Living Large With Two Small Dogs
Stanley and Boodgie are sleeping soundly on their separate cushions, caught in a flow of small portrait paintings of themselves scattered face-up on the floor. Amidst the pre-show chaos, David Hockney, sipping hot English tea, is calmly directing the exhibition's installation. The paintings and drawings at L.A. Louver's new gallery are the clearest evidence yet of why Hockney is one of the most heralded artists of our time.
Hockney embraces a multiplicity of interests and styles, and the works here range from large operatic abstractions to intimate pencil portraits and loving, delicate paintings of his dogs. The largest paintings are clearly influenced by the artist's long involvement with set designs for the theatre. Dramatically composed and passionately colorful, they are the artist's most incisive explorations of the rhythms and textures of space to date.
There is also a sense of heightened intensity and focus in this new body of work. The past year has been a particularly difficult one for the artist, who lost a number of his friends, among them one of his closest, Henry Geldzahler, the renowned curator, writer and irresistible subject of many of Hockney's portraits. Perhaps as a means of coming to terms with his losses, these new paintings are vibrantly alive. There is an immediacy to these new works, a preciousness that is less death defying than simply, joyously life affirming.
Venice: Let's start with the twenty-five paintings of your dogs, Stanley and Boodgie. What inspired so many of them at this point in your life?
Hockney: I think the real reason I did them was as a way of dealing with the recent deaths of a number of my friends. My friend Henry died last August. Another very close friend died, a girl...then two friends of mine died here. When I got back in January, there was a time when I was really feeling very down. And I started painting the dogs and realized that this was a marvelous subject for me at this time, because they were little innocent creatures, creatures like us, and they didn't know about much. It was just a marvelous, loving subject.
You obviously care for them a lot.
Yes, that's what the paintings are about--love, really. I'd begun the large paintings which are complicated plays with space and which are exciting to me, but I liked doing these paintings of the dogs especially because the other paintings were not perceptual. In my studio, I had massive paintings of an internal world and when I looked at the external world, I saw the nearest thing to me, which were two little dogs on two cushions. That's what I like about this show. There is an external world and an internal world, both of which we have to deal with anyway.
Just a crazy question, but do the dogs have any sense that they are the subjects of 'Hockney" portraits?
The dogs think nothing of them, really. They'd just as soon pee on them. They don't care about art since, I might point out, they're simply on to higher things--the source of art, which is love.
The paintings of your dogs and the drawings of your friends have a very straightforward quality to them.
Oddly enough, though, they are hard. With each portrait drawing and painting of the dogs, if I spent an hour painting them it was actually an incredibly intense hour. And I found after them how tired I was. They are very difficult because you must paint at great speed and make fast decisions. But I think the speed makes you do certain things. I haven't painted from life like that for a long time--where the subject is right in front of you.
I own one of your drawings of Henry Geldzahler smoking a cigar that you did in 1976. Why was he such a favorite subject of yours?
Well, I've always loved to draw people. I went to see Henry a lot when he was dying, back and forth to New York when he was looking like he was beginning to fade away. He died within three months of being told he had liver cancer. I made one drawing of him, when he'd first been told. Henry asked me to draw him and he wasn't looking good. I would not normally have drawn him like this, but when he asked me, I did. And it was then that I realized why, of course, there were so many drawings of Henry--he always asked me to draw him! You know we'd travel a lot and if we were sitting in a hotel room on an evening reading, he's always ask if I would like to draw him. I made the drawings in a sketchbook, which I've got and will probably just keep. He also asked a young photographer who he knew to go out and photograph him. When he'd done them, he sent them to me first and said he couldn't give them to Henry saying, 'Look what he looks like.' I told him, 'Well, I think you should, because he wanted you to show him what he looks like. If you notice, there's no mirrors, in Henry's house.' Well, he hadn't noticed that, but Henry liked looking at himself through pictures, which is why he asked him to take the photographs and me to make the drawings.
How did you and Henry first meet?
In Andy Warhol's studio in 1963. Dennis Hopper was there to buy a Mona Lisa with his wife and Henry. We instantly got on and we immediately found we had a lot in common. He loved music like I did and for the next thirty years, Henry and I went to the opera together. I really miss him now--he's a person I'd talk to on the phone every day or two. I think he'd have liked the paintings downstairs. Anyway I've got the drawings of him.
You have obviously been through a lot of sadness recently, how has that informed your work?
I'm often asked about why I never deal in sad things. You don't have to deal with sad things in sad ways. As I say, I found painting my dogs was something very good for me. And actually, you've painted joy there. You're painting your love and joy for them. Frankly, I think it's better to give that out than the other--why be a mourner all the time.
Let's talk about the large paintings.
The oldest one began as two paintings, and I worked on them for about a month. I stopped when I did all those Gemini prints. I did twelve prints in about six months. When I went back to these paintings, it was then I realized that I should extend it--that the canvases should be bigger, because if you want to draw with your body, then the canvases have to have a certain scale, so I joined them up and made one painting. Remember, they're drawn with big brushes and it's really the body moving that you're seeing--the body moving through space because the marks on the canvas relate to the size of you. The underlying drawings were just incredible, but I wanted to use vibrant color also, which has to be put on in certain ways. I wanted to use as strong a color as I could. Afterwards, I realized I should make another painting with all the marks and traces of my movement visible, which is what I did with one of the paintings here.
What determines the dimension of a particular work?
There's a reason for scale in painting, as there should be. The dogs are just the right scale; they're just the way the eye accounts for them. Now, in big abstractions one knows why Pollack needed to do his paintings big--because he's drawing with the body. De Kooning, drawing with his elbow--smaller. The other reasons for working large I've never quite understood. Often, it seems it's better to work small because you can be more spontaneous. It's actually quite difficult on this scale to draw spontaneously and with confidence.
Even though there is a predominant sense of landscape in these paintings, there are also obvious references to the stage set paintings.
Well, the theater has had its effect, of course. Whenever you're in the theater you're playing with color in enormous spaces, at least I was. But I don't really want to do theater anymore. Other than to advise. I would rather put the effort into painting... it's a lot more exciting pursuing the ideas when I don't have to rely on orchestras and singers and the collaborative process.
So you're enjoying working on your own again?
I'm a bit of a recluse, really. I don't go out much, because, first of all, I smoke and I live in L.A., so I really might well stay at home. And then the restaurants are all too noisy. L.A.'s a great place to live privately.
Over the last 25-30 years there has been a continuing debate about painting's continuing viability. What are your thoughts on the medium?
I don't follow the debate much, I must admit. First of all, what we're seeing here can only be done by paint on canvas. I've played with the computer but I'm not as impressed with what they're doing as some may make out. I think there are very serious shortcomings. I think for artists, like myself, I've tried drawing with them but it's all too slow. Absolutely too slow. Your arm and your mind and your heart will produce things better and quicker. So, I'm not as impressed as a lot of people are about what new technology is doing. All the CD-Roms and everything, whatever they're doing, remember, they're putting a lot of low-tech things onto a high tech medium. But where would you be without the low-tech stuff? It will never go away. The idea that painting would diminish would mean first of all that we'd be left with photography. What a dull bloody world that would be. I think that's a bore. I'm very bored with the photographic look.
You have continually explored notions of space and time in your work, an exploration that has involved figurative and nonfigurative works in both painting and photography.
Well, I think space and time are very difficult things to grasp. I'm fascinated by a lot of science now. It's very exciting and has become almost religious actually, and I like that. I do think that science is more 'awesome' now, in that there is a sense of awe that religion does not have. And we should have a sense of awe about the world and the universe. Unfortunately, everybody's glued to TV screens which can't show you very much at all. It's too tiny a picture and it's textureless. I can't believe that in the end people would spend their lives looking at screens. I don't think they will. I think that highly intelligent people will ultimately prefer sitting in a garden looking at real flowers in real space.
So you think we will be able to resist the supposed seductions promised by virtual reality?
Yeah, I think we will. I prefer books, anyway, and you don't need a battery. From what I've seen of the new technology they don't really seem to know what to do with it yet.
So true. Do you think much about what's going on in the arts, new developments and so on? Do you follow the work of other artists?
Well, I used to look at other art a lot more than I do now. I stay in a lot. I'm 57 years old and you get to a point where you don't quite need all that. When I was young, I did, I think. I'm detecting many people deeply interested in new spaces in pictures. We are going into a period where we are going to have a very different view of space. But I think, on the whole, you can be quite optimistic about the new developments, if you follow science. I like to make the remark that maybe Cal Arts doesn't take beauty seriously, but Cal Tech does. It's marvelous to think that mathematicians see equations as beautiful. Actually, I'm not that sympathetic to art that is puritanical and essentially hates the idea of pleasure in it. I'm simply not on that wavelength.
You've done so many interviews over the years, are there any questions that you haven't been asked?
Not really. I don't know. I tend to ignore it all, which you can do, of course, if you're an artist. (Laughs)