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The worlds of David Hockney

He's still at home in the Hollywood Hills, but the Yorkshire landscape has been calling to him more frequently, as his work attests. At 72, it's helping him enjoy a 'late flowering.'

December 06, 2009|By Barbara Isenberg >>>
  • Hockney is not slowing down at 72. He's had three big exhibitions this year and is enjoying a "late flowering."
Hockney is not slowing down at 72. He's had three big exhibitions this… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

David Hockney, renowned chronicler of Los Angeles' sun-drenched life and landscapes, hasn't been around much lately. He's much more likely to be painting these days in his native Yorkshire than in his adopted Southern California.

But unlock the studio door of his secluded Hollywood Hills house and see what you find. Just inside the door stands a row of white, untouched canvases of varying sizes, each on its own easel. Ready on trays nearby are fresh white palettes and neat rows of paints and brushes.


FOR THE RECORD:
Hockney's gallery: An article about David Hockney last week incorrectly identified Douglas Baxter as the director of PaceWildenstein gallery. His title is president. —

Hockney is ready as well. He makes a long thin line of Venetian Red paint straight across the top of two large canvases set up next to each other on adjoining easels. "Sometimes," he says, "I just begin."

Soon appear the first shapes of the Grand Canyon, a favorite place and painting subject for the 72-year-old English painter. He's in town for just a few days but he left time for a car trip to the Grand Canyon and back. He planned to paint the Grand Canyon picture when he got back to Yorkshire, but it seems he just couldn't wait.

He adds more shapes and colors, some sky. Working with great concentration, he paints with no photos, no sketches, no notes. "It's just from memory," he says, "but it's very strong, my memory. I sat an hour in one spot, taking it all in, and in the past, I'd stay looking at it for a week. I'm very attracted to the great open spaces of the West."

He is also very attracted to the great open spaces of Yorkshire, as Hockney followers have seen since the late '90s. He has called the rural landscapes there the biggest spaces in England, painting its lush fields, trees and hills. "As we say in Hollywood, I'm on location," he says, laughing.

More accurately, home is both places now. A great admirer of Rembrandt, Hockney has a complete set of Benesch's "The Drawings of Rembrandt," both here and at his Bridlington home in Yorkshire. On one wall of the study in Los Angeles is his celebrated 1997 painting, "The Road to York Through Sledmere," and, he says, in Bridlington there are a few images of Los Angeles as well.

He's gone back and forth between his two countries for years, referring to himself as an "English Los Angeleno." But his passion to paint Yorkshire in all seasons has kept his trips home to Hollywood shorter and less frequent, while his hearing problems have curtailed his sociableness. During a chat over tea at home, he is endlessly eloquent about the worlds he lives in and the worlds he paints, the new technologies that intrigue him and the predecessors who inspire him.

Born and raised in Bradford, England, Hockney has lived in a sprawling multicolored Hollywood Hills home a few miles from the Hollywood Bowl since 1978. Taking in his bright blue porch, the strong sunlight coming in through all the windows, and the hundreds of books lining the walls, he says, "Is this home? Of course it is. I've been in this house for 30 years. It's full of books I read. I've not been away longer than six months, and all the paintings are sent back here as well. This is my enclave, my little bit of sanity. There's a quite sophisticated city out there, yet you can live privately in it. And there's that marvelous light."

But the lure of family, old friends and Yorkshire landscapes has never really gone away. As the unmarried son, he says, he went home for Christmas every year, and for the last 10 years before his mother died in 1999, he would spend a week with her every three months. In her later years, she lived in the coastal town of Bridlington, a few hours from Bradford, near where a teenage Hockney rode his bicycle to work in the fields.

He rarely stayed in England for more than two weeks until 1997, when his good friend and supporter Jonathan Silver was dying and Hockney decamped to Yorkshire for four months. "Jonathan said, 'Why don't you paint Yorkshire again? You haven't since you were a student,' and I did," says Hockney. "I did four quite big paintings during that time. I would take them over for him to see."

Hockney would return to Yorkshire for longer and longer stays, and by 2005 he was painting the countryside en plein air, his easel -- or, sometimes, easels -- set up outdoors on site. When the freshly painted canvases grew too large and unwieldy to move back and forth from the outdoors to home, he began to create paintings made of multiple smaller canvases -- nine, 15 or more -- placed together. To help him visualize work at that scale, he uses digital photographic reproductions of the work.

He may be in his 70s, but Hockney has speeded up, not slowed down. "I've never known him to work so intensely," says David Juda, his longtime London art dealer. "It is like a late flowering, and I think he's doing some of the best work he's ever done."

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