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David Hockney thinks you should take a longer look at life

It's a kind of album of family and friends, but the pictures are large paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For a new exhibit called "82 Portraits and One Still Life," renowned artist David Hockney tried to capture the character and personalities of the people in his life, including his dentist, a housekeeper, his studio assistant and an LA art curator. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • John Yang:

    Finally tonight, a new look at work from one of the world’s most renowned living artists.

    Painter David Hockney is 80 years old, but he shows few signs of slowing down.

    Jeffrey Brown spoke with him in Los Angeles, where an exhibition that opens this weekend presents an intimate take on some of the people he knows best.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s a kind of album of family and friends, but these are large paintings on the walls of an enormous gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the work of David Hockney, an artist renowned for capturing the world around him.

  • David Hockney:

    Most people don’t look much. I mean, they scan the ground in front of them, so they can move around. Well, I have spent my life looking.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The British-born Hockney, now 80, recently showed me around his light-filled studio in the hills above Los Angeles, where he’s lived and worked off and on since the 1960s.

    Small reproductions of his portraits line one wall. Hockney’s been an art star since his 20s, first as part of the London art scene, a figurative painter of color, often of scenes of the life he found in L.A., and always coming back to portraits, including of himself.

    What about the human face? Why is that endlessly interesting to you?

  • David Hockney:

    How can you see in them? How you can really see a person? I’m looking at you now. And I think, well, how would I know if I had got you really well, when I do not really know you?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the L.A. exhibition, titled 82 Portraits and One Still-life, Hockney painted people he does know, family members and friends, some of whom he’s been painting for decades.

    There are also people in his life now in a variety of ways, including a housekeeper and his dentist.

  • David Hockney:

    I’m trying to get the personality. I mean, you’re trying to capture something of them, I mean, and I thought I did get something, if not a lot.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The first portrait in this series was of his studio assistant, known as J.P., mourning the death of a friend.

    Hockney did it in the style of van Gogh’s painting Sorrowing Old Man. But every other portrait followed a strict format, the subject sitting in a chair on a raised platform in Hockney’s studio, with a curtain as background.

    The sittings lasted 20 hours over three days.

  • David Hockney:

    Most people haven’t had this done to them before, most people. And it is a bit strange, somebody peering, looking at you, looking at you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, looking at different parts for hours.

  • David Hockney:

    It’s an odd thing to do.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As it happens, one of the sitters is also the senior curator here at the museum, Stephanie Barron, who’s known and worked with Hockney for decades.

  • Stephanie Barron:

    I found that it was exhausting. It was — to be the subject of the gaze of an artist who is concentrating so intensely can be a bit daunting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Intimidating?

  • Stephanie Barron:

    Intimidating. And after the first few hours, I kind of relaxed into it. But it was hard work.

    These are not portraits that are meant to flatter people. These are portraits where he really manages to get the essence of the person.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Meaning what?

  • Stephanie Barron:

    I think if somebody — people’s character. I think, even in my portrait, he gets, I think, that sense of kind of being quizzical, being interested in the process of what he’s doing. I was super alert during the sitting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Barron:

    I mean, I was a curator watching an artist paint a portrait.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I see your head is kind of tilted, like you’re…

  • Stephanie Barron:

    And I was really studying what he was doing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Personalities do come through. Two brothers the one on the right, Hockney said, seemed to dare him to paint me like this.

    Art dealer Larry Gagosian, with his watch showing, was perhaps a bit impatient. He in fact only sat for two days. The sitters chose their own clothing, some elegant, others rather informal.

  • David Hockney:

    I would have thought, if you were going to have your portrait painted, you would dress…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

    The youngest of the sitters, 11-year-old Rufus Hale, was quite well-dressed and composed, though a photo taken during the process shows his curiosity to get a peek at the work in progress.

    Comparing the work to photographs, Hockney calls these portraits 20-hour exposures.

  • David Hockney:

    Photographs have a fraction of a second in them. Drawings and paintings, of course, have more time, because it takes time to do it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A lot of people would think of this as an old-fashioned idea, right? Painting’s old-fashioned. Portrait painting even is old-fashioned.

  • David Hockney:

    Well, yes, but it’s not really.

    I mean, I know the arguments about painting is dead. But painting can’t die, because photography is not good enough, actually. Not good enough.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s not good enough?

  • David Hockney:

    No. It’s just a snap. But, I mean, why not look longer at something? Look longer, and you maybe see more.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    that is not to say that Hockney is a Luddite or technophobe. To the contrary, he’s studied old masters’ use of light boxes, early cameras, and more recently exhibited works composed on an iPad and printed out in large format.

  • David Hockney:

    I’m interested in using technology that’s about pictures, anything that’s about pictures.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And his latest work, larger still, is a computer-manipulated portrait of the artist in his studio, made from some 3,000 digital photos of recent paintings, objects and Hockney himself.

    Whether the altered photos or the painted portraits, Hockney says, for him, it’s about capturing what he calls figures in space.

  • David Hockney:

    How do we see them, and how do we then make the marks?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You clearly like the fact that you’re doing something that has been done for a long, long time.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Hockney:

    Well, what is new, really new? Is there anything new under the sun? I mean, I love painting. I love it. I have lots more to do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The exhibition, 82 Portraits and One Still-life, continues through the end of July.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Los Angeles.

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