David Hockney

Esquire, Jul 2016

Wit and wisdom from Britain’s greatest living painter.

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I’ve smoked for 62 years, so why stop now? Picasso smoked, died at 93. Matisse smoked, died at 84. Monet smoked, died at 86. What are they going on about?

In LA no one asks you where you’ve been, where you’ve come from. There’s all kinds of people here, everybody’s from somewhere else. It suits me.

If you go out of an evening, you’re usually going to listen to something even if it’s only people in a restaurant. So when you’re deaf you don’t tend to go out much. It gets me down sometimes. I can’t really hear music anymore, and that’s a great loss.

When I first went to London I was 18 years old, and they would mock me for my accent. It was stronger then – “there’s trouble at mill!” But I just laughed. What I really thought was, ‘if I drew like you, I’d keep my mouth shut!’

One way of getting around being deaf is to do all the talking, because if you’re talking you don’t have to listen. That’s what they said about Henry Kissinger. He and his brother came to the US, but his brother had this perfect American accent, and Henry had this German accent. Well, Henry did all the talking!

It’s endlessly fascinating, looking at people. I could go on forever. Everybody is always interesting. We’re all individuals, you see.

I’m just a worker, always have been. I’m happiest when I’m working. So I work every day, weekends make no difference. As an artist, I’m driven. Always have been really. I can still stand up for seven hours a day, painting. Artists don’t retire. They go on.

I’ve always had enough money to do what I want to do, for the last 55 years, even when I didn’t have much. And that’s all I’m interested in. What’s money for if not that?

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Nobody knew I turned down the knighthood until the Sunday Times printed it. And I thought that was terrible, because I didn’t tell anybody, I just quietly did it. I didn’t want to be “Sir David”, frankly. But I accepted the Queen’s Order of Merit, because well, there’s only 24 people who get it, so I thought I might as well. But it doesn’t mean much to me. This exhibition will mean more.

You had bohemia and suburbia, and then the suburban became a bit more bohemian. But they started on their no-smoking, no this, no that, and that’s not bohemia. You need tolerance.

The past is edited, so it always looks better than the present, which is a jumble. But most of today’s art is going to disappear. We only keep the cream, and that’s as it should be. Otherwise we’d be up to our necks in rubbish.

I have the vanity of an artist in that I want my work to be seen, but I don’t like to be seen myself. I’m quite shy really. I would prefer you didn’t use a photograph of me, but stuck a painting in there instead.

Cocaine was a lot of fun. This was in the 80s when everybody in New York was on it. But I never took that much. I was never a party boy really, I was a worker. I didn’t like Studio 54 because I couldn’t stand the sound.

The price of art is so ridiculous now, I just assume it’s drug money. Because that money’s not sitting in cardboard boxes in Colombia, it’s being invested.

When you know a lot about history, politics is just politics.

My father was a militant anti-smoker, and he died at 76, so I’ve outlived him now by three years. Say no more!

Photography is an invention of chemicals, not an invention of the camera. The camera is much older. It’s a natural phenomenon, a pinhole will do it.

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Wars are for the upper classes. Why would a peasant fight a war? The First World War in 1914 was started because every government in Europe was aristocratic. Now, with all these iPhones, the individual has more power. Would you have had the slaughter of the WWI if everyone had an iPhone? I doubt it. They’d be sending their messages: “don’t come to the Somme!”

I’ve always known I was gay, but I know it’s a minority. Most men want to fuck women, it’s all they think about. So if it’s a minority, you’ve got to be tolerant. You shouldn’t go on about smoking because it’s a bit intolerant. To tolerate something, it means you may not like it.

There used to be a lot of mother-in-law jokes, but now there aren’t because we have divorce. You don’t need to live with the mother-in-law anymore.

I’m not really a depressive. When I had some episodes, I thought it was because of deafness really. Mind you, there was one time 20 years ago, when I just slept for three days. And the doctors told me I was prone to pancreatis so I had to give up alcohol and caffeine. I said, well, as long as I can smoke. And I’ve never experienced that since. So now I realize, it was always after a drink.

I can see how homosexuality could be attacked again for the simple reason that most people who have a child want a grandchild.

There’s no repeats in Picasso. You keep finding things. He was a totally unique artist. And I remember in the 1980s when some people were saying oh Picasso’s just repeating himself. I didn’t see that at all. A lot of people were hoping that he would just disappear, but no – it’s abstraction that’s disappearing now, isn’t it?

We say people don’t dress as well now as they used to, but in my portraits, there’s more variety in clothes than you would have 30 years go. You’d see a lot more suits and ties.

New York is boring now. The rents are too high for bohemia. Young people must be able to move there. That’s what happened in Paris. If the young can’t go to a place, then in the end, it’s going to die. But they can still afford to come to LA.

You need critics because you need publicity. That’s all they’re doing really. Serious criticism isn’t done in newspapers. But then I remember Goethe’s comment, when critics started at the end of the 18th Century. He said, “Would Shakespeare be able to develop now?” Because there wasn’t any criticism in Shakespeare’s day. He just did another play and another. If he’d been analyzing all the plays what would that have done?

People with good hearing are not that sympathetic to deaf people. They don’t understand that you’re not just losing volume, you’re losing the ability to tune out background noise to focus on something. At an art opening, I can’t hear the person talking to me, I just hear all one sound. I stopped going to openings about 1970.

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Artists are not that good as parents. I’ve known a few. They think about their work too much. So I have missed out on some things, I would say that. But you manage in life, don’t you? I remember once at Glyndebourne, the New York Times had an article about the social scene, the picnics and things, and they asked the press secretary, “what do you do if it rains?” And she said, “we manage.” That’s a very good answer. That’s what I’ve done. You make up with some things what you lose on others.

I experienced one of those Virtual Reality headsets. And I don’t think it will catch on. It’s isolating. It’ll be good for pornography, but not much else, because with pornography you’re alone. It needs volume, tits and ass – you need to feel the volume. But where is shared experience going to come from? Where is the shared experience going to come from?

You live very privately in LA. You get in your car and go to someone else’s house, and you’re not meeting people on the street like in London or New York. It’s great for that. But anyone who says it’s all freeways just doesn’t know it. Often what I do is drive out from here and in 25 minutes, I can be 5000ft up the mountains. Then I can drive back down to the nonsense. And it is nonsense.

I’m very different to Damien Hirst, but we need all kinds of artists in this world. I’m not going to run another artist down.

The baths at Baden Baden are very, very relaxing. Everyone goes in naked, men and women. I’ll be going there after the show.

I like to live in the now, but I’m doing a book for Taschen that has made me look back. And there’s all this work. I’m quite impressed with it! Some’s better than others, but I haven’t wasted my time.

If longevity is your aim in life, it’s life denying I think. Because you’ve got to live. There used to be a joke – though nobody’s laughing today – where a man goes to the doctor and the doctor says, ‘I want you to give up smoking, drinking, rich food, and sex.’ The man says, ‘will I live long.’ ‘No, but it will seem that way.’

You have to see The Borgias with Jeremy Irons. All that backstabbing! But you’d have a lot more people back then with odd noses and funny skin.

I was always just an artist, concerned with how to represent the 3D world in 2D. I’ve always been asking questions about that really.

David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life, is on at the Royal Academy from Jul 2 to October 2