Los Angeles in the summer. White light, sky like a blank screen, immaculate visions. Up in the Hollywood Hills, in the hollows of a dry, fawn-colored canyon, is a house awash with bright expanses of color, flanked by a low pink wall, opening onto an intense blue walkway with a lemon-colored balustrade under a slatted pergola resting on vermilion posts, cooled by the cut-out shadows of palm trees. David Hockney is just back from Paris. Following the opening of his retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, he was keen to get back to his studio, his books, his latest pictures with their cut-off corners that reflect his preoccupation with reverse perspective, and his acrylic paints, which he has protected with lids to prevent them from drying out too quickly. The British artist was also in a hurry because he had decided to celebrate his 80th birthday by repainting his kidney-shaped swimming pool, with its blue commas that dance on the surface of the water. Hockney will be returning to Europe soon. But before setting off again, he is working on some new canvases, drawing on his memories of inner landscapes.
Your retrospective contains a big surprise: the presence of recent paintings, produced just a few weeks before the exhibition was mounted. This is unusual. Is there something special about this exhibition?
Yes, I’m going back to Paris to see the show again, because it’s unique. Didier Ottinger [the exhibition’s curatorEd.] knows my work well. He’s always been interested in what I’m doing. I realize nobody will ever do another show in my lifetime like it. It has work in it from 1954 to 2017. Sixty-three yearsthat’s not bad!
Are you nomadic by nature?
Less than before. I like traveling, but also I like staying at home and working, actually. I like working, really.
You have given us reproductions of two works featuring Paris: the Eiffel Tower seen by day and by night. Nocturnal landscapes are rare in your work. Are nighttime and the city linked?
It seems so. I can remember when cities were rather dark at night. And then Paris started to light its buildings at night, and lit them in a marvelous way, using shadows and things, lighting buildings from the Seine. I did these drawings on an iPad from the balcony of the Hôtel Lutetia. I love it at night when they light the Eiffel Tower up for a few minutes. It’s very bright. I see why they can’t do it for longer, because of the people living nearby.
Los Angeles is also a luminous city at night.
Particularly when you fly over it. Do you know why? It’s because the streetlights are twice as high as the buildings. And that’s why you can see Ventura Boulevard and the grid of streets. And when they’re not higher you just get a blackness from the buildings. That’s the only reason why LA at night looks exciting. A lot more exciting than it actually is. [Laughter].
Is this city culturally stimulating?
It used to be for me. I used to go to concerts and the opera. I loved the opera. I worked in the opera. I found visual equivalents in music. You could hear the sets. I was seeing the music . . . yes, seeing the music. But I don’t go now because I can’t really hear it [Hockney has suffered from deafness since the age of 40Ed.]. And I leave a bit depressed, so I just don’t go. It’s better not to go because I know how rich it was, and now it sounds tinny and electronic.
Did that make your visual works even more intense?
Yes, I think so. A blind person locates himself in space through sound. Well, if you can’t do that through sound you can locate yourself in space through visual things. I think I see things more clearly than before.
Los Angeles doesn’t seem to have seasons. By submitting to the regular exercise of the self-portrait, are you attempting to reconnect with the cycle of time?
Yes. I haven’t done myself for six months or more, I might do one soon. It’s not quite true to say there are no seasons here. Because flowers come out in the spring, but they don’t appear in the autumn or winter. But it’s not a big change. In Northern Europe you get a very big change. I was very aware of the seasons when I went back to England. When I was sitting for Lucian Freud and I walked through Holland Park every morning, I observed the first spring I’d ever seen for 20 years because I was watching it everyday and I noticed it and really got excited by it. Then I realized that the farther north you went in the summer the more light you got. And if you go a long way north in June, it’s the midnight sun. You don’t get night at all, you get night in the winter. So I went to Norway twice and Iceland because I realized they had light all day and you get different lights in the mountains. That was when I was getting into studying the seasons. I stayed in Yorkshire for about eight years and I was painting the spring, summer, autumn and winter.
The stained-glass window you’re working on for Westminster Abbey (2018) is strewn with flowers. Did you draw on your study of the seasons?
It’s to celebrate the Queen’s reign. It shows the hawthorn blossom. It’s a very glorious moment when their full blossom is out and they only last two or three days. It’s as if champagne had been poured onto the trees and it’s bubbling up and foaming up. I drew it first on an iPad. Because the iPad is backlit, it’s like a window.
This month’s issue is devoted to the imaginary world of stories. What is your relationship to narrative in your oeuvre?
In fact, I illustrated Grimm’s fairy tales in 1969. Growing up I knew Grimm’s fairy tales, and Hans Christian Andersen, of course. I like telling stories. I think stories are all we have reallythat’s it. And that’s all we are. People love stories; that’s what they need. They won’t go away. And pictures telling stories won’t go away either.
Titles of artworks stimulate the imagination. How do you tackle this issue in your work?
For example, for that painting over there [he points to a recent canvas, in which scenes painted in black and white are combined with figures on a colorful staircase], I thought of the title What about These Crazy Pictures [he leaves a long silence hanging in the air]. That’s the title. I’m not sure, but I think that’s quite a good title for that painting, isn’t it? [Laughter]. Because you’re not sure what the pictures are of. Is it black and white, is it cinema, is it reality? You’re not sure. It’s done in reverse perspective, so you have to look all around it. You look at each figure separately. But I don’t know, it’s just staying on the wall at the moment. It’s nearly finished.
Is a painting finished when it’s given a title?
Perhaps. Well, for A Bigger Splash, which is one of my most famous paintings, the title came from a little painting that was just called The Splash. And a smaller painting that was called A Smaller Splash. And that one was the biggest, so I called it A Bigger Splash. I knew that this was a very good title because it was unusual. And there’s a story about Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Celia Birtwell [“Mrs Clark”] had two white cats and one was called Blanche and the other was her son, Percy. And Celia always told me that cat was not Percy, but Blanche. But I said it’s better in the title to have the word Percy, because Percy sounded like a person. Paintings aren’t true to their titles.
Do your titles suggest an interpretation of the paintings?
Titles are sort of important. When I did a painting called Ordinary Picture in 1964, the title was written on it. And I thought that with all this extra space around it, the “extra” and the “ordinary” come together and make something “extra/ordinary.” [Laughter] That’s playing with the title, isn’t it?
You seem very attached to words and the possibilities of wordplay.
Yes, I like words. I like playing with them. But I’m not so good at it now because of my deafness really. But I do play with words in titles for paintings and drawings.
Does your interest in language lead you to write?
I only write if I’ve got something to say. I can explain a lot of ideas quite well, I think. The concept of reverse perspective for instance, which is a bit difficult for most people to grasp. But you can do it this way: I remember driving through the Saint Gotthard tunnel, and we were driving into Switzerland from Italy, and when we were going in, we didn’t realize there was a big snowstorm going on in Switzerland. So there weren’t many cars on the road, and when we entered the tunnel ours was the only car in the tunnel. And so you could see for 17 km ahead, in one straight line, and that’s all it was, just like that, going toward this point. And then when you come out, the landscape opens up. Well that’s reverse perspective, when it’s not going forward and it takes in something bigger. Classic perspective is suited to distance. But when it’s close to you it should be reversed. And that’s what Cubism is about.
Your photographic oeuvre remains unknown. How does it fit into your artistic exploration?
With photography, if it’s just a single photograph, classic perspective is built into it. What I did in photography was to take that away. I removed the vanishing point. It was like what I’m doing here in my painting.
© Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima
© David Hockney
© David Hockney. Photo : Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima