A tour of David Hockney’s new series of paintings

What years were these?

1953 to 1957. And then, from 1959 to 1962, I was at the Royal College of Art, three years, and that’s where I really discovered my painting. I hadn’t done a lot of painting in Bradford – I had done models and things like that, but we didn’t know much about color at the time. Bradford was a very, very dark town, with black buildings from all the coal and everything. I left it in 1959 and never really went back.

In school, you were taught abstraction, weren’t you?

Well yes. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, abstraction ruled, but I was never really drawn to it. Abstraction at first seemed like it was going to lead to everything, but it’s not, is it?

I wrote a letter [recently, to The Art Newspaper] because I read a book review called “Beyond Abstraction”, and wondered what it could be. Giacometti said abstract art was “handkerchief art” – which I love. [Laughs.] But I think now abstraction has had its say. Now you have to describe, but it has to be done in a new way. How? ‘Or’ What? This is the real problem today.

When you think about it, abstraction happened at the height of photography. These illustrated photography magazines were born in the 1930s…The life, picture message In England, Illustrated. And they ended with the arrival of television. Television picked up all these images. I want to say, picture message came out every week – it was a very quick print, a quick photograph. But, when Clement Greenberg said that abstraction is the thing, that’s when nobody really questioned photography, right?

At the Museum of Modern Art, I think the last time I was there, there was a room full of abstract paintings by [Gerhard] Richter, by a few people – and that was OK Then you walk into Philip Guston. Well, I mean, that was just a fantastic jump, and I thought, Well, that’s much, much better.

Yeah, I think abstraction will just become a period piece. Do you know this book “The power of images”?

No. What is his thesis?

It’s by David Freedberg. It’s really good. It was published around 1990. I read it for the first time then, and read it again around 2005. The first paragraph is breathtaking. He says images have great power. We adore them. We go on a trip to see them. We want to destroy them. And you think it’s all in the past, but then he says, no, it’s today too. He specifies that if art moves away from images, what is art? There isn’t much, because the power is in the pictures.

What was your approach to artistic creation when you were a child?

I used to paint just around my house. Eventually I took a pram and put the paints in it, and took it out and it was much easier. [Laughs.] Some of my paintings from those years still exist, but many of them have become quite dark. Because I probably used too much white in the paint, that’s why the paints turn dark.

Did you see the Monets when you went to the museum? Do you think they got darker?

I wondered, but I thought it was the lighting.

Well, I remember seeing them in 1960, that is to say barely thirty years after their installation. And I remember them being very blue. And now some of the bruises are gone. And, at the Museum of Modern Art, these “Water Lilies” (“Water Lilies”) aren’t quite so dark.

Someone told me he might have used polish on it. But I don’t think so, because Monet knew how to paint, and all his paintings still have color and they haven’t become dark. But some paintings are getting dark, and I don’t know why. I paint all my paintings to last, in fact.

For a painter, you also pay a lot of attention to reproduction.

Yes, and I have witnessed a lot of changes in printing. I remember seeing the first books on Impressionism in art school, and you had to wash your hands before you could touch and look at them. And they cost about ten pounds at the time—which was a lot of money for a book in 1953. When I had my first exhibition, at [Paul] Kasmin’s gallery, he just produced a little photo, black and white, and that’s it. I don’t think he ever produced a catalog. And then the catalogs started to get bigger. I remember when — I think it was Robert Hughes — said they could sometimes be the size of a London telephone book. [Laughs.]

I have always followed the printing press, I have always been interested in it and I have always known that images make themselves known by being reproduced. But they must also be memorable. You need memorable images. And I’ve painted quite a few memorable pictures, haven’t I?

What do you think makes them memorable?

Nobody knows.

Not even you?

No, because if someone knew, there would be a lot more memorable photos. [Laughs.] But you don’t even know when you paint them. For example, “A Bigger Splash” – I painted that in Berkeley, California when I was teaching there. I had no idea this was going to be a very famous photo.

‘A Bigger Splash’, from 1967. “I realize that a splash could never be seen that way in real life – it happens too quickly,” Hockney said. “And that amused me, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.”Artwork by David Hockney / Photography © Tate

Are there any contemporary painters that interest you?

Well, yes, there are. I don’t know if there are any who have arrived at my way of thinking yet, but they might.

I think the star system is going away, right? I mean, movie stars now, beyond Brad Pitt, what’s up? Newspapers, movies needed stars, and the media needed stars too. They provide gossip and stuff. But where are the stars today? On iPhone, your friends are the stars of the screen. Why do you need another star or another screen there when you have one in your hand? I mean, we don’t know what all this does to us.

It’s big, what’s going on.

Yes, it’s very, very big, these changes. It’s probably bigger than the printing press. Remember, Luther printed his sermons, and that’s why they spread so much in Germany in the beginning, and why the Church couldn’t control it. The last altarpiece commissioned by the Church from a fairly good artist was that of Delacroix, at Saint-Sulpice [in Paris]. But, after that, the images left the church and entered the magazines, the media, the films, the television. Images have a very powerful effect on us, they do.

So it’s all of these issues that I find interesting. I’m always at work, doing things and always interested. It’s curiosity that keeps you going, yes. [Laughs.]

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