Rufus Hale was just 11 years old when artist David Hockney painted his portrait. Rufus’ mother was making a movie about the prolific, octogenarian artist, and brought her son with her to work one day. He was sketching in the corner of the studio when Hockney asked, “Why don’t I paint you?”
Now Rufus’ portrait is among 82 currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in an exhibit titled “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life.”
Rufus was dressed nicely that day — in a long-sleeve white shirt, nice pants, good shoes and a red tie. He fidgeted during their three-hour session, but Hockney didn’t mind. Rufus says the artist created a pretty good likeness except … “he gave me blue eyes for some reason,” says brown-eyed Rufus. “Aside from that it was basically identical to me. It’s weird.”
Perhaps blue-eyed David Hockney saw himself in the boy — a young, blond Brit, sitting there with his sketchbook, just as young David would have done.
The people captured on these three-foot, square-ish canvases are a “snapshot of David’s life,” explains curator Stephanie Barron, whose portrait also appears in the exhibit. “There’s a democracy,” she explains, to the way Hockney posed his subjects.
“You can have an eminent museum director or an architect, or an actor next to the fellow who comes to wash his cars, or some of the women who help run his household,” Barron says.
They all sit in the same yellow armchair, against the same blue or green background — Hockney’s choice — on the same blue or green floor. On that floor, an assistant would draw lines around their feet, so they could reposition properly after breaks. Then Hockney would charcoal a rough sketch on the blank canvas.
“There is nothing except the canvas, the artist, his gaze, and you,” Barron says. “That’s it. The rest of the world just fades away.”
“He stands very erect,” recalls Dagny Corcoran, Hockney’s friend and artbook seller. “He puts one hand behind his back … holds his arm out with a long brush, and it’s like, whoa, that’s amazing — that’s what painters look like!”
For three hours Hockey would look, and look, and paint and look. They’d break for lunch (excellent food, Rufus says), and then work another few hours in the afternoon.
“David has an uncanny way of capturing someone quite quickly,” says Douglas Roberts, an art dealer and longtime friend of the artist. The first day, Hockney starts with the head and moves onto the body. The second day, he goes back to the head, and works on the hands. And on day three he finishes up.
“It’s completely silent in the studio,” Roberts says. “He works absolutely quietly. And he’s a bit deaf … he’s got hearing aids to assist. There was always music in the studio — opera playing or something, but now, not at all.”
Just silence, sitting and scrutiny. Stephanie Barron thought she’d go to work on the days after she posed for Hockney. “What I found instead is that I was so exhausted from the intensity of the scrutiny — I went home and took a nap,” she says.
But Hockney kept going. In a way, he had to.
“He had had a minor stroke,” Roberts explains. “Which sort of slapped him in the face a bit, I think, and the best therapy was to begin painting right away.”
So he decided to paint friends — people it would be easy for him to be with. Roberts believes “he just needed the company to sort of get through.”
The LACMA exhibit displays the portraits in chronological order, and Roberts sees his friend’s health improving from canvas to canvas.
“He says when he stands at the easel and paints he feels 30 years old,” Roberts says.
That renewed health and energy, resulted in 82 vivid, colorful portraits — and one still life. Why the still life? The friend who had been scheduled to sit that day had to cancel — her father was very ill. But the materials were already set up, so Hockney made a vibrant painting of bananas, red pepper, lemons, oranges arranged on a bright blue wooden bench.
Visiting these works at LACMA is like attending a lively party with David Hockney and his friends. The invitation lasts through the end of July.
Danny Hajek, Andrew Limbong and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.