David Hockney wants to tell you a joke. A man goes to a doctor and informs him that he wants to live the longest life possible – what should he do? The doctor asks the man to list his vices and then he says: “Right, I want you to give up smoking, I want you to give up drinking, I want you to give up rich food, I want you to give up sex.” The man is shocked and mumbles: “OK. Will I live longer?” The doctor replies: “No, but it’ll certainly seem that way.”
As he delivers the punchline, the 77-year-old Hockney howls like he’s heard it for the first time: a throaty roar that culminates in a hard-earned smoker’s wheeze. We are sitting in a pair of paint-spattered armchairs in the studio annexe of his house high in the Hollywood Hills. He spends most of his days in here. It has everything he needs, not least a few gallons of mineral water and a stash of 2,000 Camel Wides cigarettes, just in case Los Angeles is hit by an earthquake.
Arriving at the house, zipping up the twisty roads from Sunset Boulevard, dodging garbage trucks bombing down the other way, it is impossible not to be overcome by deja vu. Long before Google Earth, Hockney depicted these hills in absurd oranges, greens, blues and reds in landscapes such as Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, 1980. Now I’m here, what I had taken for a hyper-real acrylic fantasy turns out to be disconcertingly realistic, another example of Hockney’s gift for capturing some essence of wherever or whomever he paints.
The house, which Hockney bought in the late 1970s, is tucked behind utilitarian grey gates that give little hint of the wonderland beyond them. Once inside, the land drops into a jungle of exotic ferns and palms down to the famous swimming pool at the bottom. A harsh sun flickers off iridescent cerulean and pink paint. Artist Howard Hodgkin once said the house was “as romantic and artificial as I had hoped” and it is. But today all is peaceful and a smattering of leaves on the pool’s surface hints at sporadic use. It might have been a while since wild parties raged into the night or naked bodies hauled themselves on to the hot stones at the water’s edge.
“I don’t go out, I hardly ever leave here,” admits Hockney, as we take our seats in the studio. He is dressed as plainly as his forbidding gates – dark grey cardigan, slate-grey pinstripe trousers and, incongruously, considering his disdain for all exercise, Skechers running shoes – again in contrast to the vibrant work that surrounds him. “I go out to the dentist, the doctor, the bookstore and the marijuana store, because you have to go to each of those yourself. And that’s it. I never go out because I’m much too deaf really. I can hear you now, but if there were two people speaking quite quietly, I wouldn’t be able to, because I hear everything in one noise. So I don’t really have a social life much, because a social life is talking and listening and I can’t really listen. But it’s fine, I’ve lots to do, I’m OK.”
Is Hockney a regular customer at the marijuana store? “Well, it’s…” he starts, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet, before presenting his “medical marijuana patient verification” card like it’s a police check. “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 any more, a bit of marijuana’s nice.”
Hockney returned to Los Angeles in the summer of 2013, after eight years living in England, mostly in Bridlington, east Yorkshire. It had been a productive period that saw him extend himself both technically and technologically. His output was astonishing for an artist of any age: from thousands of tiny doodles on his iPhone and then iPad to behemoth landscapes of the Wolds, notably the 40ft by 15ft Bigger Trees Near Warter, which culminated in a triumphant survey at the Royal Academy in 2012. More than 600,000 people saw David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, double the projected figure; a similar number visited when the show transferred to Bilbao and Cologne.
But Hockney’s departure from Yorkshire was sudden, even unsatisfactory. It didn’t feel like we got to say goodbye. There were extenuating and personal factors. In September 2012, Hockney had a stroke: he didn’t realise at first, he’d got up early and went out to buy the newspaper, but he found himself unable to finish his sentences. Then in March last year, one of his studio assistants, 23-year-old Dominic Elliott, died in his house in Bridlington after drinking household drain cleaner while high on ecstasy and cocaine. Hockney’s deafness, which is hereditary and requires him to wear hearing aids in both ears, worsened.
Returning to the Hollywood Hills, his home for much of the 1980s and 1990s, has been cathartic, Hockney believes now. He had been working on sombre landscapes in Yorkshire drawn in charcoal before he left, but back in California, he decided he wanted to use bold acrylic paints again and make some portraits. The first was of Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his lead studio assistant, sitting on a chair with his head buried in his hands.
“I just started that painting of JP,” says Hockney. “We were very down, very down. We were down because of what had happened in England and we had just come back here. Things were going on then, but I started these portraits and that was it. I just painted 50 people, they are all in the same chair, the same position. They took three days each really, about three six-hour sessions, and I enjoyed them. I had people come and sit there and I said, ‘It’s an 18-hour exposure, not the fifth-of-a-second one.’”
Since then, Hockney hasn’t stopped and he continues to tinker with technology to produce new work. (“I work eight days a week,” sighs Gonçalves de Lima, with faux exasperation. “Every day is Monday.”) He recently completed a set of five photographic “drawings”: perspective-tweaked montages of people arranged around his studio that are displayed on high-definition screens. These are on display at Pace Gallery in New York until 10 January, along with some of the chair portraits he made when he first returned to Los Angeles and group paintings of dancers that are his homage to Henri Matisse’s Dance.
When we meet, Hockney has also just begun a series of more conventional studies of card players. His blue eyes sparkling, he says that he now understands what drew Cezanne and Caravaggio to the same subject. “They sit reasonably still,” he explains, “you’ve got their hands on the table, they are concentrating, they are ignoring me, yet I feel I’m close to them.”
While Hockney is determinedly looking forward, for the rest of us there is a satisfying opportunity for retrospection with a new feature-length BFI/BBC documentary about his life and work. Directed by Randall Wright, who also made Lucian Freud: Painted Life, it features a trove of personal photographs and home movies, never before seen. Hockney supplies an idiosyncratic commentary, expounding his forthright views on everything from the state of modern art to why crinkled chips are preferable, because there’s more surface area. Friends describe an obsessive creator, not always easy to live with, who puts art before everything.
In his studio, Hockney fires up a Camel Wide – only 1,999 left now – and steels himself for questions from fellow artists, old friends and Observer readers. He may be near-deaf, he’s getting on, but he remains in boisterous, cantankerous and irrepressible spirit.
Hockney is on general release from 28 Nov and on BBC2 next year. A special preview screening in cinemas on 25 Nov will be followed by a live Q&A with David Hockney from his LA studio. Hockney is a BFI/BBC film in association with Screen Yorkshire, British Film Company and the Smithsonian Channel.