David at the beginning. “The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty,” he says, “you know you’re an artist.”

BARRIE HUMPHRIES (AKA Dame Edna Everage): “I have known David for a long time but he was a particularly close friend of my late father-in-law Stephen Spender, with whom he collaborated on China Diary (1982): a record in words and pictures of their visit to China in the early 1980s. But David had been a friend of the family long before that book and he even designed the invitation to my wife Lizzie Spender’s 21st birthday. David made paintings and drawings of many of the poets and writers who had come to fame in the 1930s, notably Auden and Isherwood, as well as Spender. He loves to draw people, and in this art he exceeds the work of all his contemporaries.”

W.H. Auden by Hockney, 1968
Christopher Without His Glasses On, Isherwood by Hockney, 1984

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD:  “I call him Mr. Whizz.”

STEPHEN SPENDER:  “He shares with William Blake a love of the ‘minute particulars.'”

DAVID HOCKNEY:  “I kept thinking if Auden’s face looks like this, what must his balls look like.”

BARRY HUMPHRIES: “So it was, one morning in early March a couple of years ago, having cancelled a trip to New York, I set off from my favorite Beverly Hills hotel for my first sitting in David’s studio way up on Mulholland Drive. My preferred accommodation is a rather modest affair and was recommended to me by Billy Wilder, whom I first met at David’s place in Malibu about 20 years ago. The hotel was, and still is, a ’70s time-warp with a Hockney-like swimming pool beside which only the most obscure movie stars have ever reclined. David has not only immortalized Los Angeles, but forever changed the way we look at swimming pools.”

BILLY WILDER:  “Any Hollywood hostess is honored to have David at her party.  He’s always interesting and he has nothing to say. He just keeps his mouth shut.”

JOAN COLLINS:  “He smokes a lot.”

EDITH DEVANEY: “When I sat for him I realized I had never witnessed anyone concentrating to that extent before.  The level of engagement is total.  It’s a very intimate experience. That’s one of the things that makes him remarkable. The other thing is his endless curiosity. He’s never followed any trend.”

Stephen Spender, April 9, 1982, composite Polaroid portrait by Hockney © David Hockney, Photo by Richard Schmidt

JOHN WATERS:  “David’s work has continued to surprise and delight me for half a century. His ideas get younger and smarter too.”

GREG GORMAN:  “I have always been  a big fan of David Hockney’s and a friend since the day we met in the late ’80’s.  He recently wrote a great quote for my latest book, Greg Gorman Private Works: 2000-2015.  We just had dinner in my home a couple weeks ago, where he explained his latest body of work involving reverse perspective and how it all came about from a road trip he had taken through a snow and ice storm between Italy and Switzerland with Ian Falconer.  That’s what I love most about David: his stories, jokes and his extraordinary passion for continually evolving as one of our greatest artists.”

Boodgie and Stanley by Hockney, 1993

IAN FALCONER:  “David is not good at discipline with his dogs, who have always pissed all over the furniture.  There was a kind of watermark all along the bottom of the sofa and the chairs where the dogs had pissed.  And they would shit everywhere and David’s attitude was, ‘Oh, just leave it until it dries up and then you can pick it up.’ Of course, he didn’t notice how much it stank.”

KEVIN SESSUMS: “Back in 1978, David asked my then boyfriend Tor Seidler and me to come along to Glyndebourne for the day since we were already over in London on vacation. He had done the sets for The Magic Flute at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.  Brooke Hayward was in our party that day. Art dealer Irving Blum. Dear Henry Geldzahler, who had by then left the Met where he was Curator of 20th Century Art to be Ed Koch’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. One or two others. It was all very heady for a 22-year-old still rather wet behind the ears. I had only been in New York for three years from Mississippi and there I was with a boyfriend I loved in the countryside of England at a very posh opera afternoon at Glyndebourne with one of the world’s greatest artists. And yet I felt so at home because David and his great friend Henry were my first two mentors in New York. Henry especially. Glyndbourne was  so posh one was expected to wear black tie to the English countryside. During its long intermission those attending would then sit about the grounds in their finery eating their picnic lunches. It was all so very grand and yet not-grand in that distinctly British way. I told David I didn’t have any black tie to wear but he said come along anyway and he would make sure to not wear it either to make me feel more comfortable. ‘You’re with me, Kevin,’ he said. ‘We’re expected to be outre. We’re the artists.'”

Andy Warhol: David Hockney (1973) Copyright The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / DACS / Artimage
Andy Warhol: David Hockney (1973) Copyright The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / DACS / Artimage

ANDY WARHOL:  “David’s cute.  He really is magic.”

BARRY HUMPHRIES: “On that morning in March I found myself seated in a comfortable wooden chair with armrests in Hockney’s studio. The chair was set on a dais and below me to the left stood David at his easel, brush poised over a virgin canvas and a shrewd eye tilted inquisitively in my direction. That morning I had deliberately dressed in Hockney colors, as fortunately I have come to prefer brighter, even slightly gaudy habiliments. Arranged around the walls of the studio were many of his other subjects, mostly friends, male and female, all posed in the same chair and painted directly and without emotion. These diverse personages all look as if they might suffer from elevated blood pressure, since David imparts to his subjects ruddy complexion.

“Throughout each sitting we were filmed by his assistant Jean-Pierre, a charming Frenchman and devotee of the artist, and there is a filmed record of every portrait, so that the movement of the artist’s brush can be seen on a screen at every stage of the creation, from blank canvas to completed painting. Hockney is as much a looker as a painter and the intensity of his scrutiny as it switched from brushstroke to me, seated as still as I could manage, was rather awe-inspiring. In this age where it is possible to call yourself an artist without being able to draw, David Hockney is a rare phenomenon.

“Throughout the process he smoked – there was usually a nourishing cigarette in his left hand. And although he is an energetic and always entertaining talker, he rarely spoke when painting. Sometimes he gave a short grunt of satisfaction or looked up at his subject with a smile that told me it was going well.”

DAVID HOCKNEY:  “There would be no bohemia without smoking.”

EDMUND WHITE:  “Hockney took up gay subject matter before almost anyone else – and the amazing thing is that he got away with it. What was it that tranquilized people’s objections – the stylized figures, the nearly empty rooms, the tension between abstraction and representation? The clarity of the California light and the straightforward, almost innocent depiction of the body? Or was it that Hockney was showing us a moment of domesticity rather than a lurid fantasy? Just as Proust’s lofty, philosophical style made readers accept his outrageous descriptions of gay promiscuity, gerontophilia, male bordellos and sadomasochism, so Hockney’s cool detachment and our sense that he has other, strictly artistic designs on us direct our attention away from all these smooth, bare buttocks.”

Hockney and Peter Schlesinger

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD:  “Oh, David and I have much in common. We love California. We love American boys.  And we’re both from the north of England.”

WALT WHITMAN:  “We two boys together clinging,  One the other never leaving,  Up and down the roads going – North and South excursions making, Power enjoying – elbows stretching – fingers clutching,  Arm’d and fearless – eating, drinking, sleeping, loving, No law less than ourselves owning – sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening, Misers, menials, priests alarming – air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,  Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing, Fulfilling our foray.”

We Two Boys Together Clinging, Arts Council Collection
David Hockney and Derek Boshier, students together at the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1962, in front of Hockney’s We Two Boys Together Clinging, photo by Geoffrey Reeve, 1962

BARRY HUMPHRIES: “I was able to give him three sittings, though some of his other subjects have only offered the artist two. We broke for lunch at 1 p.m. and adjourned to the house for a very good Californian lunch, where there was much talk and laughter. David’s table talk really should be recorded and published because his enthusiasms are always impassioned and infectious. He explained the critical neglect of Raoul Dufy and Albert Marquet in comparison with the disproportionate hyperbole heaped on Henri Matisse. He survived a disabling stroke in October 2012 and he is very deaf, so avoids noisy crowds but can still engage in a lively conversation across the dinner table.

“David was the child prodigy of British art but unlike many child prodigies he didn’t fizzle out. His work has broadened and deepened and when he paints your portrait and occasionally speaks to you in that soft Yorkshire accent, which reminds me of the voice of my Lancastrian grandfather, you find yourself hoping not that the picture will look like you, but that you, with any luck, will look like the picture.

“Some years ago, the Los Angeles County Museum staged a recreation of the Nazis’  infamous Degenerate Art exhibition. Many of the original paintings and drawings that had been held to ridicule in 1937 had, surprisingly, not been destroyed, but prudently flogged in Switzerland to raise cash for the Reich. ‘How extraordinary,’ I said to David, ‘that so many fragile works had survived the bibliocausts of that terrible epoch. Why have they survived?’ I asked my friend. ‘Because somebody loved them,’ he replied.”

Barry Humphries by Hockney, 2015
David and Hockney
An admonition: the last image one sees at the Hockney retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris which runs through October 27. The retrospective opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on November 27 and runs through February 25, 2018.

IAN FALCONER: “I first met David when I was over at Henry Geldzahler’s place in the West Village.   I was sitting on that famous sofa on which David painted the portrait of Henry and Chris Scott.  David was wearing his striped Metropolitan Cricket Club cap.  He was so shy.  Very shy.  This was around 1979 or 1980.  But he did work up the courage to ask me if I wanted to go up to the Metropolitan Opera to watch them painting the sets for Parade which he’d designed.  I was going to Parsons at the time having flunked out of NYU.  David asked why I didn’t come out to LA and go to Otis Art Institute, which was a kind of branch of Parsons then, and work for him.  So that’s what I did for 13 years.  That’s when LA was fantastic. Cary Grant would come over to David’s for tea.  Zsa Zsa would pop in.  Divine would come stay and take a seat at the opened refrigerator.  

“David taught me how to draw but, more important, he taught me how to look at paintings. He taught me how to see. I also learned a lot about life just by watching how engaged he was and curious even though it’s hard to have discussions with him since he loves to take the opposite point of view even if he doesn’t believe it necessarily.  He revels in being the contrarian.  

“I also responded to David’s dandyism.  He and Cecil Beaton were such ’60s dandies.  David still is.   His style however has become rather timeless.  He does love his stripes.  I always loved striped socks myself.  I knew we would get along when I discovered he had boxes of striped socks.”

DAVID HOCKNEY: “I feel an urgency to get things done. I know there is limited time and I do think about how much longer I have got. I don’t want to travel much any more, I want to stay in the studio and paint. Monet did that. As he got into his 80s he was always saying he just wanted to paint in the studio. That is what I am good at and what I am going to do. New ideas, new pictures, new thoughts. I’ve never really had faith. I believe in Lucretius. He lived 100 years before Christ, so he’s seen as a pagan, but he said this is the only life we have, why not live it well and get on with your neighbors. Everything he said made sense.”

LUCRETIUS:  “Nequeunt oculis rerum primordia cerni, or: The first-beginnings of things cannot be seen by the eyes.”

[The Barry Humphries quotes are taken from the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine from The Royal Academy of Arts.  The Edmund White quote is taken from David Hockney Portraits published by the National Portrait Gallery.]


  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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