“Why are you popular?” an interviewer asks the artist David Hockney in an old clip. “I’m not that sure, really,” Hockney sheepishly replies. “I’m interested in ways of looking, because people will respond. Everybody does look. It’s just a question of how hard.” Hockney’s knack for filtering the real world through canvas made him a titan of 20th century British art. In Los Angeles in the ‘60s and ‘70s, photos he snapped of friends lounging poolside and sunlight glistening on turquoise water inspired his most famous paintings: bold, saturated pictures that evoke a perpetually sunny and 70-degree paradise.
A biographical documentary directed by Randall Wright turns the camera on Hockney himself, who is 78 and still going strong making art on iPads (amongst other mediums). Stitched from television appearances, home videos, interviews with friends, and present-day footage, the film pairs sun-drenched footage of Beverly Hills with iconic Hockney works. “We wanted to reflect some of the aesthetics in the art but not allow cinematography to take over from the pictures themselves,” Wright tells The Creators Project. Showcasing his work also demonstrates the sheer diversity of Hockney’s oeuvre, weaving a portrait of a true virtuoso. “It’s so easy to make a picture if you have that level of talent,” Wright says. “And I think David is naturally curious and questioning, and he’s interested in all sorts of ways it’s possible to depict something.”
Hockney’s evolving techniques mirror a relentless exploration of his own identity. Growing up in England, his parents told him not to worry what the neighbors thought, and he never lost that spirit of unabashed self-expression. When Hockney moved to LA in the 60s, he dyed his hair platinum blonde and cultivated a reputation as an opinionated, unfiltered spokesperson for new approaches to art, life, and the emergent openness about gay life. “David was one of the very first people who made frank pictures of his identity as a gay man at a time, initially, when homosexual acts were still illegal. So he absolutely was a pioneer and a public face of gay life,” Wright says. “At the same time, he’s very rigorous about not wanting to be seen as a gay artist, because that is fraught with prejudice. An artist is an artist. An artist is a person. And a gay person is a person first. We shouldn’t always define someone by their sexuality.”
Wright strives to preserve that mutability in Hockney. “Documentary often aims to pin someone down and define their achievements, and that’s sort of silly,” he says. “The thing about a person, a person’s a mystery. I tried to present all the sides of David and the various things going on in his art.” And though much of his California-centric art focuses on beautiful bodies and tranquil scenes, the documentary and Hockney’s work both touch on somber subjects, namely the AIDS epidemic that claimed the lives of two-thirds of Hockney’s friend group. Both the man and the movie are buoyant, however, and Hockney is a love letter to the artist’s indestructible spirit. “I’m fascinated by artists whose work is optimistic. I think skepticism or cynicism is actually a much easier way of commenting on the experience of life,” Wright says. “People like David are very, very rare. There are few artists who have that profound joy in the act of seeing, the act of being alive and making fresh discoveries.”