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David Hockney is one of the most important contemporary painters. He turns 80 next year, and he's busier than ever. He's known for bright paintings of Los Angeles, and he stars in a new documentary, will have a big London retrospective and has a new book. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked the artist about his lifelong obsession - looking.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: David Hockney is a major looker. He looks and looks, and then, in his work, makes us see what he sees. To Hockney, looking and showing are as old as time. Some caveman picked up a rock and drew an animal on the wall.
DAVID HOCKNEY: And then when they'd got the animal down, the person would have grunted or something and said, (grunting) I've seen something like that.
STAMBERG: Is making pictures, do you think, part of the DNA of being human?
HOCKNEY: Yes, yes. Very young people pick up a crayon and start to draw - don't they? - very, very young people. I think the idea of making pictures is deep within us.
STAMBERG: Today, trading crayons for smartphones, everybody's making pictures. OK. Maybe they're not that artistic, but technically, they're aces.
HOCKNEY: You can't take a bad picture really. You can't take an underexposed picture. You can't even take an out-of-focus picture now. I mean...
STAMBERG: (Laughter) Right.
HOCKNEY: (Laughter) My father's pictures were - he used to take a lot of photographs, and they were always a bit out of focus and underexposed. He died just before the automatic camera came in and the automatic focus.
STAMBERG: Oh, no.
HOCKNEY: He'd have been in his element then.
HOCKNEY: Yes, he would.
STAMBERG: Hockney's "History Of Pictures" book is chock full of images, a few photos, but mostly reproductions of paintings he's loved looking at over the years. His favorite is a quick pen-and-ink drawing Rembrandt made in 1656, a family - mother, father, sister - hovering over a little child, teaching it to walk. Just a few strokes - the jot of a curve makes a shoulder; the flick of the brush shows the father squatting, encouraging the child. Hockney thinks it's a virtuoso piece.
HOCKNEY: You see the tenderness of the drawing. But you also see the marks that made the drawing. You can look at the mother and see the little ragged dress she has on. But then you see the marks that were made to do this and how few there are and things like that.
STAMBERG: So minimal, but universal.
HOCKNEY: Yeah. Any person anywhere in the world has seen something like this and experienced it - haven't they?
STAMBERG: He's crazy for Rembrandt, of course, and Picasso, his hero, and the late 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio.
HOCKNEY: Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.
STAMBERG: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness. There's a woman. She's cutting a guy's head off, "Judith Beheading Holofernes," 1599. And look at - why do you call it Hollywood lighting?
HOCKNEY: Well, it is Hollywood lighting. I mean, this is lighting that's not natural.
STAMBERG: No sun could shine so brightly on Judith's breast and then disappear to make such dark, velvety shadows right behind her. It's dramatic, unreal. Only movies can illuminate like that. Light and where it comes from is every painter's preoccupation. For David Hockney, light on water has particular fascination.
What is it with you and water, David Hockney?
HOCKNEY: Well, water offers an interesting graphic problem, it seems to me. Say, a swimming pool, the water is transparent. How do you paint transparency? It has reflections and things.
STAMBERG: "A Bigger Splash," his best-known painting from 1967, shows a Californian swimming pool, tan diving board angling in from the bottom right, and rising from the aquamarine water, a lively, white splash. Someone just dove in.
HOCKNEY: I spent longer on the splash than on any other thing in the painting. I spent about a week painting it because it's painted with small brushes. I mean, I didn't want to just take a brush and splash it like that. I wanted to paint it slowly. And I thought then it contradicts the splash really.
STAMBERG: Yes. Oh...
STAMBERG: Because it took you so long to what, in life, took a second.
HOCKNEY: Yes, yes.
STAMBERG: Hockney once put big mirrors in the corners of a gallery hung with his sunset orange views of the Grand Canyon. Reflecting the pictures made them more dimensional. Da Vinci told artists to look at all their work through mirrors. In reverse, the mistakes pop out.
When you go in a museum or a gallery, what's the first thing you look at in a painting?
HOCKNEY: You look at the surface.
STAMBERG: What do you mean look at the surface? Do you mean the veneer that's on it, or what the brush stroke looks like or...
HOCKNEY: The paint - the paint itself. And then you might then see a figure. But I think, first of all, you see the surface.
STAMBERG: That is really a painter's answer. You or I would look first at the pear, the face, the horse. We're not Hockney. David Hockney believes painting can change the world. In the midst of all our miseries, he says, art lets us see the world as beautiful, thrilling, mysterious.
HOCKNEY: Well, I do see it that way. Yes, I do because I enjoy looking. I do. I mean, I do get a deep pleasure from looking. I can look at a little puddle on a road in Yorkshire and just of the rain falling on it and think it's marvelous. I see the world as very beautiful. Yes, I do.
STAMBERG: David Hockney's new book, done with Martin Gayford, is "A History Of Pictures."
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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