about pictures but also about us. It seems unlikely that Hockney is ever going to give up on that.
DH: I’ll just stay here and do my thing, I’m not that interested in what happens outside. I just go out to the doctor and the dentist. A friend was arranging to see me on such and such a date and she asked, “Where’s your diary?” I said, ‘" don’t have a diary, because it’s always full already."
I live the same way as I have for years; I’m just a worker. Artists are. Michelangelo, Picasso – they worked all the time. In the last four years of his life van Gogh’s time is almost all accounted for. He did all those paintings, all those drawings, wrote all those letters. What other time was left over? Just enough for sleeping, that’s all. But you never hear about artists staying in bed, because they don’t.
Martin Gayford’s updated and expanded paperback edition of A Bigger Message is published by Thames & Hudson