I caught up with David Hockney recently by phone from Los Angeles, where he was supervising the re-installation of his 1987 sets for the LA Opera production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Hockney still keeps a home in L.A., but spends most of his time lately in Bridlington, a coastal town in East Yorkshire close to where he grew up, and where it’s easy for him to pursue his deepening preoccupation with landscape painting.
Two years ago I headed out there for a few days to talk with Hockney and to drive around with him to the places where he was setting up his easel. By last year he was assembling groups of canvases grid-style into larger images, a process that eventually led to Bigger Trees Near Warter, a single work composed of 50 smaller canvases that was exhibited last summer at London’s Royal Academy of Art. At 40 feet long by 15 feet high, it may be the largest picture ever painted entirely out of doors.
LACAYO: Do you still divide your time between L.A. and Britain?
HOCKNEY: I live wherever I happen to be. I’ll be going back to Bridlington soon but I’m in L.A. now. I’m in Bridlington more of the time now because we’re planning this big show.
LACAYO: Are you going to change the set design of Tristan in any way?
HOCKNEY: It didn’t need changing. Most Tristans you see are virtually concert performances. I saw a production in Baden-Baden last year. Very good singing but nothing to look at. I was with a friend at the performance, telling him the Tristan story and he said “I’m glad you told me, because you can’t tell anything about it from looking at this production.” But you can tell the story from this one. In this one you see everything — castles, forests, ships at sea, daylight, night time. The sets are very simple in a way. But the ways that you can light them make them change.
LACAYO: When I saw you two years ago you thought you might be involved with landscape painting for just a year, a single cycle of four seasons. But obviously you’ve stayed with it.
HOCKNEY: I think you can open up landscape painting. Most people would regard it as finished. I don’t think it is. When we realized we could open up landscape painting on a large scale with the help of a computer, I got very excited.
LACAYO: Whenever I’m in Britain I’m struck by how much more visible British artists are to the ordinary public than they are in the U.S. You’re a household name. A lot of younger British artists are famous, or at least notorious. And the newspapers follow the Turner Prize and the Fourth Plinth competition the way American papers follow the Oscars. Why do you think that is?
HOCKNEY: Britain is a very small country with a very large press. The United States is a very large country with a very small press. What I mean is you’ve got a competitive press in London, with several papers, so you get competitive coverage, competitive critics.
LACAYO: Two years ago, in a single six week period, two of your paintings in succession broke auction house records for your work. You weren’t the seller in either case. In Britain do artists get a portion of the auction sale of their art even if they aren’t the sellers?
HOCKNEY: I think it depends on where it’s sold. If it’s sold in London I think I do but I’m not sure.
LACAYO: Well one way to tell would be if the money appeared in your bank account. So you don’t follow your own finances closely?
HOCKNEY: You know I don’t actually. I have somebody else follow them who I trust. The great thing about Bridlington is that the three of us can live there like bohemians while the office is in L.A. You need an office somewhere, looking after everything, but the great thing is, that’s off in L.A.
LACAYO: Last fall I saw a show at Tate Britain of Turner watercolors chosen by you. If you ran your own museum, what would you be thinking about these days?
HOCKNEY: We live in a somewhat confused time about imagery, partly because of confusions about photography. I think I understand now what it really was, just a blot in a continuum of picture making. And it’s now finished. We’re into another era with pictures. We used to assume that photography had a greater connection with reality because it depicted an event in time and space that took place in front of the camera. With digital imagery and photoshop, that no longer has to be the case. We’re into a new era that we haven’t sorted out yet.
Anyway I feel myself a bit on the edge on the artworld, but I don’t mind, I’m just pursuing my work in a very excited way. And there isn’t really a mainstream anymore, is there?
LACAYO. How’s your one man campaign for smokers’ rights going?
HOCKNEY. I did an interview recently with the LA Times and said “I have noticed here in California that 25% of the advertisements on American television are for prescription drugs. That’s what’s replacing tobacco.” People smoke to calm down, but now in this country you take drugs to do that. I’m a lone voice but I keep on it. I’m not giving up. Tobacco is America’s greatest gift to the world!
There’s an interesting description of how Hockney produced his large landscape at the Royal Academy website here.