Bridlington, an area of undulating landscapes on the northeast coast of Yorkshire, in England, possesses a unique character, the moodiness of its erratic sky and the nearby sea posing a remarkable contrast to its steadfast woodlands and desolate roads. Unlike its southern counterpart, the Cotswolds, it is deserted. If you visit, yours might be the only car on the road for 25 miles around. And Bridlington residents are happy to be isolated. That includes painter David Hockney, the best-known living artist in the U.K., perhaps in the entire world. Hockney, 72, was born in Bradford, an industrial town about an hour’s drive from Bridlington. Drawn by the California lifestyle depicted in the gay novels of John Rechy, he moved to Los Angeles in 1978, remaining there for nearly four decades. But he journeyed back to Bridlington regularly to visit his mother, who lived in a converted bed-and-breakfast that he bought for her in the démodé seaside resort. When an old friend, the collector Jonathan Silver, was dying in West Yorkshire, his stays became longer, and after his mother passed away, in 1999, longer still. By 2005, Hockney was spending most of his time in the expansive countryside here, using it as the primary inspiration for his work. Still, he has no intention of giving up California. "I’m on location," he quips in a warm, lilting Yorkshire accent. And, in fact, the place does feel like a movie set.
When the photographer Antony Crook and I arrive at Hockney’s Bridlington home one balmy afternoon in December, his "technology assistant," Jonathan Wilkinson, answers the door and invites us in. Hockney shares the place with his assistant Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, a.k.a. J.P. — away in Paris when we visit — as well as a close-knit live-in team that includes, besides Wilkinson, another Jonathan, who oversees the household responsibilities. Facing the North Sea, the house has creaky floors and several rooms en suite, with odd doors and hidden nooks, and a large, bright loft that Hockney converted to a studio in 2005. It’s an eccentric place. Every room is painted in contrasting hues, from deep burgundy to navy blue, and since we’re visiting just before Christmas, there are two Christmas trees, decorated so elaborately with tinsel (no ornaments) that they look like Hockney installations. Reproductions of his works (and what appear to be a few originals) hang throughout the house alongside placards bearing messages like No Smoking and Smoking Area — all ironic, since Hockney is a chain-smoker and die-hard activist for smokers’ rights.
A lively day begins, one rich in lengthy (but fascinating) monologues from the contemporary master, who although nearly deaf is animated and enthusiastic, especially when it comes to exploring and theorizing about the world around him and making art out of what he sees. After he arranges with Jonathan No. 2 to have lunch ready for midday, we grab our coats and pack into a Jeep for the 10-minute drive to his main studio. On the way, Hockney points out the wooded road depicted in his ongoing series of photo-collage landscapes, which include The Twenty-Five Big Trees Between Bridlington School and Morrison’s Supermarket on Bessingby Road, in the Semi-Egyptian Style, Monday 23 February/Thursday 26 February/Friday 27 February 2009. "See, 25," he says, playfully referring to my review of his show "Drawing in a Printing Machine," at Annely Juda Fine Art in London (Modern Painters, September 2009), in which I wrote, "I am curious to make a visit to Bessingby Road to see for myself" whether the tree images had been manipulated, perhaps cut and pasted from elsewhere. Well, here I am on Bessingby Road, and here are all 25 of the trees. He smiles triumphantly as I acknowledge this.
His studio is located in a little industrial estate on the far edge of town. It’s an incredible, light-filled 10,000 square feet — an area greater than the sum of all the spaces most artists can imagine having at their disposal over their lifetimes. Inside are a couple of tables, computers, and moveable partitions, but it’s mostly open floor space bordered by astonishingly vast walls. Against one of these are ranged about six shelving units, used to hold wet canvases, while from the other three, large square pegs jut out in rows. "They’re so you can do big paintings very easily. You don’t need ladders. You can move canvases up and down," says Hockney, gesturing at the pegs. "There are too many technical difficulties with big canvases. How do you paint the top of them? On a ladder you can’t paint as freely as you can on the floor." This peg-hanging system has enabled him to produce his recent large-scale works, in which the full expanse of an image is divided among several canvases. He transports the canvases to the woods and paints en plein air, mounting one or more at a time onto easels. Returning to his studio at the end of the day, he combines them to form giant multicanvas pictures. Bigger Trees Near Warter, 2007, which debuted in the Royal Academy’s 2007 summer show, is composed of 50 canvases measuring a combined 15 by 40 feet and controversially took up an entire wall in the main gallery ("I didn’t want any other works to go up next to it," Hockney says mischievously). Bigger Trees Nearer Warter, created during the winter and summer of 2008, and The Big Hawthorn, 2008, each comprise nine canvases and measure 9 by 12 feet.
Hockney has always been an innovator, as well as a constant digresser. Periods of feverish painting are followed by periods of intense absorption in which he focuses on other media: collage, printmaking, photography, even set design — he earned critical acclaim for the sets and costumes of the 1975 production of Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, in England, which was followed by a collaboration on Glyndebourne’s 1978 staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute and a commission from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to design the sets and costumes for a triple bill of works by Francis Poulenc, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel. But the essence of Hockney’s art has always been painting.
While in the graduate program at London’s Royal College of Art information">Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962, he developed an aesthetic characterized by antiabstract, overtly sexualized portraiture in vibrant colors that led to his early work being classified as British Pop art. In 1961 he exhibited with Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, R.B. Kitaj, and Peter Phillips in the "Young Contemporaries Exhibition," an event that drew attention to this emerging style and brought Hockney added fame as one of its pioneers. After graduating, he moved to the Notting Hill section of London, and the following year the London art dealer John Kasmin gave him his first one-man exhibition. The pictures sold out. To this commercial success Hockney quickly added critical recognition. By 1970 he had had his first major retrospective, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Hockney’s most emblematic works may be his portraits, capturing such famous and nonfamous subjects as Ossie and Celia Clark with their cat Percy; members of his immediate family, most notably his mother, Laura; and nude males lounging by California pools, whose eroticism upended English portraiture. He has returned to portraiture many times throughout his career, exploring different styles, techniques, and methods of representation; most recently he used graphics tablets, printers, and other reproduction tools to produce the digitally drawn works shown at Annely Juda Fine Art, in London, last summer. Hockney has chronicled his own life by repeatedly depicting those closest to him, uncovering layers of their personalities and his own in a way that is deeply humanistic, going far beyond mere documentation of appearances. And he approaches all his subjects in all media — each tree or building or any inanimate object — as portrait subjects.
In the early naughts, Hockney drew considerable attention for not only artmaking but theorizing, which took him away from painting for more than two years. In 2000 he collaborated with the physicist Charles M. Falco on "Optical Insights into Renaissance Art." The article, which was published in Optics & Photonics News (and followed by Hockney’s 2001 solo book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters), argued that for the past 500 years, artists in the West have used optics and lenses in their work, thereby presenting the world in photographic terms. The invention of photography as we know it, says Hockney, was only the invention of chemicals; the optical lens has been around for hundreds of years. The "invention of photography," he tells me, "was the invention of the fixative to fix an image."
Hockney seems to have an antipathy to this "chemical" photography, which he claims has assumed visual control, which equals power. "If you think of it, until the 19th century, one of the main purveyors of images was the church," he says. "They decided that Christianity needed images, so they provided images, and in doing so the church had social control for a long time. But in the 19th century, they began to lose that control." He takes a puff of his Davidoff Classic cigarette and looks at me intently. "With the invention of photography, the power for social control simply moved with the imagemakers to what we call the media. Social control in the 20th century came through the media. That’s now disintegrating, and in a way the power of the media is therefore being diminished, and it’s spreading to anyone who wants it." Hockney’s eyes light up. He likes this sort of anarchic reshaping of the system. And he especially likes that the photograph is losing its hold. "We’ve gotten to the point where we think the camera can capture anything at all," he says wryly, adjusting his polka-dot ascot. "Well, it can’t really. The camera can’t compete with painting at all. The paintings are much more vivid about the place than photographs are."
But Hockney’s relationship with photography is clearly love-hate. He has used it extensively in his work, though not, he says, as a photographer but as a painter. Between 1970 and 1986, his "joiners" — Polaroid pictures joined to create composite images — confronted the fleeting nature of photographs. Similarly, the melded images in his scrolls, like Twenty-Five Big Trees, are entirely photographic except for stylistic, squiggly Hockney marks on the foreground footpath and sky. Paintings, however, offer the viewer a sense of space and a more personal depiction of landscape than single camera shots can. By combining his photographic images, the artist seeks to overcome the medium’s limitation, devising a composite that goes beyond its familiar monocular, single-frame perspective. The eye is forced to look at the picture vertically — because the repeating forms, like the trees in Twenty-Five Big Trees, occur vertically — as well as horizontally, and this cross-perception slows the viewer down. The process also releases photography from its bond to a single moment of a single second in time — depicting only surface, as Hockney points out — and gives it space and breadth and painterly humanization.
Just as painters like Jan Van Eyck, according to Hockney and Falco’s theory, used concave mirrors or refractive lenses to project the images of objects illuminated by sunlight onto the canvas, Hockney uses tools like digital photography and Photoshop to enhance his own work. "The way he keeps up with technological advances is amazing," says Douglas Baxter, president of PaceWildenstein, which showed Hockney’s large-scale landscapes at two of its New York galleries last fall. "That’s one of the things that informs the painting. He goes off on these wild explorations of those technologies and then comes back to painting, and his painting has changed and enriched because of this exploration." In Hockney’s studio, a realistic-scale print of Claude Lorrain’s expansive heroic painting The Sermon on the Mount, 1656 — part of the Frick Collection in New York — is tacked to one of the moveable walls. Next to it is the same print, with a few modifications: It is much brighter and airier; the mount from which Jesus addressed his disciples is clearly visible, rather than solemn and mysterious; it has become a wonderful spiral protruding from the visually busy landscape. Additionally, you can now see a staircase paralleling the Jordan River on the left side of the print. "I went to look at The Sermon on the Mount, and [the Frick] gave me a disc, so when we got back here, we printed it. And I realized that you could clean it digitally," says Hockney. "On the computer we kept taking out blacks, and I cleaned it that way. It took us a week to do it."
Hockney’s love of new technology, his love of new landscapes, and his love of painting resulted in the rich series of works exhibited at PaceWildenstein, which represent the culmination of his career to date. "The show was an enormous success on all levels," says Baxter. "We had huge attendance. We doubled our normal run for the catalogue, and it still sold out. It got a lot of critical attention as well, which I think is great. It ran the whole gamut." Baxter believes that it was the emotional content of the paintings that drew people to them. ("The trees become your friends," Hockney says when we are driving up Bessingby Road.) And in the same way that the artist humanizes his portraits, he humanizes the Yorkshire countryside, following it through the yearly cycle, from winter to summer. "They were very satisfying paintings," adds Baxter. "I think part of it is that he really loves and feels that landscape."
This intense relationship with landscape is an extreme sport. With J.P. at his side, Hockney produces almost a canvas a day, sometimes two or three. And the seasons! "Once [the bloom] starts, you have a week of great action," Hockney says excitedly, with a grand gesture, sending cigarette ash snowing onto his paint-splattered leather loafers. "The hawthorn is the most amazing, actually, and the hawthorn lasts three or four days when it’s at its maddest. It’s wonderful." In Los Angeles, Hockney was inspired by the city’s open spaces but missed out on the seasons, which Yorkshire presents in brilliant display, enabling him to experiment with time. The countryside’s life force has become the most significant part of his recent works, captured in his most vibrant palette yet. Hockney seems to be channeling the likes of van Gogh, whom he has always openly revered (along with Picasso, who seems to have less influence in this body of work; Picasso is nevertheless a constant inspiration in his success at working in a wide variety of media).
Hockney has cleared his schedule for 2010 and 2011 to prepare for his biggest show ever, of all-new pieces at the Royal Academy, scheduled for 2012. The academy has offered him the entire space, which he will fill with Yorkshire pictures. I peek into a maquette of the Royal Academy on a table in the middle of Hockney’s studio. A few miniature prints are already in place. "I want to do very big paintings for this show," he says, his clear blue eyes glittering.
We’re back at his home, sitting at the dining-room table after lunch: pork pie from Otley, boiled eggs, potato salad, and Brie. Hockney is smoking a postprandial fag. "What makes an image memorable?" I ask him. He likes this question. "Not many images are memorable," he says, ashes fluttering onto the table in front of him. "We don’t know what makes them memorable, because if we did, there would be a lot more. We don’t know the formula. There isn’t one."
Then he digresses, apparently anticipating my next question. "I never thought painting was dying," he says matter-of-factly. "If painting were dying, everything would be just photographs, and it can’t be that. That would be far, far too dull. People said that they never thought photography would change. But it has changed. So once you realize that photography is changing, it’s a very different point of view. Photography is moving back toward painting. I can call that book Drawing in Photography." He smiles wryly, before moving on to an entirely new monologue.