“That’s the story of my life. It used to be you couldn’t be gay. Now you can be gay but you can’t smoke. It’s always something.”
An amused and amusing David Hockney, now 78, is once again living in the Hollywood Hills, working hard as ever, at peace with himself and the world, and spouting aphorisms like Oscar Wilde at a garden party.
Last night Hockney opened an exhibition at the Louver Gallery in Venice, a block from the Pacific Ocean, titled Painting and Photography. It consists of dozens of portraits, photos, photos of portraits, and endless permutations thereof—a cornucopia of his prodigious output in recent years.
Charlie Scheips, the New York-based art historian who once worked as an assistant to Hockney, was at the vernissage. He described it to ORB as a swarm of well-wishers straight out of The Day of the Locust. “David had invited his personal friends from 5:00 to 6:00, but the crowd of photographers and art-lovers became so claustrophobic, he slipped out the door and ran for The Hills.” [Scheips, who spent a decade organizing the archives of Condé Nast, has been commissioned to supervise the archives of his friend Elizabeth Taylor: “She had warehouses full of MGM stills, in their original envelopes.”]
Hockney’s next project consists of 80 portraits of his pals sitting in the same chair, in the same studio, set against a sky-blue wall and a turquoise floor. Each portrait comprises hundreds of images captured at close range which are then stitched together, producing striking perspectives and a 3D effect.The subjects include Scheips, Barry (Dame Edna) Humphries, art book publisher Benedikt Taschen, the artist’s right-hand man Jean-Pierre Goncalves De Lima, and his manager Gregory Evans, whom Hockney has said was “the love of his life.”
In recent months, the prolific artist and introspective talker has given a series of provocative interviews to The Guardian. He described returning to California two years ago, after a ten-year stretch living and working in his native England: “L.A. has always inspired me. The light here is marvelous–much better than England. I don’t go out much because I’m too deaf. So I don’t really have a social life because a social life is talking and listening and I can’t really listen. But it’s fine. I’m not that interested in what’s happening outside. I like my way of life. I stay in, I smoke, I feel o.k.” According to Scheips, “The world comes to David.”
Hockney’s house, which he bought in 1978 from Tony Perkins and Berry Berenson, is high up in the twisting roads above Sunset Boulevard, tucked behind utilitarian grey gates. Once inside, the land drops down into a jungle of exotic ferns and palms, with the famous swimming pool at the bottom. (We’d call the pool iconic, but we hate that word.)
He’s perpetually surrounded by an entourage of friends and assistants, so what lures David from his verdant cocoon? “I go out to the dentist, the doctor, the bookstore, and the marijuana store because you have to go to each of those yourself.”
Hockney pulled out his wallet and presented his Medical Marijuana Patient Verification card to a reporter: “To get this, you have to say ‘well, bad back, anxiety or something” and you just get it. And it’s very nice actually. I don’t smoke much, but sometimes of an evening, because I don’t have alcohol anymore, a bit of marijuana’s nice.” Does he take it for pain or pleasure? “According to the card, it’s for anxiety. But it’s for pleasure.”
His chief pleasure is Turkish cigarettes called Camel Wides, which he calls “just delicious.” In one article, The Guardian wrote, “Hockney is such a militant smoker you sense he sparks up even when he doesn’t fancy one, just to piss people off.” [Ah, yes, School of Kenneth Jay Lane.] When he offered a cigarette to a journalist and it was declined, “he looked at me with a disappointment bordering on contempt.”
“Bohemia was against the suburbs, and now the suburbs have taken over,” Hockney says. “I mean, the anti-smoking thing is all anti-bohemia. Bohemia is gone now. When people say, well wasn’t it amazing saying you were gay in 1960, I point out, well, I lived in bohemia, and bohemia is a tolerant place. You can’t have a smoke-free bohemia. You can’t have a drug-free bohemia. You can’t have a drink-free bohemia. Now they’re all worried about their fucking curtains, sniffing curtains for tobacco and stuff like that.”
According to the Guardian, he recently visited his former lover Peter Schlesinger, the beautiful young man who was featured in the 1970s documentary about Hockney and his entourage, A Bigger Splash, and was appalled by what had become of him. “We went for dinner in New York about a year and a half ago. We left at nine o’clock.” What time did he get there? He giggles. “Eight o’clock… Well, we wanted to smoke. He hates smoking, he hates this, that and the other. He has been with his lover [photographer Eric Boman] for about 30 years, and they are like a couple of old maids.”
Feisty for his age, no? That’s what keeps Mr. Hockney going. He adored his father Kenneth and they were very close, except for one thing—his father was strongly opposed to smoking cigarettes.
“I have now outlived him, I am 78,” David puffs and grins.