“This is what I see,” David Hockney says, sitting across the table from me, his arms spread out wide and an as yet unlit cigarette held in his left hand. “I can see you clearly, William,” he says, staring at me. Then he wiggles his wrists. “And I can sort of see my hands. But how do you paint that?” He’s talking about one of his constant artistic obsessions: how to paint and depict the way we actually see the world.
We are sitting across an oval table in the living quarters of his studio complex in Kensington, London. The room is large and busy with clutter. A parquet floor, and a kitchen/dining/sitting area that is generously spacious with a minstrel’s gallery and a fair representation of Hockney paintings on the walls. The table is scattered with newspapers, cigarette packets, coffee cups, lighters, a large square glass ashtray, a camera and a propped iPad.
Hockney has always been a natty dresser — a kind of carefully curated ostentation is how I would describe his style — and today is no exception. His hair is closely cropped and he wears a refulgent turquoise cardigan over a white shirt with a thin, op art, black-and-white checked tie. Brown tweed trousers and the now-fabled yellow Crocs complete the ensemble. The unusual element in the room is a small scaffolding structure in the corner, reaching to the ceiling, draped in black cloth, that contains the model for his latest extraordinary venture, David Hockney: Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away).
Hockney is 85 years old and has been painting for 65 of them. His mental energies and his artistic endeavors appear as vital as ever. Late-phase Hockney is as productive as at any period in his life and this new project has brought him from his farmhouse in the French countryside — where he lives — back to London to supervise the installation of the project. He has owned the Kensington studio since 1974, but confesses that he has never “felt particularly at home” in London. He preferred his lengthy sojourns in Los Angeles and Bridlington in East Yorkshire, and Normandy, where he lives now. He’s happy there, he says — no distractions. Work can be concentrated on.
And the new work is the focus of our attention. Hockney invites me to sit in front of the black-shrouded scaffolding structure. It contains a dramatically scaled-down model of a huge space in the bowels of a building in Lewis Cubitt Square, north of St Pancras station — part of the exponentially spreading new King’s Cross redevelopment area. In front of me are three “walls”, each about 2ft x 2ft, representing the vast empty cube in this new building. Some tiny plastic figurines give an idea of the human scale to the walls. The space will become a 600-seat theater in a few years, but, for the moment, the venue is going to be named “Lightroom” and David Hockney: Bigger & Closer will open there in February.
Hockney sits down at my left shoulder and lights his cigarette. A computer is switched on and the walls of the model are illuminated with an animated Hockney drawing of his Normandy farmhouse. It’s hard to know how precisely to describe the Bigger & Closer project. A work of art in its own right? An installation? A journey through the life and work of David Hockney? An hour-long extraordinary audiovisual experience that will blow your mind?
Late-phase Hockney is as productive as at any period in his life.
Whatever the designation, the 50 minutes or so of the piece’s duration are divided into six chapters that depict, in gigantic moving images, certain periods of Hockney’s life and ideas he has focused on as an artist. It’s not the same as watching a film on a huge cinema screen because all three walls — and sometimes the floor — are constantly in animated motion or illuminated by colored lights. It is, to use that overfamiliar word, “immersive”, but, because it’s Hockney, it’s not just your eyes and ears that are engaged — there is a narration provided by the artist and a score by Nico Muhly — your brain is fully active as well.
One chapter looks at ideas of perspective, and how to depict the human field of vision and its constantly roving focus. Another chapter considers the art produced during Hockney’s LA years. “No one had ever painted Los Angeles,” he reminds me. And no one had ever painted swimming pools before either.
There is a whole section devoted to his stage sets for the numerous operas he has designed. There’s a roller-coaster-filmed interlude known as the Wagner Drive. Hockney would take lucky guests for a spin in his car through the semi-arid San Gabriel Mountains north of Pasadena, with a blaring soundtrack of carefully chosen extracts from Wagner as aural accompaniment to the grim splendor of the rock formations that the road winds through. In a curious way the Wagner Drive now looks like a prototype of Bigger & Closer — your field of vision is fully engaged on all sides; your ears resonate to Das Rheingold, the entry of the gods into Valhalla.
Again and again one recognizes the deep-seated intellectual restlessness that fuels Hockney’s art. He says: “I’m a painter. It’s what I do. I love painting.” Of course this is true — Hockney is one of the greatest figurative painters of our time, but, equally, he has embraced new technology throughout his working life, from fax machines to Polaroid cameras, from iPhones to iPads, from the latest developments in laser printing to the monstrous cinematic pleasures of Bigger & Closer.
An hour-long extraordinary audiovisual experience that will blow your mind?
What stimulated Hockney about the project was the cutting-edge advances in projectors and how, through the addition of computer technology, several projectors could be employed — 28 in this case — and seamlessly synchronized to create these enormous screens. These allow pictures to be hugely enlarged, with superb color reproduction, and to be perfectly animated, permitting us to see, through a form of stop-motion progression, exactly how Hockney makes marks on the page-screen and creates a colored drawing.
Even at the level of the small model, David Hockney: Bigger & Closer is an enthralling, mind-boggling experience. When it’s over we break for a cup of tea and, in my case, try to allow the seething ferment of impressions to die down and organize themselves. As a diversion we talk about Hockney’s Normandy house and the many pleasures of France, where we both live. I ask him if Britain’s departure from the EU has affected his life (he moved to France post-Brexit, in 2018). He says it hasn’t because he’s now a resident there. “I pay tax there. I paid it here when I lived in Bridlington. Now I pay it there.” He thinks for a moment and smiles. “Mind you, Brexit has f***ed up a lot of things,” he concedes. Then Hockney explains, in fascinating detail, exactly how he used to create his celebrated Polaroid-collage portraits.
There is a whole section devoted to his stage sets for the numerous operas he has designed.
Two days later I am in the Lightroom for a technical rehearsal of Bigger & Closer. The model was useful preparation, but the immensity of the colossal, empty, concrete cave that is the Lightroom is overwhelming. The walls are 37 feet high, as high as a three-story house. The complete field of the projection — three walls and the floor — amounts to nearly half a square mile.
Eventually, when work is completed, an audience of about 300 people will be able to sit or stand, and survey the enormous moving images that will surround and enfold them. Hockney is there also, looking and listening as the technical rehearsal proceeds.
The narration is taken from many recorded sources over the years — documentaries and interviews — and, in some instances, you can hear Hockney’s young voice counterposed with that of the older man. It’s a tribute to his undying energies and enthusiasms, and also strangely moving — an audible record not just of his aging, but also of the consistent rejuvenation of his artistic practice, and his curiosity about the world and the way we see and experience it.
We sit beside each other and watch the gigantic story of his life unfold. I wonder how many times he has seen these projected images — hundreds? — but his concentration remains intense, fully engaged, there’s not much chitchat. I ask myself if he sees Bigger & Closer as a form of legacy, perhaps — a way of ensuring that his art and his persona will exist and be enjoyed in a realm beyond museums and galleries and scholarly books of art history.
Even if you had no idea who Hockney was, the experience of submitting yourself to this hour of phenomenal multimedia hurly-burly would thrill and haunt you, I reckon. It could be his ideal 21st-century monument, enshrined in new technologies that he could never have imagined when he was a student at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s.
It’s a question I put to him, namely that when he was an art student, the technology available to him was pretty much the same as that available to, say, Gustave Courbet in the 19th century or Henri Matisse in the early 20th: oil paint in tubes, stretched canvas, sable-haired brushes. Maybe a camera? Hockney frowns. “Not many people had cameras in those days,” he says of his art school years. But no other artist of his generation has embraced technological advances with the same zeal as Hockney. And now with Bigger & Closer we have reached a kind of apotheosis. “Imagine what Picasso could have done with an iPad,” he says, speculatively.
The name-check is timely. David Hockney is our English Picasso. Very few serious artists are polymaths — or intellectuals — and Hockney is both, as well as a great painter. His gifts are not in question. He is one of the finest draftsmen of all time — up there with Ingres, Schiele and Picasso — and someone who has dedicated his working life to the rich and broad tradition of figurative painting, and has immeasurably enhanced it.
But now, with David Hockney: Bigger & Closer, he’s zooming off into unexplored reaches of 21st-century technology. It is stunning, overwhelming and unique. Don’t miss it.
Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) will be on at Lightroom, in London, from February 22 until June 4
William Boyd is the author of several books and plays, including The Romantic