❚ 30 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK the British painter David Hockney made a discovery so monumental that he called it “a truer way of seeing”. I’d gone to interview him about the education cuts Margaret Thatcher was inflicting on British art schools and found myself receiving an exhilarating tutorial while the artist tested his new ideas.
“Have you been to the cubism exhibition at the Tate?” Hockney enthused during a trip to London from his home in Los Angeles. “I’ve been seven times! Suddenly I see cubism differently, more clearly… That’s what I’m only starting to grasp. Cubism is about another way of seeing the world, a truer way. But the moment you grasp it, you can’t give it up.”
Photography had preoccupied Hockney for the previous couple of years and in the week of his 46th birthday, we’d met at a Cork Street gallery during the hanging of his show New Work With A Camera, fresh from its Los Angeles run. Yet on two visits to his Kensington studio that week, fresh canvases on the easel signalled that Hockney had returned to painting. He said: “I had to deal with the ideas that are bubbling away. Cubism is hard enough to grasp, but it’s even harder to do, which actually is why not many people have been able to do anything with it. Starting to paint again is very refreshing.”
Four days later when the resulting interview appeared in the London Evening Standard, he’d been again to the Tate and said on the telephone: “Your article is pretty much the first time I have talked about this – of course I’ve discussed these things with friends but the article does make it clear to people.”
He added: “You must go to the Tate retrospective [The Essential Cubism], it’s marvellous. You go from one cubist picture to another and another. In other galleries, like Moma, you might have one cubist room but go to the Tate show because you’ll never see so many cubist paintings together again. I found I began to develop this way of seeing them, it’s very rich. You do have to stand in front of the Picassos and spend time looking. When you’re physically in front of a cubist painting, once you start looking, especially the early analytical ones, it slowly reveals itself. It doesn’t pounce off the wall.”
The next day, when I returned to his studio with a camera, Hockney had begun yet another huge cubistic canvas which seriously took the breath away. It was a privilege to view the unfinished paintings with their images outlined in charcoal and he remarked that few people get to see inside the studio. I made sure to snap the 1,001 mementoes and influences scattered throughout the space suggestive of a restless imagination. The three substantial conversations I was fortunate to enjoy that week remain a turning point in my own appreciation of art. By a stroke of fate, my presence had provided the artist with a sounding board at the very moment when he urgently needed to kick around some bold new thoughts.