Artist David Hockney made an unscheduled appearance at an exhibition launch in York this week. But, Steve Pratt finds out, he was keener to talk about smoking than art
THE woman from the tourist office picks the wrong time to ask David Hockney to say something nice about York. She’s seeking a celebrity testimonial for promotional purposes, but the Yorkshire-born artist is fuming after climbing on his hobby-horse – the antismoking laws.
He’s just finished a rant on the subject in general and York’s restrictions in particular so the invitation to say a kind word about the city is dismissed with a smile.
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Hockney has escaped the opening of an Art In Yorkshire launch at York Art Gallery – which features the first showing outside London of his largest painting, Bigger Trees Near Warter – for a cigarette. He’s sitting on a chair, cup of rosehip tea on the table next to him, outside the museum holding court.
Earlier, he had arrived unannounced for the second time this week. He turned up on Monday while the painting was being installed. The same thing happened at Thursday’s official launch by Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate.
Hockney arrived just before the speeches, although he didn’t stay to listen as he nipped outside for a cigarette. His people sent word he wasn’t up for a formal interview, so it was a case of nabbing him during a free moment and a man who takes regular cigarette breaks is a sitting target for roaming journalists.
Perhaps that’s why Bigger Trees Near Warter, a massive piece of art made up of 50 smaller canvasses depicting an East Yorkshire scene, was painted en plein air (in the open air), a method used by the French impressionists and their followers. It meant he could smoke away to his heart’s content.
He objects that the media portray him as a crank because of his opposition to the smoking ban. “It’s my biggest bugbear now because it’s become unpleasant. Why can’t you have a few smoking places?” he says, ash dropping on to his trousers. “Smoking is going down, obesity is going up, taking anti-depressants is going up – you should not be surprised. I’m as busy as ever, I’m not retiring. I am fed up with being treated like a child.”
This being a rare meeting with one of our most famous artists, it would be nice to talk about art, but Hockney makes a bigger splash with his comments on the anti-smoking lobby, although painting does come into it – the nosmoking signs painted on the forecourt at York Station.
He even suggests the law might make him move away from the East Yorkshire landscape that has provided inspiration for the Bradfordborn artist’s work for the past seven years. “It could inspire me for a long time. Whether I will stay there for a long time I don’t know. I am thinking of going back to California. They are anti-smoking, but are not mean-spirited.”
Bigger Trees Near Warter, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2007 and presented to the Tate by Hockney, is at the centre of a year-long celebration of the visual arts in 19 galleries throughout Yorkshire. Works from Tate’s collection of historic, modern and contemporary art will be showcased in a programme of exhibitions and events.
Hockney’s painting, a massive piece measuring 12 metres by four in height that covers an entire wall in the exhibition hall, was created using a mix of traditional techniques and new technology. As each of the 50 canvasses was painted, his assistant photographed each stage.
A computer mosaic of the whole allowed him to view the overall painting.
The piece took him six weeks, a project aided by fine spring weather and cups of tea provided by people living in the house outside which he set up his artist’s easel.He didn’t intend it as a travelling piece, but being composed of panels it does travel quite easily.
IN one way, he’s moved on from this picture, as he points out, “We are at work on a lot of others that are more advanced than this,” he says. “This was the first one. It was painted in a very small room, but we used a computer so we could look and see the whole thing. You do need new technology.”
He could only view ten canvasses at a time, and didn’t see the whole 50-panel painting until it was put together on a wall in a warehouse.
Now he has a larger studio to accommodate outsize work.
“We are using a lot of new technology – video and computers and nine screens, so you get much more vivid pictures,” he said.
“I tend to absorb new technology quite quickly, but can see the disruption it’s going to cause to the old media. The mass market will disappear and it will be more niche markets. It’s fascinating, exciting, but I can see that a lot of people are disturbed by it.”
On the plus side, Hockney feels the digital age might help him get his voice heard more loudly – not so much about his art as his right to smoke.
* Bigger Trees Near Warter is at York Art Gallery until June 12. Open 10am to 5pm daily, admission free. Call 01904-687687 or visit yorkartgallery.org.uk for details. The painting will then be shown in Hull and Bradford as part of Art In Yorkshire. More information at yorkshire.com/artinyorkshire