Boys on Film: David Hockney Has Taken a Break from Painting to Select a Show of Photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. He Talks to Charlie Scheips about His Old Friend and Their Shared Interest

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David Hockney, one of the most popular and influential living artists, takes a keen interest in how his own work has been presented in the hundreds of exhibitions and dozens of books that have documented his 45-year career. And now he has put on a new hat--that of curator--in an exhibition of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe at the Alison Jacques Gallery in London.


Jacques invited Hockney to curate the show after the artists Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie curated Mapplethorpe exhibitions for galleries in New York and Los Angeles in 2003 and 2004. "I read an interview Hockney did on Andy Warhol's stitched photographs and thought to myself how brilliant it would be to have David's eye on Mapplethorpe," says Jacques. Sherman and Opie never knew Mapplethorpe, but Hockney did. They were introduced by a mutual friend in New York in 1970. Back then, Mapplethorpe was living with the rock artist Patti Smith, and he was making sculpture. Hockney recalls: "I made a drawing of Robert and he gave me a Polaroid of a male nude." They were never very close, but saw each other from time to time until Mapplethorpe's death from Aids in 1989. "I lost an entire group of my friends to Aids--it was an incredible loss," says Hockney. "New York would be a different place today if all the talented artists like Robert hadn't been taken from us."

In 1974, as he was developing his unique style, Mapplethorpe photographed Hockney. In one image, the artist can be seen with his signature blond hair and round Corbusier-inspired glasses, knitted striped tie and cardigan sweater, stretched out at a house in Fire Island's famous gay enclave, the Pines. The show includes a better-known Mapplethorpe photo of Hockney, with his great friend, model and travelling companion Henry Geldzahler, but Hockney particularly likes the tongue-in-cheek message of the reclining portrait--he is yawning. "I must admit, I've grown a bit bored with most photography," says Hockney, laughing.


Indeed, Hockney has had a long and shaky relationship with photography. He first used male physique photos as inspiration for his paintings in the early 1960s, which was also when he began to take photographs on his frequent travels. Over the next two decades, he methodically placed each photo in oversize leather-bound albums, sometimes making what he called "joiners" (several photos joined together), a harbinger of the hundreds of photo collages he created in the 1980s.

In the mid-1980s, Hockney became intrigued by other uses of the photographic medium--the common office copier and the newly invented facsimile machine. He produced dozens of editioned prints and faxed hundreds of pictures to friends and museum colleagues around the world. Then, in 1989, after completing his most complex photo collage, Pearblossom Highway, Hockney abandoned photography. For the next decade, he returned to painting, remarking that the photographic image "just wasn't good enough".

However, Hockney's interest in photography was renewed in a big way in 1999, when he visited a show of works by the 19th-century French artist Ingres at the National Gallery. He was struck by the small but "uncannily accurate" drawings of English aristocrats that Ingres made in Rome during the 1820s. These images reminded him of Andy Warhol's portraits, which were made by tracing the contours of photographic projections of his subjects. This led Hockney to undertake extensive research on the techniques of old masters, which convinced him that, long before Henry Fox Talbot's "first photograph" of 1837, painters had used the camera obscura--a box with a pinhole in one side that allows brightly lit objects or sitters to be projected on to the picture plane.


"The optical science of photography is centuries old," says Hockney. "They knew about projections, but it was only in 1837 that a fixative was developed that would allow the projection to be permanently recorded on the paper. …