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Portrait of a Stranger

When Barbara Isenberg Agreed to Sit for David Hockney, the Resulting Portrait was a Bit of a Mystery

August 06, 2000|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her oral history, "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," will be published by William Morrow in October

Not long after a friend tells me about David Hockney's newest project, a portrait series, I spot the artist at a museum event. I'd interviewed Hockney several times over the years and, curious about the portraits, I walk over to find out more. He looks at me intensely for a moment and then asks if I'd like to sit for him.

So it is that I head into the Hollywood Hills, this time at Hockney's request. Approaching the street, I think, as always, of how easily his colorful, sprawling house and studio could be dropped into one of his paintings. With its rush of bright blues, reds, yellows and other colors, the hidden-away house reflects a palette well known to everyone from sophisticated museum and opera-goers to shoppers stocking up on Christmas cards.

I had visited before, talking with Hockney for various articles and now and again participating unexpectedly in an exercise or test involving some new idea or piece of equipment. Once I was waiting in the living room to interview him when he simply needed another body for a photograph; another time I happened to arrive right after he had purchased some sophisticated new drawing equipment.

Hockney, 63, likes to experiment, whether it's with state-of-the-art printing devices or centuries-old painting techniques. Much as his viewing of a Vermeer show at the Hague a few years ago led to his vibrant flower paintings, last year's Ingres exhibition at London's National Gallery had inspired this latest portrait series.

Hockney went to the exhibition three times and was greatly taken with the "photographic" quality of the 19th century drawings, executed long before the camera became commonplace. He read extensively and studied the drawings for hints of technique. Convinced that Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres had used something optical to achieve that degree of accuracy, Hockney soon bought himself a camera lucida, a small device that works like a prism. He would apply Ingres' methods--as Hockney imagined them--to his own drawings of people he knew in Los Angeles and London.

By the time I enter Hockney's huge, open studio for my sitting, its walls are covered with dozens of portraits. Just inside the bright blue studio door are pencil drawings of perhaps 40 people; all are in black and white with just an occasional bit of color--a woman's orange scarf, a gentleman's cravat, a fake flower on a child's hat.

The artist stands near a similar display of close-ups of the same people: friends, colleagues, museum curators, dealers, children. The filmmaker John Schlesinger had sat for Hockney the day before, so his portrait is at the end of each wall's gallery of faces.

I am familiar with most of these faces; Hockney prefers to draw people he knows. It's probably a good policy, given both his propensity for experimentation and the childlike curiosity that prompts it. After all, the resulting image might not be particularly flattering or true to a subject's self-image.

The sitting itself is quite formal. After brief pleasantries, I sit in a black secretarial chair in front of Hockney's drawing table. He sits across the table from me, perhaps three feet away. His longtime assistant, Richard Schmidt, pulls the cords of two floor-to-ceiling blue curtains to adjust the light. It is time to begin.

On the drawing table are a large piece of drawing paper, several dark pencils, a white chalk pencil, a gum eraser and a pack of Camels. Suspended perhaps a foot above the table is the camera lucida, patented in 1807 and something Hockney calls "essentially a prism on a stick."

Hockney leans forward to peer into the small prism that, he says, gives the illusion of my image on paper, helping him set my eyes, nose and mouth accurately before he draws directly from his own observation. "Making these measurements gives me a fast forward," he says later. "That's all. That's what Ingres did, I'm positive."

Then and later, he stares at me so intently that I mostly look at the top of his head or above it. When he looks down, I peer at his face as he has at mine, absorbing it, taking it apart, putting it back together--the blue eyes, the faint brows, the blond-gray hair, the day's light beard on his chin, the granny glasses.

As he works, he contorts his face. Sometimes he squints one eye, sometimes both. He purses his lips, often sticks out his tongue. I see the young Hockney of his self-portraits and photographs and, on and off, a preview of the old Hockney.

He doesn't talk when he draws, and if people speak, he doesn't hear them. "When I draw a portrait and look into a face, I concentrate heavily," he told me once. "I can't bear any background noise."

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