Wall flowers

It's a big year for David Hockney. He is 60 in the summer, and has his first major show for a decade. So what is it with all the pretty flowers? Here, the old master talks to Gordon Burn about sex, drugs and staying home. Photograph by David Gamble
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30 Sunflowers, Violets on Yellow, Iris with Evian Bottle, Gladioli with Two Oranges. These are not titles which suggest the wildcatter tendency; art at the cutting edge. And, on the face of it, the canvases lining the gallery deliver exactly what they promise: still-lives, painted on a domestic scale, of flowers - irises, lilies, violets arranged in vases. The vases are usually standing on tables, or occasionally on plinths draped with calico or some other fabric. There are sometimes props and bits of simple set- dressing: bottles, books, lemons, oranges. You could, in other words, be looking at the output of any afternoon class in any Senior Citizens Centre or Women's Institute in the country.

It's only the presence of David Hockney, standing in a mac in the middle of the gallery and looking chirped up, looking like somebody who feels he is at least keeping abreast of the game, that prompts you to go back and look at the paintings more closely. When you do, you realise that the colours - humming electric yellows and blues and reds - are too close to the neon end of the spectrum to be the work of learner-daubers. Then you notice that the brushwork filling the big colour areas is a conscious nod in the direction of other painters: Van Gogh and Monet; the signature hatching of Jasper Johns. Then you notice other things: that the six books in the painting called Red and Pink Ginger are the classic Gallimard edition of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past; that the drop-leaf table in White Lilies and Orchid is wood-laminate and is from the G-Plan range; that the stamens on the antheriums are emphatically penis-shaped.

I take it that these are post-modern? I ask.

It is well-known that Hockney has been going deaf for many years. He wears a hearing aid in each ear, but still frequently cups his left ear with his hand and leans in closer, well aware of the old-gitishness of the mannerism.

"Post-what? What does 'post-modern' mean?"

Er, you say. Ironic. Detached.

"I actually like flowers," he says, grinning, vindicated. "I mean, I have flowers in my house always. Most people like flowers. I actually did them to cheer myself up."

Hockney turns 60 this year and, physically, there are the inevitable signs of blurring and dimming. His hair, although still thick and schoolboyish in that Alan Bennett way, has faded from the "Winsome Wheat" of his promiscuous, media tart years to an Auden-ish dishwater blond. The jutting, cubistic jaw has a deeper underbite and is becoming more jowelled. The old rakishness is still somewhat in evidence but reluctantly (you feel) muted, brought down. Even stripped of all the things that make David Hockney "David Hockney", though, including the thick licorice glasses, which have been replaced by a simple wire pair, he still ends up seeming, somehow impregnably, himself.

Although he has now spent more than half his life living in Los Angeles, he has never "gone Hollywood". When I visited him in Nichols Canyon, just before the big travelling retrospective of his work arrived at the Tate Gallery in 1988, he padded around in a pair of Albert Tatlock carpet slippers that his mother must have had to scour the back streets of Bradford to find, and drank a bottle of brown ale with his lunch. Stanley, a dachshund, was (and remains) his grand passion, and he was in the early days of trying out his new stay-at-home, play-at-home, sleepy-time persona on the world. He claims he still ignores most invitations, preferring to eat at home with a few friends. "I am a loner, really. I've always preferred intimacy. If two or three people are speaking at the same time, it's a cacophony to me. It's a horrible noise. You want to leave it." (A few days after telling me this, Hockney was photographed sharing a table with Sir Ian McKellen, Mick Jagger and others at the Vanity Fair Oscar night party in Hollywood). These days, visits to London tend to be only stopovers between LA and Bridlington in Yorkshire, where his sister and his mother, who is now in her nineties, live.

"The promotional fashioning of David Hockney was one of the key events of the early Sixties," the art historian David Mellor has written. "He was elevated by word of mouth, a murmur spoken in the litany of success which his promotion in the new London media furthered... Hockney is the great exemplar, before the Beatles, of mastery over the new publicity machine by means of ironising the reporting of fame."

History has fingered him as one of the key figures in the pantheon of Swinging London. But, conscious perhaps that the bitterest criticism in the past has been directed as much at the perceived loucheness of the way he lives as at the work he has produced, Hockney is keen to offer a revisionist version of the "permissive" period. "The first stage sets I ever did were for a production of Jarry's Ubu Roi at the Royal Court in 1966," he says, "and you weren't even allowed to say 'shit'. There was a censor, and you had to use the French word 'merde'. Well, that's the Swinging Sixties. I wasn't that impressed with it really."

"Drugs and boys," Hockney told me once. "That's how most people see my life. Just life round the pool. But I'm quite unconcerned about it. I don't mind. Better not to be taken too seriously as an artist by some people. I think. I do. You're better off left alone."

His friend and former dealer, Kasmin, confirms that Hockney has always been more comfortable with the role of observer rather than that of participant: "David liked being around it, but he never actually got involved in the sex that much." Hockney emits a deep belly laugh when I repeat this to him now. "I point out that the artist himself can't be a hedonist," he says. "The artists are workers. Well aren't they? They are by nature workers. All artists are. I'm a worker. I just work, actually.

"It's personality. It's the only way I can make sense of anything, frankly. For myself. Otherwise I'd be too depressed."

He has made the cross-over into middle-age more gracefully than many of his generation. It is interesting how he has executed the transition from golden boy to codger so seamlessly, making a pronounced stoop and encroaching deafness seem almost a style statement - the symbol of Hockney in his Old Master years as surely as the swimming pools, Kotah palms, and exotic landscapes represented the sun-loving, boy-chasing, gadabout of what we are now asked to accept as myth.

"You can do an amazing lot without leaving the house," he says. "Vermeer never left the house, and neither do I." It was seeing the great Vermeer exhibition at the Hague last year that in a roundabout sort of way and thanks to an associate creative process that even he can't decipher, resulted in the new flower paintings. "I was very impressed with the colour in those paintings. Three hundred years old, and they made every other painting in the place look dull. I was very patient. I went with the crowd. It wasn't that crowded. It was the last week. But the rooms were quite small, and I was very impressed with 30 people gazing at a small picture for a long time. The most vibrant colour. And I joked when I got back to Los Angeles that Vermeer's colour will last longer than MGM's and it's 350 years old already.

"Colour brings you a bit of joy. You see, people hate colour in some ways. They're frightened of it, aren't they? There's a colour-phobia. I do know that. But I must admit I see colour everywhere. In these new paintings I wanted colour to... vibrate."

Leaving formal considerations to one side, though, the flower pictures are almost parodically - certainly provocatively - maiden-auntish in their subject matter and the apparent ham-fistedness of the paint handling. Hockney kept up the pretence of them just being nice pictures of pretty flowers for quite a while, before finally conceding that perhaps they're not to be taken entirely at face-value. "My original title for the exhibition was going to be 'Fuck You, It's All Flowers'. Then I decided I wanted the faces [portraits] in as well. I'm well aware that most people would say that paintings of flowers are absolutely banal, and so on. I know all that. On the other hand, I'm also aware that you don't remember many paintings of flowers. It's very hard. They're not specially interesting."

Nobody could look at those paintings in 1997, knowing they're by David Hockney, I tell him, and think that they're just meant to be a celebration of flowers and colour.

"There is a quote of Stravinsky's: 'Most art is sincere, and most art is bad, but some insincere art is..." He forgets how it continues, but the point is made. "These are painting that are not about covering up. They are about laying bare. They're anti-slickness, anti-gloss, anti-everything like that. There's risk involved. Of course, it's a risk. But eventually they will be seen as mine. I know that. They always are. I see the bigger pattern, I think. Why does he spend his own money doing those operas? I know that's what they've been saying for years. Why has he become obsessed with late-Picasso? I do what I want to do, actually. I'm rich enough to do that."

The paintings in the new show suggest those occasions when there is surfeit, a superabundance of flowers - flowers in places where, perhaps, there usually are none. Some evoke the luxe life for which Hockney has become renowned; others, though, are redolent of the living-rooms of terraced houses, like the one in which Hockney grew up, on those occasions when Interflora comes knocking: weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and, of course, funerals.

"Both [Hockney and Picasso] have injected into their work a powerful, ambiguous sense of death," Richard Wollheim, professor of philosophy at the University of California, has written. "In Hockney's art there is none of the omnipotence that Picasso's work exudes, and, instead, there is a sensibility close to Watteau's, in which the trivial suddenly, abruptly, but still abjuring solemnity, stands for the transient. But in the work of both men we find ourselves, quite unmistakably, in the presence of a sombre power from which we thought ourselves a million miles away."

With Francis Bacon, Hockney has been credited with liberalising attitudes towards male homosexuals in Britain through his work. And, in the case of Hockney at least, this was the result of a conscious effort "to propagandise something I felt hadn't been propagandised as a subject. I felt it should be done."

In the catalogue to the 1988 Hockney retrospective, Henry Geidzahler, an old friend and frequent subject, wrote about "the relentless, clanging toxin of Aids, which seems every month to toll for still another great friend or colleague". Aids is a subject which Hockney has chosen not to address directly in his work. To those, though, who believe the grief of recent years is reflected nowhere in the paintings, his advice is: look again. "Some people have said to me: You never dealt with Aids. Well, I thought I did. I thought there were paintings of mine full of pain, actually. But I'm not going to say to that: You don't look hard enough. If people don't see it, it's up to them."

Geldzahler thinks "the end of innocence" for Hockney came in 1973 with the death of Picasso. Picasso's death, Geldzahler believes, became in some indefinable way entangled with the decline and eventual death of David Hockney's own father five years later. At the beginning of last year, Hockney painted a series of portraits of his 95-year-old mother in which she is barely recognisable as the woman in the pictures of even 20 years ago. At around the same time, he painted Jonathan Silver, the director of the Hockney Gallery in Salts Mill, near Bradford, who was recovering from cancer surgery.

"David Plante was just telling me he remembers Francis Bacon saying to him: Give me tragedy, give me tragedy," Hockney says. "For somebody who spent his whole time on uproariousness and getting drunk, gambling and fucking, it's a kind of mad remark. The tragedy's in the paintings. I'm probably the reverse. I've always said to people: The painting might look happy, it doesn't mean to say the artist is; don't be deceived. It's a rather shallow view to think that, I always feel. Francis Bacon was probably a lot happier than I am."

You were never happy, even in the early days in California, painting the boys and the swimming pools?

"Happiness," he says, "is something which seems a retrospective thing, frankly. It's only when you are firstly, deeply unhappy that you realise you were happy at some other time. But until you're absolutely unhappy, you wouldn't know that, would you?"

Ushered into a side-room off the main gallery, housing a Mondrian and a Naum Gabo sculpture, Hockney had immediately produced a tiny silver box from his jacket pocket. The box's mirrored lid had me thinking for a second that something was going to happen connected to drugs. It turned out to be a portable ashtray, to collect the ash from his cigarettes. Hockney's an inveterate smoker. The No Smoking rule in almost all California restaurants is an additional reason why he chooses not to eat in them. He had just written a letter to the New York Times, he said, defending the late Deng Xiaoping's right to smoke Panda cigarettes. ("Mr Deng might say, in 93 years of my turbulent life, thank goodness for Panda cigarettes keeping me calm. And calm to a ripe old age. Wouldn't you deduce that? I would. I think some people would be a lot better off smoking.")

Oh, it's an ashtray, I'd said when he first produced the box. I thought it was something illegal.

"Well," he said, "it used to be stuff like that. Now, believe it or not, it holds cigarette ash. That tells you a lot about us, doesn't it? But that's what everybody used to think."

When did you stop doing young people's things like drugs?

He seemed slightly hurt. "Why do you assume I've stopped? Actually, I haven't stopped, really. I'm a bit of an old... I like dope, actually. Smoking dope and listening to music. Wagner. Yes. Very good. Most people take drugs. They call it 'medication'. If you know anything about drugs, you can see what's coming, can't you? I assume we'll go from them being absolutely illegal to them pushing them down our throats. There won't be any in-between, will there? Go from one extreme to another. I won't change. I've never claimed to be a respectable person. I'm not."

Something has changed on his visits home in just the past few years. Hockney can no longer take for granted the title of Britain's Most Famous Living Artist that he has held unchallenged since at least the mid-Sixties. A rival has appeared who happens to share not only his birthplace and his initials, but also his personal charm and his appetite for life and unpredictable, restless intelligence.

"I did meet Damien Hirst once," Hockney said. "Actually, when he met me, d'you know what he said? I've just remembered this. It was in California. He said, I met you when I was 12. It was at a performance of the Messiah in Bradford, and I came up to you and said, 'I'm going to be an artist.' And I then remembered. I said, Yes, it was at the Eastbrook Hall and not at the St George's Hall, which was being repaired at the time. And I did remember all this. It came back to me.

"I'll say this about Damien: at least he's made memorable images. I think there are a lot of lively artists in London at the moment. I mean, you need all kinds of artists. You do. What's Oscar Wilde's remark? 'The only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer.' Another one: 'It's only the shallow who do not judge by appearance.'

All the time he had been talking, Hockney had been reminding me of somebody, although I couldn't think who. And then it came to me. With his Yorkshire accent and his jutting chin and his forthrightness and sly humour he bears more than a passing resemblance to Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott.

"I don't live here. I don't follow the politics too much," Hockney said when I mentioned this to him. "I mean, I'm informed. I keep myself informed. I can read between the lines. I've noticed, for instance, that the weekend papers in England have started to get much fatter with advertising. That means the advertisers are using print instead of television. If you record television, you fast- forward the ads. So the only ads you're going to have on television are in disasters or sports. So that's all you'll be seeing on television soon, disasters or sports. Because you can't fast-forward them. I notice all this.

"I notice the political parties here are using whole images in newspapers. Trying to find images you remember. The mask on Mr Blair was very good. It didn't matter how long it lasted. I know how it works. That's Mr Saatchi's work - Mr Saatchi's an artist, ruthlessly using other artists. I've always thought that."

You know him?

"No, I've never met him. I'm not [this said under his breath] that interested in art collectors."

You're both reclusive, in a way.

"Oh I'm sure I'm more reclusive... I'm not involved in art politics. It doesn't interest me."

With sunlight splashing onto the poster colours of the flower paintings, the gallery outside had taken on something of the feel of Hockney's living- room in the Hollywood Hills. Looking pallid in comparison as he posed among them for a photographer, Hockney recalled a remark made by the Mayor of Bridlington when he was told that the famous artist was becoming a regular visitor to the town. "I've never heard of him," he said, "but he'll love, it there. It's an artist's paradise."

I think we can take it that it is in this spirit of heartfelt philistine sincerity, comical and at the same time oddly affecting, that the new work has been made

'Flowers, Faces and Spaces' will be on show at Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1, from 1 May to 19 July

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