Introduction: Hockney at the Getty 09/10/2015
Following David Hockney's lively talk at the Getty last night I wanted to make available my father's first interview with Hockney, first published in Art Monthly in 1977, then again in Peter's book Beyond The Crisis In Art in 1980.
Hockney's speech last night was much about the comparison between the East and West perspective. Mostly to do with the failings of the Western perspective, such as the unattainability of a vanishing point. Hockney suggested that the viewer would want to connect with the vanishing point as it contained God, yet this is impossible as the vanishing point is infinite.
"East and West look at nature through different glasses, one tries to conquer nature through science and the other wants to keep alive the eternal mystery that can only be suggested."
I agree with a lot of the Eastern perspective myself, especially when it comes to the ambiguity of identity and the failure of human perspective to 'correctly' assess reality. The West is only under the illusion it has a rational take on the movements of this world. Hockney referenced an early joiner picture of a chair and its reverse perspective. This reminded me of Satre's Psychology of Imagination:
"According to this view my actual idea of chair has but an extraneous relation to an existing chair. I just perceived; it is not the chair of straw and wood by which I am able to distinguish my idea from the idea of a table or an inkwell. But, my actual idea is nevertheless an idea of chair. What can this mean but that, for Hume, the idea of chair and the chair as an idea are one and the same thing. To have an idea of chair is to have a chair in consciousness. That this is so is shown by the fact that what is true of the object is also true of the idea. If the object must have a determined quantity and quality, so must the idea." - Satre
Just before Hockney showed us this picture taken by his iPhone he quoted art historian Heinrich Schwarz "The spirit of photography is a lot older than it's history" I think that's a better comment than the view of photography as an emaculate conception, which is really the museum of modern art" - David Hockney
Hockney finished on comments about the digital revolution, which I feel has already taken place and we now live in the post-cyber-revolution, though pioneers in this field are still being determined. The question for me in not what affect will this have on the arts, but how the arts can affect it?
PETER FULLER with david hockney
Hockney is perhaps the best known of the British 'pop’ artists who emerged from the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s. This interview was recorded in 1977, following Hockney’s contribution to the Hayward Annual of that year and his criticisms of the exhibition in a Fyfe Robertson television programme.
FULLER: The remarks you made on Fyfe Robertson’s programme were unusually provocative for you. Did the 1977 Hayward Annual make you angry?
HOCKNEY: In a way, it did. I couldn’t understand some of the choices. If they had asked me to choose, I’d have said no. The London art world doesn’t interest me, particularly. It’s a rather boring set of incestuous people. That’s my attitude. When I looked through the Hayward catalogue, I thought, my God, it looks as though they’ve got a lot of boring things.
How would you like to see future Hayward Annuals organized?
Well, I was shocked to find out this year they didn’t visit any studios. None at all. The three selectors must have just done it by people’s names: I assume they bargained about who should be in. It didn’t matter to me whether I was in, or not. I’ve found out some artists are very annoyed they were left out. At first, I wondered why anyone who could show in any other space in London would want to show at the Hayward. Then I realized, it’s this English disease. Artists see it as ‘official recognition’. It’s just like the old Royal Academy of years and years ago.
Maybe if you had less ‘official recognition’ yourself you would not be quite so cynical.
I’m not being cynical. I really don’t care. I have ‘official recognition’, and I haven’t. The art world’s relation to me has always been ambiguous. They never know exactly where to put the pictures.
Whose work would you like to see in the next Annual, if you were involved in choosingf
I don’t teach; I don’t really know what’s going on in art schools. But I assume that if any artists in London are doing things, it must be outside the official avant-gardism. I’ve even heard that it was a struggle to get a £500 Arts Council grant for Maggi Hambling because she’s not an abstract artist. I think that’s amazing.
Some critics say that the Tate, and Arts Council exhibitions, should represent painters, like Seago, Cuneo, and Shepherd. Do you agree?
Years ago, the Marlborough were putting on a Seago show. He’s the Queen Mother’s favourite artist. Joe Tilson, and some others, said to them, ‘This is going too far. He’s a lousy artist.’ They were taken aback; they didn’t know. So they asked Francis Bacon if they should show it. He said, ‘I don’t know what you are worried about. It’s as good as all the other crap you show.’ I agree, in a way. They are not excluding these artists because they say it’s bad quality work; they are excluding it because of its ideas. If they excluded things on grounds of quality, they wouldn’t show very much at all, would they?
Would you rather look at a Seago or a Cuneo than at a Law?
Certainly I would, most people would.
So do you think the Tate should be buying them?
I’ve no idea how the Tate collects. I went there yesterday; I was looking at their Picassos and Matisses, and Cubist paintings. Their collection of pictures like that is piddley, really piddley. What the hell were they doing in 1932 when you could buy a Picasso for £300? At least John Rothenstein had some ideas about painting. He bought pictures by people whose work he liked. Whether you think they are any good or not is irrelevant. He had a clear view. Now, I can’t see any clear view. They have no idea how they decide to do things. Absolutely no idea. They miss a lot.
Norman Reid said that the outburst about the bricks was similar to that against Constable in his day; I’ve seen it compared with the response to Cubism. Do you accept this argument?
No. Cubism appeared to most people to be a distortion of reality; it wasn’t, but that’s how it appeared. People get passionate about that, especially about distortions of the human figure. They wonder why. They know the human figure, and that its foot isn’t twice as big as its head. But people couldn’t care less about the bricks, or Bob Law’s paintings. There is no passion for or against them, that’s the truth. People think a guy’s got a ball-point pen, and he tries to get £5,000 for the picture, and, well, if somebody’s fool enough to pay it, what can you do? But to try and equate that with the struggles of modernism 60 years ago is almost a cheap insult.
Flanagan would say that he is involved with the visible, material world, but you seemed dismissive of him, too.
Was I? I can see his work is about the visible world. But the problem with art like this is that once you take it out of the museum, it becomes a bit meaningless. That’s not true of everything. Burgin’s posters, taken out of the museum, would be more interesting.
You told me that you thought your mother’s question, ‘Did he make the rope?’ was a good one.
Modern art generally ignores skills and crafts, or assumes they are not necessary. But the real world of ordinary people is full of them. So they question things by asking, ‘Where is the skill?’ I suppose the skill Flanagan knows is that of deciding to do a piece and placing it. But an ordinary person finds that hard to take. They see the skill as making the actual rope. I don’t think their question can be just dismissed, unless you think art is just for a few people. Some people do. But I don’t think that, at all. Instead of trying to hide behind the struggles of the past, the art world should begin to deal with the questions people are asking.
As soon as there is an attack from outside the art world, artists tend to close ranks.
I’m not a vicious person. I wouldn’t say to someone, ‘I think your art’s absolutely terrible’. One should be reasonably kind in life. On the other hand, I don’t see that I have too much connection with some artists: the art world is not monolithic any more. There always has been an anti-abstract line that’s intellectually respectable, that’s not philistine. There is a difference between painting that veers towards music, in the sense that it’s about itself or a pleasurable sensation of looking at something that doesn’t refer to other sensations from a visible world . . . Take colour field painting: it can be stunningly beautiful. But, for me, that’s just one little aspect of art.
In 1975, you said that most people will now acknowledge that there is ‘a crisis in the visual arts’. But you added, ‘I don’t think it’s a very serious thing. I know it will be overcome. ’ Do you think it is more serious now?
Yes, I think it’s more serious. Obviously, the rumblings have started. More people can see the crisis, so things will begin to happen. So I am a little optimistic; if you recognize the crisis, something can be done about it. But it is serious.
What real grounds have you for your trace of optimism?
I’m an optimist by nature, and I’m not yet completely disillusioned about things. Time sorts out a lot. The modern movement can’t last for ever. History tells us that the Renaissance came to an end. It didn’t go on and on. The modern movement began about 1870. I assume that it has actually ended. Obviously, it doesn’t end at midnight on 31st June of any given year. And it probably takes 25 years to realize what’s happened. But I think it’s ended.
I think you can see an end in today’s grey monochromes.
That’s what I see. I often wonder if Picasso saw that; he didn’t venture into abstraction much. As he got near it, he withdrew. Could he see it was a cul-de-sac? I don’t know.
After Cubism, and markedly by the 1940s, Picasso had a crisis of subject matter, and kept copying other people’s paintings. I feel that you have a similar crisis. A re your recent references to Picasso an acknowledgement of it?
It is difficult to find meaningful subjects. But the Picasso references in the etching were, of course, from a poem. ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, by Wallace Stevens. Nobody reads the poem. But the desire to produce a significant picture, today, is common among a few artists — and I think it’s growing. Of course, there are lots of difficulties that have to be overcome. There are going to be many attempts to do it. One shouldn’t be afraid of going back a little bit to find things out; the last 130 years are so unclear to us. But this much is clear to me, and it’s becoming clearer: when the visible world disappears from a visual art, you really do have problems. You might produce an art that’s sublime, that’s sort of over and above reality. But it has not been an incredible success in getting that higher reality across to anybody. Human beings don’t seem to be interested in it. Is it actually there? You might well ask, is it there?
Can you see anyone in England in their early thirties, or younger, whose work begins to show a way through, or even a hint or trace of one, whose work even interests you?
Not really. Although I’m not that well informed, I go and see exhibitions. I believe that if somebody’s doing something, somehow you get to hear of it. But it’s too glib just to expect that a couple of people are going to start producing something. Probably, it’s even more difficult than I think; then you might not recognize it straight away.
The only younger painter mentioned in your book is Stephen Buckley. Although I respect him, his work shows the problems. In early pieces, he seemed to be pushing towards a new way of representing; but now he imitates himself imitating himself.
I’ve always had a respect for him, too. But he admits that he can’t draw. I urged him to take a year off to study drawing. ‘Then you could deal with an area that might be very, very meaningful,’ I said. But this idea of shutting yourself away to study drawing has been lost. When I suggest it to people in art schools, they think, ‘It’s the old reactionaries again.’ The destruction of drawing in the art schools was almost criminal. One of its effects was to down-grade the activity of painting. This, combined with the new academic requirements to enter art schools. You have to have two A Levels, and be 18, 60 or 70 per cent of school children don’t do GCEs. This is totally insane. It means that you get people going to art schools because it’s their second or third choice, whereas a lot of those with a real passion for drawing and painting are excluded automatically. Silly people who have no faith in art are running the art schools.
Your views on art education are already widely known. The weakness in what you say is that you tend to imply that it was just the change in art education that caused things to go wrong. Isn’t the real problem the withering of the social need for the artist? Surely the crisis in art education is just a reflection of this?
I think there is still a social need for art, although I’m not saying it’s necessarily for painted pictures. A great problem in the last 10 years is that people have written about Art — with a capital ‘A’ — including many other activities apart from painting pictures. O.K. But you cannot say, for instance, that Gilbert and George are art, but that Benny Hill is not art. I remember a Richard Cork piece about some artist doing something in Perivale, ‘because Perivale had no art’. That’s stupid. Of course the people of Perivale have some ‘Art’. They have television sets, and so on. The quality of the art is another matter, but to say that there is none is crazy.
But you also say there is a need for picture-making as such.
This need for pictures is so deep and strong in people that to deny it is crazy; it’s there all the time. After all, people are always looking at photographs in newspapers. There’s a difference between the moving picture and the still picture. The moving picture takes time to look at; the still does not. You can’t speed up a movie; if it’s 1.5 hours, you’ve got to sit there 1.5 hours. Four years ago, I got this video, and I quickly got bored with it. People would come in, set up the video, and they’d be doing things for half an hour. The next half hour you spent watching it, so you only had half an hour of experience in each hour. I thought, well, it’s halving my life. So I stopped playing with it.
But don’t you think the real problem is that, at present, the State believes it should support artists, but nobody knows what they should be doing, or is prepared to tell them what to do. This creates an ‘Artists’ Reservation’ in which artists produce blank canvases.
I have said how I became less and less interested in being involved in modern art, because one saw where it was going. I thought, well, this is not a solution. But I’ll say this. People want meaning in life. That’s a desperate need, and images can help. They had an Albert Marquet show in Paris. I went to see it. I didn’t know much about him; I’d always thought of him as a rather minor artist till then. But I was thrilled by the exhibition: my enjoyment was enormous. He had an uncanny knack of looking at something, simplifying it almost to one colour, and being able to put it down. The reality of it was so great that at times I thought, it’s more real than any photograph I’ve ever seen. Paul Overy reviewed a Marquet exhibition here, and he dismissed him as a minor painter. I nearly wrote a letter saying I had seen this show in Paris, and it was a very, very vivid experience to me. To be able to walk into the street and to see in the most ordinary little things, even a shadow, something that gives you this aesthetic thrill is marvellous. It enriches life. So these paintings do seem to have a purpose; people seem to see it as well — it was a well- attended exhibition. To me, that seems a perfectly good reason for making the pictures.
Do you think that if institutions like the Tate and the Arts Council commissioned artists on specific projects it might provide a way out of the crisis?
It’s a good idea. But the problem with institutions is that they are run by people: committees. Your suggestions would need imaginative men.
Even if they weren’t that imaginative, we would get something better than the official avant-gardism.
True. I certainly think it should be tried. It is only now that the impasse is being acknowledged by more and more people; that’s the first step. There are many imaginative ways which can be tried to get out of it. Some of them will be mad, and fail. It doesn’t matter. They must be tried, I agree. Unfortunately there is within modern art a contempt for people. You can read it in criticism now: the idea that ordinary people are ignorant, art isn’t for them, you need a visually sophisticated group, etc., etc. This is all hogwash as far as I am concerned. That’s why the Arts Council is devoted to certain kinds of art; they see it as a continuous struggle. They’ll accuse Fyfe Robertson of philistinism, and shelter behind that — which is cheap. I think he has to be answered: there’s a real case there.
Who do you paint for, then?
I don’t have a conscious concept of an audience. I have problems in painting. I don’t really paint very well. I have technical problems. I should sit down and study some things; it seems so sad that one has to spend a lot of time struggling just to make something if one has an idea and a vision. This is my own frustration as an artist. Here one is just talking about things that an art school should have dealt with. You shouldn’t really be having to deal with this when you’re 40; you should have overcome a lot of it by then. But unfortunately, I haven’t.
Don’t you think critics are a bit like the blacks? There’s a crisis, so people start blaming them for everything that’s happened.
I’m not blaming the critics at all. If the art doesn’t speak, then it fails, no matter what theories it fits into, no matter what some experts might say. I wouldn’t have written a letter like Peter Blake’s myself; I wouldn’t have done it that way. The battle between artists and critics was sad: it should have been critic against critic. I think, perhaps, it does show that there was something wrong with criticism if they all took the same view. No critic pointed out that there are great differences between the artists. Artists are wrong in wanting to stick together because they are artists. Ten years ago the critical situation was different; you had John Berger with one line; Lawrence Alloway with another; David Sylvester with a third. But now, with The Times, The Guardian, and the Evening Standard, you couldn’t tell quite what line they were really taking. Without a position, all is lost really. Artists say, ‘Well we want to stick together: we adopt the artists’ position.’ But there’s no such thing as the artists’ position. Of course, I’m not a writer. But I try to make my position clear in my painting.
In a 1970 interview you called yourself a ‘realist’ painter; but in your recent book you talk about yourself as a ‘naturalist’, even though you later add, ‘naturalism is something that one should be careful about, anyway... it’s a kind of trap. And also in the history of painting naturalism has never been that interesting. Realism is interesting, but I don’t mean naturalism in that sense. ’ Why have you changed your mind about which you are?
The terms are not absolutely clear. Cubist painting is about realism, but it’s not naturalism. Naturalism is making a representation of a chair as we actually see it. Cubism is making a representation of the chair as we know it as well. Naturalism is opposed to realism. That’s the difference. Then of course there’s sub-divisions.
As someone who painted a Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices I think that you realize that ‘naturalism’ is just another set of conventions - or devices. But sometimes you deny that, and talk about it as painting things 'as we actually see’ them.
True. When I talked about naturalism in the book, I was referring to Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. I spent a lot of time on this picture. It was a struggle. There are always struggles. I never paint very easily. In these struggles, sometimes one get confused. Sometimes they are about technical things. How do you put on the paint? How do you make them look as if they are in a room? There are these naturalistic conventions which I always seem to keep veering towards. I tend to think that’s not a good solution. But that might be because of modernism, you see. For instance in this painting here (pointing towards the new Geldzahler canvas) it’s become a problem again. The painting seems to have gone towards a naturalism that I didn’t really want. It’s not a satisfactory way of getting the feelings across. Naturalism also leads to an over-emphasis on skills.
Aren’t your difficulties to do with the fact that naturalism is actually not a true representation of the way we see things, at all: it’s a convention, too.
But it’s a convention that’s gone on for 400, or 500 years. But not for ever.
True. That’s why it’s very difficult not to deal with modernism. You cannot ignore it. The painters who do must be making a mistake. I see my own painting, continually, as a struggle. I do not think I’ve found any real solutions yet. Other people might think I have: I don’t. I’m determined to try, but I keep going off on tangents that get nowhere.
I don’t think you have found any solutions either. But I can sense the attempt, which I respect.
One problem is, I’m a popular painter — probably for the wrong reasons. My work is misinterpreted a great deal; but there’s nothing I can do about that. I don’t think I should worry about it too much. But I have not been successful at all yet: not even as a glimmer.
You often visually refer to Cubism as a ‘style’ with ironic references to Cubist figures, etc. In fact, it was a supremely important historical moment in painting in which a new mode of representing reality briefly seemed possible. Knowing that, why do you keep looking to a fairly academic naturalism for a solution?
Because I can’t help it. It might be the severe weakness of all my ideas, my real weakness as an artist, that I keep falling back on it. It must have been a euphoric moment when the Cubists discovered a new way of representing reality. It must , have been: you can understand this euphoria. But it faded out because they realized, the leaders first, that it just wasn’t the solution they thought it was in 1908. The branch that led off to abstraction does not interest me that much; I ignore that side of painting. The problem is more interesting, harder, much tougher to deal with on the other side. The solution will be found on canvas, not on a piece of paper or a tape. So one has to go on. I obviously have just terrible weaknesses as an artist. The struggle is very hard. Often you give up and fall back on easier solutions. Then you start again, and try to do it again. I assume if one tries hard enough, somehow one might begin to find something.
You once said that Gris was right to revert to ‘classicism’ because Cubism had been ‘exploited and done enough’. Why couldn’t that also be said of conventional ‘naturalism’?
The truth is, I suppose, that the arguments for naturalism are stronger. After all, our eyes do tell us things. We do know what faces are like. We do know that there’s not two noses there. If you paint pictures you are trying to sort it out both in your head and intuitively. I can’t work just from a theory. So I do keep coming back to the fact that this is probably closer to how you really see — for us.
You say that, but one of your most recent paintings, Kerby, simply reverses all pictorial and perspective conventions, and yet it still ‘reads’. It is as if you were asking visually, ‘Do these conventions really matter? If I do them back-to-front it comes out the same. ’ Kerby seems very much against the idea that there is a truth in naturalism.
And yet you return to painting. . . (Points to new Geldzahler canvas.)
I know. Look, I think that’s wrong. It’s gone wrong. The Kerby one, of course, was fascinating. I found Hogarth’s drawing when I was doing the research for that opera. He did it for a book on perspective. It is quite amazing how everything is just made the reverse of what it should be in perspective. And yet it looks convincing. Now you think of Hogarth as a naturalistic artist drawing the world as he thought he saw it according to the conventions of his time. Hogarth was not a great theorist, but in his own way he was probably saying, you can ignore all these laws and still make a picture. The moment I saw this it appealed to me. I thought, it’s fantastic: I must find out something from it. And it does work: even in the painting, it works. You still believe a kind of space, though it’s all wrong. I don’t know how to develop from this yet. In the Self-Portrait with Blue Guitar, of course, there’s no perspective at all — and that was actually done about eight months afterwards.
I have argued that the painter should try to express visually a moment of becoming, and take his standards from the future. But you constantly look back to the conventions of naturalism.
You can’t look forward and see a clear thing. That’s the problem. If you could, things could be sorted out. So you are forced to keep looking back. You have to look somewhere. This is a very difficult thing. If a solution ever happens, it will be stumbled upon. I don’t think it will be consciously planned.
You still think, then, that this third way I have talked about is a possibility? That the solution will be found neither in naturalism, nor in modernism, but along a third path?
Yes, of course I think that. But how to find it is a very, very difficult problem. Therefore, as a painter, I have abandoned the idea of superficial consistency. I think that’s right because underneath, I suppose, there is consistency in the search, the attempt to find it.
Geldzahler wrote, about your painting Christopher Isherwood and Don Barchardy, 'Don Bachardy looks at us while Christopher Isherwood, respecting the new spatial development in Hockney’s work, keeps his eyes and his glance in their proper zone. The solid three-dimensionality of their wicker armchairs reinforces the spatial complexity of the painting... ’ And so on. He never talks about the content or meaning of the picture, only its form. I don’t believe that you painted Isherwood’s glance like that to respect a new ‘spatial development’. But is that really how you want your paintings written about?
Henry is one of the few people I talk about art a lot to. I often deliberately shock him. Of course, he’s very devoted to modernism. I think I have had a little influence, and broken down some things — but his way of writing about the pictures is too formalistic. Henry refuses, and modernism itself refuses, to take sentiment into account. I do take sentiment into account. The problem with Henry and with formalist critics is there is this whole area they don’t deal with.
The way you arranged the figures, their glances too, seemed to be saying something about their relationship. Don’t you feel that should be discussed in any critical commentary?
Yes, of course it should. I talked to Henry about it, but critics are reluctant to do that. If a picture has a person, or two people, in it there’s a human drama that’s meant to be talked about. It’s not just some lines.
You’ve taken your stance as a figurative painter, a painter of the visible world, but in any meaningful sense of the word you were not involved with the figure until very late, were you?
That’s true. My Royal College paintings were certainly about fantasy, my own fantasy. They didn’t deal at all with what we saw. You looked at American Abstract Expressionism, and it wasn’t dealing at all with what we saw, or the visible world, or real things. So I thought, this is it! This is modern art. At the Royal College, dealing with the figure was considered very unmodern. It still is now with a whole group of people. But that was a dominant idea then.
There was a well-known incident when you complained about the ugliness of the Royal College's models.
Yes. They said it shouldn’t matter what the model was like. I told them surely there might be something like inspiration, or something. So I was allowed to bring in my own model, Mo.
Painting for Myself is one of the paintings you produced from Mo. But the model had no importance; it’s just a fantasy. So your point was a false one?
Yes, it was. I concede. In a way most of my early paintings are all about ideas. None of the pictures at the Royal College were really about the visible world, even though some people said they were.
Describing working on The Room, Tarzana, you say, for the first time it became an interesting thing for me, light... I remember being struck by it as I was painting it; real light; this is the first time I’m taking any notice of shadows and light. ’ I found this a staggering admission. Light and shadow are what reveal the visible world, yet you say you didn’t take any notice of them until 1966.
Until 1964 I wasn’t painting the specific visible world that was just sat in front of me. I meant that in this picture, I was very conscious of light: a lot of things you do without being absolutely conscious of them. The picture was painted from a little newspaper ad: it attracted me. The strength of the bed and the room seemed clear and solid. I had to superimpose a figure on the bed. I realized I couldn’t just put him anywhere because, to make it look real, I had to remember the light was coming from a single source, through this window. So my remark was that I became very conscious that I had to place my model, who wasn’t in the room, carefully to fit in with it. The paintings done before that are mostly out of doors so the effects are different. Shadows go all over the place out of doors.
But your very early works - Bradford Art School, and before — show that you were interested in the way light revealed objects. A t the college, you lost that interest, returning to it only in the late 1960s.
Yes. When I first went to California, my paintings were still imaginary: I made them up. The woman sat in the garden with sculptures is not a real scene, in front of me. So the problems of light were not that important. Suddenly, things began to get more and more specific. I started painting real places that I could see, and I began to get involved with light sources, again.
Something which is still absent from your work is any reference to class. In your book, you say, 7 think you can ignore this conservatism in England if you want to. I just smile at it. I'm from an English working-class background. ’ When you paint now you do ignore a large part of your background and experience. You haven’t engaged, for example, with the working-class reality of Bradford since your very early works.
In Bradford one painted what one saw: a city full of dark streets. There is a painting I did — it’s never been reproduced anywhere — called A View of Bradford from Earls Court. It’s abstraction, but it’s got lots of frontals of little men on it and it has the Bradford motto, which is on every Bradford bus, Labour omnia vincit: work conquers all. At least it was an attempt to make a link. The moment you put ‘from Earls Court’ you realize it can’t be a visible view.
We’ve talked about art being shut in on itself. One way of working towards a solution might be to choose subjects that relate to the lives of a greater number of people.
I agree, of course. That’s why I am always painting the figure. You can interest people who don’t know much about painting; the figure is the most important thing in people’s lives. They get more interested in paintings of the figure.
Long before there was a problem of modernism, people painted the figure. But, as you have pointed out, English art remained conservative. Much of it related only to middle-class experience. Now you recognize that, but you don’t try and break it down. Painting the figure is not, in itself, enough.
Of course, there were exceptions in English art, like Hogarth. But, in the 1960s, I and a lot of other people believed that there had been a break-down of class in England. Now I see it wasn’t a break-down at all. I’ve changed my view on this. But from 1962 to 1965, this breakdown of class was talked about, wasn’t it? Something changed; but it didn’t change anything like as much as people thought. I remember being shocked as a boy in Bradford when I first read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. He says that the middle classes all thought that the working class smelled. I couldn’t believe that when I read it. I thought, why would they think that? Now, obviously, things have changed from 30 or 40 years ago. But the divisions are still very much there. That’s why you have problems with the Arts Council. The official art world in England is run by middle-class people who have a certain view of art. That’s why they side with a certain view of modernism, because it covers things up. I now realize that, but I’ve only just begun to see it in that way.
The very conventions which you call naturalism seem to me to have been class conventions: they were part and parcel of the middle classes’ way of seeing the world.
Perhaps. But one has to remember that the middle classes were the only people, in a sense, who did view the world. The peasant, after all, does not view the world at all; so you cannot just say that it’s that. It’s a bit more complicated. After all, there are some exceptions. Hogarth was a better artist than most.
He escaped from the aristocratic patrons by publishing engravings; this gave him a much wider audience, and greater freedom. You have sought a bigger audience than that which painting alone offers, too, haven’t you?
Now, you don’t get the increased audience through engravings, but through reproduction. I’m aware that I reached a rather large audience through the book. Any artist wants an audience. But I have a conflict about this. I lock myself in here; I don’t go out much; the silly art world I try and ignore. Hogarth had it easier. In his day the conventions were accepted. There was no tradition of a counterconception that he had to deal with. It’s more difficult now, because you have to deal with that as well.
Don’t you think you could make a much wider breakthrough if instead of painting Californian swimming pools, art devices, and your friends, you tried to deal with more ambitious subject matter.
I hope to one day. But there are vast problems to deal with. It’s complex and difficult. Sometimes I feel like putting off dealing with a great big subject. But sometimes subjects are deceptive. You see a swimming pool in England is a complete luxury thing. In California, it’s not. If England had a hot climate, the attitude would be quite different. Its content is not quite what it appears in Bradford. A swimming pool in Bradford would be foolish.
I’m not criticizing you because you paint swimming pools.
When Courbet tried to find a way through to realism, in his day, he painted stone-breakers and peasants. You talk about how hard it is for working-class people even to enter art schools. . .
Personally, I think that’s criminal. Really criminal. I will take every opportunity . . .
You are in a position to bring the experience of those people to the centre of the concerns of art. But you don’t.
I have spoken about that many times, though.
You’ve spoken about it. But I’m talking about what you paint. On the canvas. The subject. The problems are always immense. One thing you have to guard against is that if you let the subject completely dominate everything, you might finish up with illustration, with something that had just a temporary meaning.
I’m not saying you should let the subject ‘completely dominate’.
I know what you are saying. I understand the issue completely. I do want to make a picture that has meaning for a lot of people. I think the idea of making pictures for 25 people in the art world is crazy and ridiculous. It should be stopped; in some way it should be pointed out that it can’t go on. In his way old Fyfe Robertson was trying to say that. Unfortunately, he just tried to articulate it from ... a not quite right point of view.
Kitaj has said that he would like to he ‘A Painter of the People’. He got the phrase from Courbet. Presumably you wouldn’t want it that way?
I would, actually. But why have you said that you are not interested in Kitaj’s solutions?
One reason is that when all this has been said about how art should break out, acquire a new subject matter, and all the rest, what does he paint? Portraits of John Golding, painter and art historian, and The Orientalist, a fantastic imaginary figure, superimposed with literary and art references. He makes the same mistake as those he opposes himself to. You, in a different way, suffer from this same closure. If something is to emerge from this Kitaj-Hockney alternative, you’ll have to begin by breaking through that.
I know what you mean, but, for instance, Henry Geldzahler over there . . . (pointing to the picture . . .) Now I’ve painted him before; I’m painting him again. He’s one of the few people I talk to a great deal about art, even though we don’t agree about it. I’ve had some effect: he was once completely devoted to formalism. Personally, he’s a friend, a rather amusing person, warm in his way, quite serious. A bit lazy. To paint him in his predicaments fits in with a few other things.
The painting shows a screen covered with reproductions of paintings, and he’s looking at them. He’s a formalist art expert looking at images of images of other paintings. Formalist painting is painting about painting in one sense; this is painting about painting in another. I feel you are trapped. You want to get through to reality; what’s behind the art screen, the real world - but you can’t, or you won’t, go through.
The painting is called Looking at pictures on a screen: this means that the spectator is having the same experience as the subject of the painting. (Walks up to canvas . ..) If you’ve got yourself to here, in front of the canvas, whoever you are, then he is looking at pictures on a screen, but so are you. You are even looking at them on your screen as well as his. It’s true, it’s meant to be enclosed, all closed in. I was going to put a camera here, behind the screen as a slight escape. But I haven’t got round to it. Now that painting is not just about art. I know that it has hundreds of shortcomings, but I cannot make up my mind what they are. You’re saying, probably it’s the subject matter that really starts the problem. I’m not that sure. I think the subject matter can actually lead outwards.
But your paintings often seem shut within the ghettoism of the art world.
Yes, all right: I painted Henry; I painted Kasmin. But I’ve painted other people, too. Celia and Ossie have nothing to do with the art world: they happen to be friends. They are no longer together. They’ve split up. The picture, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, probably caused it. There’s a real example of working-class people both of whom have been, in a sense, really exploited. Ossie’s now in a terrible mess.
You can oppose realism to idealism; but, in another sense, you can also oppose it to narcissism. There is a strong narcissistic element in your work, which tends to close in on yourself and your intimate friends.
Well, that was why the painting of my parents meant a lot to me, why it had to be done. Frankly, I had so many problems with that painting that if it hadn’t been my parents, I would almost have given up as I gave up on George Lawson and Wayne Sleep. I understand your criticism, but I’m not totally convinced of it. Five or six years ago Jackie Kennedy’s sister asked me if I would paint her. I said no, I don’t do commissioned portraits. I’m not interested. She said, well, will you make a drawing of me. I said I would have a go. It was terrible. She looked like a Hungarian peasant, or something. It was all wrong. But I went to her house in Henley: it was unbelievable. A luxury house that anybody would think, this is how people should live. But I could see she was really, really bored — and sad. I thought, in some ways, there is a subject there, actually. But I didn’t do it, I didn’t want to. I realized, of course, she wouldn’t have liked the subject. I say this because the idea of making a picture of her makes you think you must make her like Sargent would paint some society lady. But in fact subjects are often the opposite of what on paper they might appear to be.
I’m not saying it’s as simple as just rushing out and painting ordinary working people.
I think if you are going to paint people you have to know a bit about them. After all, Courbet is the spectator a lot in his paintings. There is a distance.
Perhaps these spectator-type, ‘naturalist’ conventions are incapable of expressing working-class experience. There is always a narcissistic limitation in your view of the world. You travel: you’ve painted in Egypt, Italy, California, France. But somehow there is always something that comes between yourself, and reality: your projection of yourself. The world is always your own world - like a child’s. This comes out in images like screens, mirrors, and reflections, and the visual games. But, in some later paintings, I sense a desire to break through all that.
That’s true; it’s true. But of course that’s not just a problem of the paintings. For me it’s a psychological problem; it’s outside of the paintings as well, really.
You talked about your early painting, in your book, as being in part conscious propaganda for acceptance of homosexuality. What seems to me fundamental about your work - and it is something the critics always avoid - is that it is painted from a specifically homosexual view-point.
Well, I think I gave up homosexual propaganda a long time ago. I’m not sure about what you are saying. I really don’t know. I am homosexual. I’ve never had an erotic thought, or an erotic experience, with a female. A lot of people like to make out that it dominates one’s life. Sections of the media are always focusing on it; Jack Hassan, in his film, tried to make out it was a dominant thing. Whereas I look at it in quite a different way. I don’t think it’s that dominant at all. It’s important, of course. Sex is an important motivation in everybody’s life. Perhaps you are right. In the art world context, it’s underplayed; in the context of the other media, they overdo it. Nobody seems to have got the true balance.
Berger’s thesis seems right about how most European paintings of women have been produced by men who desire women to be passive; as a result, in many such paintings, women have no personality or sexuality of their own. The woman is commonly represented as available and supine. Now this was a limitation introduced into vision and representation by a sexual mode. One of the things that makes your painting distinctive is that it indicates another way of seeing the figure and the world, because your sexuality is also distinct.
And that’s where the art world does not deal with it. I agree with what you’ve just said. Yes. But, really, I’ve hardly done any male nudes. I do only very few. Somebody pointed out that the tradition of the male nude in art is of strength, a symbol of strength and power, and not one of sensuous eroticism. To make the male nude in that way was, of course, entirely against the tradition. I read that about my painting somewhere, once. But the only thing is there’s only two or three pictures on that: it’s not a recurring theme.
It comes out in the drawings, particularly perhaps.
Yes, true. I’m forgetting the drawings. There’s not that many paintings; I can flick back through them in my mind. But drawings, you tend to forget.
Your many double portraits seem to amount to a fairly consistent exploration of the doubts and possibilities of two people trying to relate to each other. Is that fair?
Well, about the portrait of my parents, my father said he thought that the portrait — in his words, ‘It shows I concentrate’. Because he’s reading the book. My mother, who is a little bit more aware, sensed it was about something else. He’s in his own world. My mother is sat there, rather patiently, doing what I say. My father cannot do that. He finally picks up a book to look at the pictures. Now that’s quite obvious; not a hidden thing. Many people would read it that way. The problem is that when you look at a picture of two people, you are going to read many, many things into it. You are forced to. Formalist criticism tries to avoid this; I think that’s a real criticism of its criticisms.
But in so many of these double portraits, the subjects just miss relating to each other. Recently, it is becoming harder and harder for your figures even to look at each other. Do you take a pessimistic view not just about people getting in touch with their visible world, but about their capacity to relate to each other?
I’m not sure if it’s a pessimistic view. It probably reflects my own . . . Maybe it’s just a personal view. It reflects my own failures to really, really, connect with another person. I’m sure it’s that.
But, through the paintings, it becomes public. It may account for a lot of the popular interest in them, rather than the formal reasons often given.
Sure. Take the picture of Ossie and Celia, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Somebody at the Tate told me that a lot of people complain if it’s not there. They don’t do that because they think it’s like a Degas, or something. The painting must have something people can identify with in some way. There are certainly things that recur in my work. Once, I said I thought it could be divided into two — the dramas and the technical pictures. The technical pictures were essentially about form, and how we should get the picture together. They were things I needed to help me make the other pictures. I think that’s still true. The form of a painting has to be dealt with; it’s very complex. That’s where modernism has to be taken into account. If you could find that synthesis, then you could fuse it into something that would be really worthwhile. That’s a struggle still.
I feel there are two opposing tendencies in your recent work. On the one hand, the break-through in the painting of your parents, and on the other works like the Louvre’s windows. The former is becoming more concrete: you are looking for ways of grasping real people in an image. But in the later works, which seem to descend from A Bigger Splash, the figure has vanished altogether, or is at best an absent presence, and the visible world itself again seems threatened. On the one hand you have this reflective, narcissistic, art screen; on the other, a very definite attempt to break through. Do you feel that’s true?
Yes. I think that when the work is misinterpreted, it is this which is misinterpreted. Collectively, people don’t see the essential struggle. But I admit that at times perhaps it’s not very clear. I still think that perhaps that’s because of my own failings. I don’t make it that clear. The lay audience is less interested in formal problems; but the non-lay audience is interested in them, and criticizes them. So I’m wedged in between. I don’t care really. One just goes on pursuing it, anyway. One can’t really stop. Some things just have to be done.
I’ve been looking at your drawings of Celia, and asking myself how close they get to her. I came to the conclusion that you were still painting a representation in your mind, which Celia stood for. I felt that you weren’t that interested in Celia, or in the other people you paint. What you paint is a reflection of them. But there are moments when that begins to burst open, as in the painting of your parents. Do you think that’s true?
Yes, but after all, when you paint your parents you paint an idea of them as well. They exist in your mind, even though they are not in front of you. They exist in your head, all the time. Coldstream’s thing is that you sit the model there, you look at him, you do this and that. Well, I can’t do that! That’s not a solution, at all, to me. Of course, you are dealing with an idea of them as well. And the problem always is, is that part of the reality?