The day my father died: David Hockney is, par excellence, an artist who speaks to us direct, in words as well as art. Here he tells with his usual beguiling directness about pleasure and sorrow, life and work

David Hockney
Friday 15 October 1993 23:02 BST


My father's death meant a very great deal to me. He had told me that we should not mourn when he died. As far as he was concerned, you could throw the body away. He had enjoyed life, I think he had, although he had quite a hard life in a material sense. But in a non-material sense I think he had a very rich life, just as my mother says she's had a very rich life even though most of it has been physically quite hard.

The last time I saw my father was when the Paper Pools were shown in London in February 1978. I had been working on them with Ken Tyler in upstate New York and when we were finished we sent them to London for an exhibition. I went, too, and my parents came down to London. They stayed at the Savoy Hotel, because the gallery was just walking distance from it. That was the last time I saw my father. After the exhibition he went back to Bradford and I stayed in London for one day longer. That day I called my mother and she said, oh, he's gone into hospital to balance. He was a diabetic late in life but he kept nibbling on chocolate biscuits. If you are a diabetic you are not balanced, it's as though you're drunk. All the people in Eccleshill, in Bradford, knew who he was even if he didn't know them well, and if they saw him staggering around (my father never touched alcohol, so they knew he was ill) they'd bring him back home to my mother. My mother always felt safe there and that is why she never wanted to move. The neighbours were kind about it. So, he went into hospital the day they got back from London. My mother said, oh, he'll be all right, they're just balancing it out. I said, all right, and went back to New York for a night before going off to California.

The telephone rang at six in the morning and it was my brother. When I heard his voice I knew there was something wrong because my brother knows about the time difference. He told me my father had just died in hospital; he had had a heart attack, a big one, and just died. I put the phone down and burst into tears. I got the next plane back and went up to Bradford. My mother said, oh, you've come back to a sad house. In a way, at first, I was thinking of my mother more. Suddenly, a partner gone - they were about six months off their golden anniversary. My first feelings were to try and strengthen her. My mother is a very strong person, but I thought she'd be very vulnerable then and I felt that my first duty was to the living. I felt I was being quite brave, although at the funeral - he was cremated - I couldn't speak or say anything. I just felt tears thinking about him.

We had printed a little card and I put some fluorescent spots on it. My father used to put fluorescent spots on his letters to attract attention to something he wanted to emphasise. Everybody else underlines, but he'd put dayglo spots so it dazzled your eyes. I remembered what he had said: don't mourn. He just seemed to accept that death would come. Well I do, too. We all have to accept it. I stayed in Bradford for a few days and I made some drawings of my mother.

When I came back to California I kept thinking about him and I thought, in my head he's still there. He is always there, won't go away; and so it is now. For my mother, of course, it wasn't like that. She'd had him about the house for 40 years. He was 76 when he died. He'd had a very full life. He had five children who were still there, grandchildren, and I thought, it was a rich life: we shouldn't mourn for him, we should be pleased, actually.

Since then I've had quite a lot of friends die who were much, much younger. An old person dying seems perfectly natural, whereas somebody aged 32 is not.

The first friend of mine to die was Joe MacDonald. I always went to see him when I was in New York. He'd had every sexual disease there was; and he was the first person I knew to become ill with Aids, just after 1981. We'd just done Parade, Les Mamelles de Tiresias and L'Enfant et les Sortileges at the Metropolitan Opera, in February 1981. While I was working on it in New York, from late 1979 on, I saw quite a lot of Joe. Then I started on the Stravinsky triple bill, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1981. Then I left New York to go back to California. I used to ring Joe up every two or three days and chat with him and he used to ring me.

One day I rang and there was no reply; I assumed he'd gone away. Eventually his mother called me and said that he was in hospital with pneumonia. I thought, pneumonia's not that serious, it's a curable thing. Now if somebody mentions pneumonia I dread it.

Joe got worse and I went to see him a lot; I brought him to come and stay in California for a while and I could see he was ill, very ill. When he returned to New York, I kept going to see him. I last saw him about four days before he died. His mother had rung and said he was worse. It was horrible. In hospital they made you put on masks and rubber gloves and said we shouldn't touch him and I thought, God, poor Joe, all his friends, he's not even seeing their faces; if he's dying wouldn't it be best just to see a face of a friend? He made jokes, he said he'd had a good time.

He knew then, the last time I saw him, that he was very close to death and yet he said he'd had a good time, which I thought was typical of Joe. He liked to have a good time. At one point earlier, about six months before, he'd said he felt guilty about things, his life. I said, I wouldn't do that, Joe, you shouldn't think like that, make the best of it while you can.

That was five years after my father died. Then there were more deaths, each person dying in a different way. Joe, when he died, looked like a 90-year-old man. He'd lost most of his hair and his face was very sunken in, almost like a skull. But not everybody I knew who died looked like that. My aunts had died earlier, but they had died comfortably in a little hospital in Bradford. They'd had a lovely life, they'd enjoyed it, however hard it had been, they'd loved it. All this makes you think about death itself, but I'm not sure I see it as totally tragic. Sometimes I think maybe it's just another adventure.


I think you can't have art without play; Picasso always understood that. I think you can't have much human activity of any kind without a sense of playfulness. Someone once criticised my work, saying it was too playful. I said, that's hardly a criticism at all, that's a compliment. I do see it as a compliment because I believe that without a sense of play there's not much curiosity, either; even a scientist has a sense of play. And that allows for surprises, the unexpected, discoveries. Anybody who gets good at it knows that. You can use it. I use it. People tend to forget that play is serious, but I know that of course it is. Some people have got the idea that if it's boring, it's art and if it's not boring, it's not art. Well, I've always thought it was the other way round. If it's boring, more than likely it's not art, if it's exciting, thrilling, more than likely it is. I don't know of any good art that's boring, in music, poetry or painting. Isn't that why Shakespeare is so exciting?

In a certain sense, one only makes pictures for oneself. I work on the assumption that if something I am doing interests me it might interest someone else; but I can't be bothered too much if it doesn't, as long as it interests me. I am an artist who is always working. I know some people think I spend my time just swimming around or dancing in night-clubs. That's fine. But I don't, actually. I work most of the time because it excites me and gives me very great pleasure and because if I didn't work I wouldn't know what else to do; I think I would go mad if I didn't; I think I might not like the world if I didn't. Maybe I'm doomed in this sense. Sometimes I think it might be better just to sit back and enjoy it, but I'm not capable of that. I wish I were. I am capable of enjoyment, but unfortunately I have this urge, this compulsion, to share my enjoyment, which is what artists do usually. Most artists leave that urge, a belief that it is possible to do this, to share your perceptions. It seems to me that, however rotten you might think the world is, it is always possible that there is something quite good about it. This makes me to a certain extent an optimistic person.

I think I tend to have a somewhat Oriental attitude to tragedy, not a Western attitude. The Oriental view of life is different; it doesn't see life as tragic in a European sense, and in a way I find myself quite drawn to that. It seems to me one of the great sadnesses is that all of us understand tragedy to a certain extent, or sense it in our lives: loved things disappear, people you love die. But it's the comic side that some people can't see.

(Photographs omitted)

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