David Hockney

The kidney-shaped swimming-pool is clue enough. It has been painted with squiggles so that if empty, it would look full, its surface rippling in the breeze, glinting in the sun. Overhanging it are giant palm fronds and cacti and, beyond them, a pink-walled house with a blue terrace. On this, looking out over the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by chairs and tables painted in egg-yolk yellows and dazzling reds, stands the owner. He has a boyish fringe, a gentle manner, and a soft, quaint, unhurried Yorkshire burr. It can only be… Alan Bennett.

David Hockney is used to the jokes. The two men grew up within eight miles of each other in the West Riding of God’s Own County. Alan Bennett once drew a self-portrait on a napkin for a waitress and signed it ‘Hockney’ and Hockney once signed one of his self-portraits ‘Bennett’. But actually, even at 66, our most celebrated living artist can always be distinguished from his literary doppelgänger by his more flamboyant dress sense. Today Hockney is wearing red slippers with yellow spots, a turquoise watch, checked trousers, blue felt braces and a gingham shirt with a poppy in one of its buttonholes (I brought one over from England for him, to remind him of home).

Inside, in a room with a trompe-l’oeil painted fireplace, a grand piano and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, there is a three-sided box on a table: a true mirror. ‘Sit down here,’ Hockney says, pulling back a chair. ‘Now look at yourself.’ I do. Unnervingly my reflection is not reversed. Hockney just bought this mirror and it has given him a new impetus to do self-portraits. ‘I usually only draw myself in down periods,’ he says, slowly, ruminatively. ‘I do, actually. I suppose that’s why I often draw myself looking grim. I just think, “Let’s have a look in the mirror.” When you are alone and you look in a mirror you never put on a pleasing smile. Well, you don’t, do you?’

One of the most noticeable things about Hockney is his pleasing smile. It is lopsided, wry, infectious; it makes him seem permanently amused at the world, at himself; and it gives him an air of naive amiability. But, as he says himself, his dreamy bearing has a lot to do with the partial deafness from which he has suffered for 20 years. He can only hear with the help of powerful – and of course, Hockney being Hockney, differently coloured – hearing aids.

There seems to be a lot of activity in the house: Richard, Hockney’s studio assistant, is on the phone; Ann, one of his oldest friends and regular models, is talking to her husband David; there is a photographer and her assistant; a home help; and a dachshund. I ask whether I need to raise my voice. ‘Well we should maybe go up to the studio where it’s quieter,’ Hockney says, leading the way up an iron staircase, past a mobile of day-glo cut-out fish hanging from a branch, and up a path to an airy studio. Here there are easels, pots of paintbrushes, large model hands for drawing practice, numerous paint-spattered armchairs, a treadmill unplugged and gathering dust (Hockney, a chainsmoker, had a mild heart attack in 1990, but now he just swims every day to try and keep fit) and, on the walls, new portraits in watercolour.

‘I can hear fine in here,’ Hockney says, tapping a cigarette out of a packet of Camel Lights. ‘It’s only when there is a lot of background noise that I struggle.’ He lights up. ‘You know, the loss of one sense often heightens another. In my case I felt I could appreciate space much better when I lost my hearing, I think it’s because sound locates you in space. You have to compensate somehow. I am interested in space, me. That’s why I like painting the Grand Canyon. And the Yorkshire moors.’

David Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937, the fourth of five children. He attended Bradford Grammar School, where one of his reports described him as being ‘light relief’. Inspired by the work of Stanley Spencer and Picasso he went on to Bradford School of Art and then the Royal College of Art, from which he graduated with the gold medal. At first his work was quite abstract. Then, in 1963, he travelled to California and developed a Pop Art style all his own – blazing colours, delicacy of line, geometrical buildings painted in oil and acrylic. Bronzed and naked young men by the sides of pools were a recurring theme, but it was the play of light on the water, like strands of spaghetti, that interested Hockney as much as the bare bottoms. A Bigger Splash in 1967 marked the apotheosis of the Hockney technique and, after that, he changed direction and became more naturalistic.

His best-known portrait, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, was painted in 1970-71. It was of the fashion designer Ossie Clark (who was later murdered), his wife Celia and their cat Percy. Although out of fear of repeating himself Hockney has experimented over the years with faxing, Xeroxing, snapshots assembled into cubist compositions, and opera stage design, he has always returned to portraiture, playing out his life on canvas by painting his famous friends (Andy Warhol, Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden among others), his lovers and, again and again, his parents, most notably with My Parents, painted in 1977. A collection of these, Hockney’s Portraits and People, is about to be published and, as I flick through the book with him, I note that it amounts to a visual autobiography. ‘The same people do appear over and over,’ he says. ‘I’ve found it easier because I really know them. Portraits are about the relationship of the painter to the subject.’

Do his subjects feel as if they are being immortalised on canvas, given that most of his portraits seem to end up in galleries? ‘I don’t know. But I did once say to Albert Clark, Celia’s son, that he and I had a strange thing in common. We both have a portrait of our parents hanging in the Tate Gallery.’ He draws thoughtfully on his cigarette. ‘I generally don’t ask the subject what they think of what I’ve done. It doesn’t really matter what they think. I’m not out to flatter. That’s not what it’s about.’

Last year he and Lucian Freud sat for each other; what did he learn about portrait painting from that experience? ‘It made me feel more sympathetic towards the people who sit for me. I sat for 120 hours for Lucian; he would only sit for three hours for me. He wouldn’t co-operate, really. Too restless. The difference between us is, Lucian is shy and I’m a chatterbox, except when I am painting. I don’t let people talk when I paint. Well, I don’t mind people talking, but I don’t answer back because I’m tuned out. Lips moving are very hard to get. Actually Lucian and I talked quite a lot when he was painting me. He let me smoke, too, but only if I didn’t tell Kate Moss, who was also sitting for him and who also smokes.’ There is a photograph of Freud’s portrait of Hockney on the studio wall. I ask him if he thinks it flattering. ‘Some people thought he made me look a lot older than I am and I thought, “So what? It’s his account of looking at me, not my account.” Jacob Rothschild, I remember, said, “He’s made you look like a Yorkshireman, David.” I said, “Well, I am a Yorkshireman.” He said: “I mean, as opposed to a painter.” And I said, “Can’t Yorkshiremen be painters?”‘ He gives a throaty laugh. ‘I suppose Lucian would always see me as a Yorkshireman because of my accent compared to his.’

David Hockney does say ‘twenny’ for twenty and ‘liddle’ for little, but otherwise living in California for most of his adult life doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on his flat northern vowels. ‘It’s because I did all the talking,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a matter of me trying to retain my identity over here. I’ve never bothered about my accent. When I first went to London, to the RCA, I was mocked for it. People would shout, “Trouble at mill, Mr Hockney?” I used to smile and think, “They have no idea what Yorkshire is like, these people.” Probably my deafness is connected with my retaining an accent.’

Hockney inherited his deafness from his father, Kenneth, who died in 1978. He also inherited a pacifist sensibility, which was why he refused to do National Service and worked instead as a hospital orderly for two years. His father wore two wristwatches ‘in case one was wrong’ and once took his armchair out into the street to wait by a phonebox in case it rang – he had placed an ad in the local paper selling a billiard table and had given out the phonebox number. His father, I say, seems to have been an eccentric; does he take after him? ‘Some of my friends who knew my father say, “You are getting more and more like Kenneth.” He never went out of the house without a hat, a tie and a cane. I suppose he was a dandy of sorts but, later on, he would put string in his boots. He was a conscientious objector, like me, but the big difference between us was, he was ferociously anti-smoking whereas I have always been fanatically pro it. He wasn’t a sophisticated man. He hardly ever left Bradford. He was a member of CND and a socialist with a rather romantic and naive idea of what Soviet Russia was like, all cornfields and ballet. He would have gone mad for email because he was always sending letters to world leaders – Eisenhower, Mao, Stalin – telling them what was what. I think he imagined the Politburo would hold up his letter and say, “Hold everything, Kenneth Hockney has written again!” He was a humble Bradford clerk who was horrified by big bombs. Quite right, too. Mother was in charge. She thought my father rather comic, I think.’

Laura Hockney was a devout Methodist who kept scrupulous ledger books during the whole of her married life. In them she noted every penny spent from the family budget on food and clothing. Has he, I ask, inherited his mother’s caution with money? ‘I don’t know anything about money. It’s always been a by-product of what I do. The moment I could earn a living as a painter I was rich because I was doing what I wanted to do. There was a time when I thought my money was becoming a burden because I just wanted to spend my time in the studio and I couldn’t. I got rid of the beach house in Malibu and now I just have Pembroke Studios in Kensington, and this place. I don’t want any more because I don’t want to look after them. I don’t want paperwork. I’d rather stay in hotels.’

You would need a spare couple of million to buy a Hockney painting – even a roll of his old holiday snaps that were found in Bradford and sold at auction went for £11,000. Does David Hockney know what he is worth? ‘Not really.

No, I don’t actually. I don’t know how I’d add it up. I’m too busy in here to bother, really.’ He shrugs.

‘I never seem to run out.’

Bradford in the 1950s wasn’t a hotbed of liberalism, one imagines. What did his parents think when he came out as gay? ‘They never said anything. They wouldn’t. On the other hand they knew I wasn’t going to take too much notice of what they said about how I lived my life. I don’t know whether I would have been so open if I’d stayed in Bradford. Remember, I lived in bohemia here in LA. It’s a tolerant place. They know about human failings.’ He takes a sip of carrot juice. ‘When I first arrived here it seemed such a sexy, sunny, naked place. California having a climate like it does, people wear fewer clothes. That is why they look after their bodies more. The gay bar scene was big here then. I was amazed. I thought: what organisation! I bleached my hair and felt very free.’

He was promiscuous? ‘When I first came here, yes. It was so easy.’

How promiscuous? ‘I didn’t keep count. It was the only time I was. I remember one very attractive young man who was Mr California Dream. I brought him back with me on a trip to England but I had to send him back to California after a week when I realised he had no curiosity about anything. It was just lust on my part.’ He flicks through the book. ‘I was attracted to California for another reason, though, one which I didn’t realise at the time and that was the sense of space. I’m claustrophobic, you see. Also the climate attracts you. It’s 20 times brighter here than in London. I don’t think the people here really appreciate what they have. It sometimes takes a foreigner to come and see a place and paint it. I remember someone saying they had never really noticed the palm trees here until I painted them.’

At one stage he seemed to become almost as well-known for his flamboyant dress sense – the wide-brimmed hats, the peroxide hair, the big owlish glasses – as for his paintings. Was this just vanity? ‘All young artists know that somehow you have to attract attention to get people to look at your pictures. My vanity as an artist is that I want the pictures seen.’

That sounds quite cynical. ‘I didn’t wish to be a celebrity. I just wanted to be an artist. It was always about the pictures.’

When, in 1966, he met Peter Schlesinger, a good-looking young student, his years of promiscuity came to an end. ‘That was my first long-term relationship,’ he says. ‘Isn’t that what we are all looking for? My relationship with Peter lasted for five years.’

Schlesinger was the subject of some of Hockney’s best-known paintings. Was he the love of his life? ‘Not quite. Peter wasn’t as keen on music as I was. Think I took him to too many Wagner operas. I suppose if you are not that keen on music, Wagner must be a big bore… I have a relationship now…’ He turns and points to a portrait on the wall of a young lantern-jawed man. ‘But John is stuck in England. They wouldn’t let him back in because he stayed two days too long last time. I’ll get him back.’

Is Hockney difficult to live with? ‘Well, you do have to be selfish as an artist. Painting is a solitary activity. I like people, I’m just unsocial because of my hearing, not antisocial. My sister pointed out that a lot of my paintings have a lot of loneliness in them. Empty chairs. She did. She pointed that out. I thought, “That’s a good interpretation, actually.”‘

There have been many interpretations of Hockney’s work, I say. One thinks of Sur la Terrasse, which shows Schlesinger turning his back on the painter as their relationship came to an end in 1971. Does knowing the narrative behind a painting help appreciate it? ‘I don’t think so. Everything after a while becomes decorative, which is why you are not moved by looking at a crucifixion picture in the National Gallery. You are looking at it as art, at its formal qualities.’ He licks the corner of his mouth, a tic of his. ‘With Sur la Terrasse I could just have been thinking, “Doesn’t he look cute from the back?”‘

He closes the book and, looking over his glasses with clear blue eyes, says, ‘Do you want to know what moves me?’ He fetches a photocopy of a Rembrandt sketch showing a group of people helping a child take its first steps. ‘I think this is the greatest drawing ever made by anyone. It’s a very ordinary subject which any viewer has experienced and observed. Think how fast his hand must have been moving when he did this. Look at the way this woman’s head is tilted so you can see her expression. Look at the weightlessness here. I think this is far superior to the Mona Lisa.’

Rembrandt’s skill clearly affects him but what about the subject matter? Does he wish he had had a child he could teach to walk? He flicks his cigarette butt on to the studio floor and stubs it out with his slipper. ‘I did see a child learn to walk. Albert Clark. Perhaps that is why I find this so moving.’

Is it true he had an affair with Clark’s mother, Celia? He purses his lips. ‘It was never that serious. I would have liked to have had children. I think about that a lot. As a present to my assistant, Richard, I paid for him to have his vasectomy reversed so that he could have children. And he did, too. And is very happy. I used to look at my brother [who is Hockney’s accountant, and a former mayor of Bradford] and his children and think he had it all wrong.

I thought, “How conventional of him. What is all the fuss about?” Now I don’t.’

Because he’s older? ‘I was with my mother on her deathbed four years ago. It made me think.’

Did he paint his mother then, as Monet painted his dying wife? ‘I did, as it happens.’

Wasn’t that cold of him? ‘It’s what an artist does. It’s how an artist responds to the world. I suppose it was a way of dealing with it, or not dealing with it.’

He has had to deal with a lot of grief in his life. ‘At one point I was flying weekly to New York where I had four different friends dying from Aids in four different hospitals. I lost a hell of a lot of friends. That is why New York is so different now. Two generations were wiped out, really. Very talented people.’

How many friends did he lose? ‘A lot. Friends and acquaintances. I couldn’t write it down, I must tell you. I once tried but I couldn’t do it, it drove me mad, actually. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to answer the phone in case it brought more news of premature death.’

Does he feel lucky to have survived?

On one level a studio high up in the Hollywood Hills seems exactly the sort of place to encounter one of Quentin Crisp’s ‘stately homos of England’. Hockney seems at home here, comfortable in his skin, at ease with the Californian banality. His language, like his paintings, like the primary colours his house is painted in, seems simplified. And he has a childlike candour and curiosity. He loves gadgets and mirrors and cameras (as he demonstrated in his bestselling book Secret Knowledge, in which he showed how the old masters had used a camera lucida for their portraits).

‘I never had any self-doubt,’ he tells me at one point in the studio on the hill. ‘But there were times when the art world would say, “What are you doing wasting your time on photography?” Of course I didn’t see it that way because I was finding things out.’

Hockney is unassuming about his work. And his wit is as dry as a Yorkshire stone wall. When I ask him about his enduring popularity – the critic Robert Hughes once called him ‘the Cole Porter of contemporary art’ – he smiles and says, ‘Sometimes there is a prettiness to my work. I can’t help it. I can’t help putting the charm in.’ And later, when I ask him which place he regards as home, Yorkshire or California, he says without missing a beat, ‘I’m a Yorkshire Californian.’

‘Let me show you something,’ he says, leading the way back down to the house. When we reach the door, he stops and adds, ‘Wait here.’ He disappears inside and, when he re-emerges, I follow his tall and stooping figure along a corridor. ‘Now, look at that,’ he says. Through another doorway I can see a mirror which is reflecting a predominately red painting of a village on the opposite wall, out of sight. It looks three-dimensional. ‘Amazing what mirrors do, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘That’s Sledmere in Yorkshire. I painted it in 1997 when a friend of mine, Jonathan, was dying of cancer in Wetherby. I would visit him every day from Bridlington, where my mother was, and I kept driving through this village. I want to go again to paint Yorkshire next year. Yorkshire is like the American West because you can see a long way. I like that, seeing a long way.’