At 79, David Hockney Isn't Keen On Parties, But Still Paints Every Day

Feb 8, 2017
Originally published on February 8, 2017 8:28 am

Painter David Hockney once said, "It is very good advice to believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work." On Thursday in London, a major retrospective at Tate Britain will give visitors the chance to see 60 years of the English artist's "doings."

Oils, acrylics, sketches, photographs, smartphone drawings — Hockney has worked in every medium. He's one of the best-known contemporary artists and his works sell for millions.

To get to Hockney's studio you go up, up, up a winding canyon road in the Hollywood Hills. It's a neighborhood studded with stars' homes — George Clooney, Kevin Costner and Marlon Brando back in the day. Hockney's studio has five easels, some comfy armchairs and white walls brightened with his works.

Never mind the ashtrays — the floor is carpeted with Davidoff cigarettes, chain smoked three-quarters down, then stubbed into dark brown smears. (To make sure it's really out, "I always stub it out with my foot," he says.) There are some splotches of blue paint on the floor — and more on the artist's khaki pants.

Hockney stands at a table turning the pages of a brand new Taschen publication called A Bigger Book — a nod to his famous 1967 work, A Bigger Splash. Two feet tall and a foot and a half wide, the $2,500 tome includes reproductions of 450 of his paintings.

Inside you'll see LA swimming pools, palm trees, flowers, his dachshunds, the Grand Canyon, portraits of rich and not rich friends, landscapes in the U.S. and Yorkshire, designs for opera sets. He won't linger over any of them and doesn't pause to answer questions. He keeps turning, leafing through a life's worth of works in vivid blues, greens, oranges and fuchsias.

This is art he made from age 16 through his late 70s. He'll be 80 in July and he still paints every day. He probably can't not paint. Wreathed in cigarette smoke, he says the Tate show will be the largest retrospective he has ever had — after all, this one includes 20 more years of work. And as for whether there will be a big party for him in London?

"I'm not that keen on parties," he says. "I'm too deaf for them. I can't really go to them. I don't like all the fuss being made. I like doing the pictures — that's what I like. But once they've been done, that's it."

He doesn't go out much now. Crowds are too noisy. Losing his hearing has been an isolating experience. "I'm not very good at listening now," he says. When he was younger, he was a lively fixture at parties and friends' gatherings. Not so anymore.

"I can't stand it and I just have to leave and go home and sit in a quiet bedroom," he says. "That's what I do. Then I read. ... That's my life now. That's what it's going to be."

This is a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man — still with a twinkle in his eye, and plenty of joyous pictures left to paint. He still sees the world in the colors of Oz — hues so vibrant and alive that they look back-lit.

What creative person doesn't question whether he or she has anything left to say? David Hockney goes into his studio every day and has never-ending conversations on canvas, on paper, in photos, iPads. And art lovers across the world keep listening.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The painter David Hockney once said, quote, "it is very good advice to believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work."

A major retrospective opens in London tomorrow at the Tate Britain museum, giving visitors the chance to see 60 years' worth of the English artist's doings. Hockney is one of the best-known contemporary artists. His work sells for millions of dollars. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg met him at his studio in Los Angeles.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Up, up, up a winding canyon road in the Hollywood Hills, a neighborhood studded with stars' homes, Hockney's studio has five easels, some comfy armchairs, white walls brightened with his works.

What are these marks on your floor?

DAVID HOCKNEY: Cigarettes.

STAMBERG: Huh - you put them down on the floor?

HOCKNEY: Yeah, yeah.

STAMBERG: But you have some ashtrays. Oop - there you go again.

HOCKNEY: Yeah, yeah. I always stub it out with my foot.

STAMBERG: Well, to make sure it's really out.

HOCKNEY: Yeah, yeah.

STAMBERG: The floor is carpeted with Davidoff cigarettes, chain-smoked three-quarters down, then stubbed into dark brown smears. There are some splotches of blue paint, more paint on the almost-80-year-old artist's khaki pants. His cardigan is Nile green - under it, a blue I can't name, more muted than the vivid blues, greens, oranges, fuchsias in his paintings, colors that look backlit.

HOCKNEY: That's "Mulholland Drive." This is the "Hawthorne Blossom."

STAMBERG: Hockney turns the pages of a brand new Taschen book. "A Bigger Book," it's called. Two feet long, a foot and a half wide - $2,500 with reproductions of 450 of his works. LA swimming pools...

HOCKNEY: The pool with rain.

STAMBERG: ...Palm trees, flowers, his dachshunds, portraits of rich and not-rich friends, landscapes, designs for opera sets.

HOCKNEY: That's "The Magic Flute."

STAMBERG: He won't linger over any of them, doesn't answer questions, keeps turning, leafing through a life's worth of works - loving the book, the clarity of the reproductions. It's art he made from age 16 on. He paints every day. He probably can't not paint, not be making. We sit wreathed in cigarette smoke.

Tell me about the Tate show. Is that - will that be the largest retrospective you've had?

HOCKNEY: Well, I think so. Yes, yeah - I mean, larger than 20 years ago because there's 20 years' more...

STAMBERG: More work.

HOCKNEY: ...Work.

STAMBERG: Will there be a big party for them in London?

HOCKNEY: I'm not that keen on parties. I'm too deaf for them. I don't like all the fuss being made. I like doing the pictures. That's what I like.

STAMBERG: You find it's isolating, losing your hearing?

HOCKNEY: Well, yes. Yes, it is really.

STAMBERG: He once was a lively fixture at gatherings - no more.

HOCKNEY: I just have to leave and go home, have a sit in a quiet bedroom. And that's what I do. And then I read. And - I mean, that's my life now. I mean, that's what it's going to be.

STAMBERG: A portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man, still with a twinkle in his eyes, making joyous pictures, so vibrant and alive. What creative person doesn't question whether he, she has anything left to say? David Hockney goes into his studio every day and has never-ending conversations on canvas, paper, iPads. And the world of art lovers keeps listening.

In Southern California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.