My friend David Hockney: Martin Gayford on the prophet of painting

In a cardboard box in my attic there is a complete aural record of the first conversation I ever had with David Hockney. It is stored on dusty cassette tape which seemed like fairly current technology in 1995 when I interviewed him ahead of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

David was then a youthful 58. Next week, on 9 July, he will celebrate his 87th birthday. If he was famous and prominent in those days, he is even more so now – a living old master who enthusiastically engages with the latest visual technology. His hugely successful “digital retrospective” Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away recently returned for another season at the Lightroom near London’s King’s Cross (until 6 October). And The World According to David Hockney, an illustrated anthology of his observations on topics such as drawing, photography, nature, creativity, the internet, and much more (to which I have written the introduction), was published last week by Thames and Hudson.

Over time our initial encounter led to a friendship that has lasted almost 30 years during which time we have worked together on a succession of books and exhibitions. And it all began just as it was going to carry on.

David Hockney: ‘The space between where you end and I begin is the most interesting space of all.’ Detail from Santa Monica Boulevard,
1978-1980.
Photograph: © David Hockney

We had never met before, and he probably had to talk to several other journalists that same morning. And yet, from our first exchange, he was astonishingly eloquent. Epigrams and insights cascaded out of his mouth. One remarkable thought, the first of many preserved on that dusty cassette tape, came about two minutes into our conversation, during a discussion about drawing: “There’s no such thing as an ignorant artist really, if they are an artist they know something.”

There is the authentic voice of David Hockney: pithy, original and profound. His is a voice so distinctive that it rings off the printed page. When you read his quips and observations, you can almost hear him speaking. Just as he has an absolutely characteristic line – no one else draws quite like Hockney – he also has a completely idiosyncratic mind. No one else thinks quite like Hockney, either. What’s more, few have his level of intellectual and artistic self-confidence. A bit further into my transcription of the recording, a characteristic phrase appears: “As usual people have got it wrong!” Hockney was describing his indignant reaction to being invited to take part in a debate on the question: “Is painting out of the picture?” He wrote back to the organisers saying that he had heard a lot about painting dying. But in fact it was quite the opposite. “It’s actually photography that’s changing, and it’s painting and drawing that are altering it, because the computer is being used to change photographs.” He’s still making that point today almost three decades later.

A conversation between Hockney and his friend RB Kitaj, printed in the magazine New Review nearly two decades earlier, offers a snapshot of the artist as a man in early middle age (he was about to turn 40). Already, he was making pugnacious polemical arguments that sound quite familiar. He was, for example, wryly dismissive of the art market (and journalistic) obsession with record sums paid at auction. “The price of art is nothing to do with works of art really. It’s just a little game that keeps people amused.”

With characteristic wit, he reversed the assumption that money was important and real – and that it was absurd to spend huge quantities of it on a mere painting. On the contrary, Hockney argued, it was money that was “an abstraction”. Indeed, as we saw in the credit crunch, vast fortunes can vanish like soap bubbles. A painting in contrast is physical and tangible. At the time he spoke, a Leonardo had recently changed hands for $5m (£3.9m), which then seemed a shocking, incredible amount. But, Hockney countered, in comparison with such a work – exquisite and extraordinarily rare – “money is nothing at all”. Of course, he was correct (and $5m now seems astonishingly little for an authentic Leonardo).

When in 2018 a picture of Hockney’s own, Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures), was sold for $90.3m (£71.4m) – making it one of the most expensive works ever sold at auction – he remained sceptical. His only public comment about the sale was a quotation from Oscar Wilde: “The only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer.”

‘For a glorious sunrise you need clouds, don’t you?’ No 2, 22 April 2020. Photograph: © David Hockney

Towards the end of the conversation in 1977, Kitaj mildly teased his friend. “You say you’re going to write to the Times three times a week.” But, Kitaj complained, no such letter had ever appeared. If he had sent all the letters that he thought of dispatching to the newspaper, Hockney retorted, he would have turned into a columnist like Bernard Levin. This is something that did change with time. In later years, missives from Hockney have often appeared in the press (generally about his unwavering support for smokers and smoking), though he has tended to address them to the Guardian rather than the Times.

Without strain, Hockney occupies the position of public figure. Frank Auerbach has mused that “in a sense David is head of the profession”: “He communicates with the public, which none of the rest of us even want to do. He’s endlessly prolific and endlessly communicative about painting.”

Such belief in one’s own judgment is an essential element in the psyche of an artist – or, at least, of a truly powerful and original one. Francis Bacon had it, as did Paula Rego and Lucian Freud. Hockney has it to a high degree. Auerbach said of his Yorkshire landscapes, shown at the Royal Academy in 2012: “We’d been told what modern art was, and these paintings broke every single rule about what modern art was supposed to be, and they were terrific.”

‘A still picture can have movement in
it because the eye moves.’ Nichols Canyon, 1980.
Photograph: © David Hockney

Of course, not all critics agreed with that assessment (and some still don’t), but many members of the public certainly did. Some 600,000 of them lined up to see that show. Hockney, in any case, is not too concerned with art world opinion.

One of the most useful pieces of advice his father, Kenneth, gave was not to pay any attention to what the neighbours thought (Kenneth Hockney was also an indefatigable writer of contrarian letters to the press). David inherited that attitude and extended it to the fashionably conformist opinions of critics and curators (among other things). After all, he points out, the art world comprises a very small portion of humanity.

Hockney’s friend Henry Geldzahler used to claim that one of his favourite phrases was “I know I’m right”. (The painter, amused by this observation, had some T-shirts printed with the slogan, “I know I’m Right! D Hockney”.) But, it seems to me, he often is absolutely correct. For example, it is perfectly true that there is no such thing as an ignorant artist – or at least not one who is any good. To be a good artist requires a sense of the world: how it is, how it works. This understanding may be intuitive and uninformed by academic learning, but it has to be there.

Hockney certainly has this. But he has much more, too.

There may be no such thing as an ignorant artist, but there certainly are inarticulate ones – and others whose ideas are too complex or coded to be easily comprehensible. But, obviously, none of those descriptions applies to Hockney. He belongs to a select group of verbally eloquent visual artists, which also includes Vincent van Gogh, John Constable and Andy Warhol. All of these, like Hockney, had a sense of language as acute as their eye for line and colour.

‘Artists can live to a ripe old age because they don’t think about their bodies too much.’ Self Portrait, 10 December 2021. Photograph: © David Hockney

Although he is the author of several books, Hockney takes the view that he is a painter not a writer. However that may be, he plainly is a brilliant talker. While relaxing outside the studio, he is an indefatigable reader of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and prose – all of which may have helped him develop a feeling for words that is both personal and precise.

Paradoxically, his clarity may be one of the reasons why Hockney is misunderstood. His lucidity is mistaken for simplicity, just as the fact that his work is deeply pleasurable – and therefore popular – has obscured the fact that it is also filled with original and challenging ideas about how we see the world. Popularity does not necessarily equal superficiality.

If good artists are not always knowledgable, nor are they necessarily wise. Indeed, the lives of the painters and sculptors suggest the contrary. But Hockney seems to have had an inbuilt sense not only of how to follow his own path as a maker of pictures, but also how to live his life.

Of course, he would immediately point out that we are all different inside, and what suits him might not everyone else – or, indeed, anyone apart from him. How many of us would enjoy spending hours watching raindrops fall on a puddle? Or become so immersed in drawing a blossoming fruit tree that we lose all sense of passing time? Nonetheless, Hockney’s observations on human existence are as acute as his thoughts on drawing or photography.

‘I want now to spend my time quietly doing my work. I have got a lot to do.’ In the studio, 2019. Photograph: Richard Schmidt/© David Hockney

He has a naturally philosophical turn of mind as well as a wonderfully down-to-earth turn of phrase. When he remarks that one might as well try to reach the outer reaches of the universe on a bus as in a spaceship, he is not only correct in astrophysical terms, the way he says it is also utterly memorable.

Hockney is the absolute opposite of ignorant. He is an erudite person, a highbrow and a polymath. But when he speaks, just as when he draws, paints, or makes a picture in some other way, he communicates with such clarity and charm that you forget all that. He is virtually incapable of saying a boring thing.

The World According to David Hockney is published by Thames and Hudson (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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