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Backstage With David Hockney at A Bigger Picture

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David Hockney has agreed to a short visit as he supervises installation of his much anticipated landscape exhibition, opening at London's Royal Academy of Arts today (21 January). Not long after the Queen appointed him to the Order of Merit, we sip tea in a private Royal Academy office, looking out on another wet, cold London afternoon. Then, as I've done so many times in the past, I set up my tape recorder on the table.

That's about as far as we get before a Hockney assistant barges into the room: Hockney needs to go upstairs right away and approve the placement of a gallery wall. "Come on," says the 74-year-old artist, bounding up an endless flight of stairs to the galleries. We walk through the guarded doors to a warren of large rooms where more than a dozen people are painting walls, hanging paintings, waiting for instruction. Hockney approves the new wall, then moves purposefully through the rest of the place.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, has been planned since 2007, and will fill all of the venerable museum's main galleries. There are paintings, photocollages, drawings and sketch books that go back 50 years, but most of the artwork in the show is far more recent. Besides earlier landscapes of woods and hills in his native Yorkshire, he has created more grand, colorful, multi-canvas landscapes specifically for the huge Royal Academy walls. It was only last October, in fact, that he was in Yosemite making drawings on his ubiquitous iPad, and those drawings have been enlarged and beautifully printed for the exhibition.

The very first copy of the show's catalogue has arrived, and reviewing it is next on Hockney's agenda. To keep me occupied as he does so, he pulls his iPad out of the specially made pocket of his grey suit jacket and sets it up on a table. Within seconds, nine frames depicting an English country road in winter fill the Ipad screen. I start to write something in my notebook, and he stops me. "No. Look. It is changing seasons fast," he calls out. "Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter again."

His newest way of seeing everything ahead at once, the high-definition video projections seem a natural progression from his earlier photographic collages, and particularly his monumental Pearblossom Hwy., a 1986 collage of over 700 photographic prints assembled to depict a California desert highway. The eye sees a lot more than just what's directly in front of you, he explains. These images look at life the way he thinks it should be seen.

He will replicate this video of the four seasons, edited to less than 10 minutes, on much larger screens for museum visitors. I had received a preview last year when I visited him in Bridlington, a seaside town in Yorkshire 60 miles from where he was born and where he spends most of his time these days. We drove along that snow-covered country road, next returning home to view earlier footage of the same road, shot by nine small high-definition cameras carefully mounted to a jeep. We watched them on nine attached video screens set up in the onetime attic studio he's converted to a screening room for invited guests willing to make the four hour trek to Bridlington from London.

The four seasons footage of country landscapes will be paired at the museum with his latest drawing on film: seven minutes worth of stretches, ballet and tap from members of the Royal Ballet he invited up to his mammoth Bridlington studio a few months ago. Dancers appear to skip across an 18-frame screen doing ballet and tap to piano music in what he's now calling Bridliewood, [a counter to his now rarely-visited Hollywood Hills home, aka Hollyton.]

The exhibition culminates a long journey for Hockney. He's made en plein air multi-canvas paintings in the English countryside for several years now, and tested his notion of filling the Royal Academy halls back in August, 2007. That summer, his 50-panel Bigger Trees Near Warter , which was 15 by 40 feet, was hung on an Academy wall for its summer exhibition and later joined on nearby walls by digitally-created photo reproductions on the same scale. Colleagues documented the process of mounting the giant works, netting a blueprint for the real thing.

"These rooms are magnificent," he told me when he returned. "They are the best rooms for showing paintings in London. They're as grand as anything in Paris or Rome. And they're open -- the Royal Academy doesn't have a permanent collection. But they would never have offered this show without my putting this on [in 2007] and proving I could do it."

Time's up, he indicates, slipping on his grey overcoat and beret. Bundled up against the bitter cold, he and a friend walk out to Piccadilly, hail a cab, climb in and speed away.

Barbara Isenberg has been writing about the arts for three decades and about David Hockney for nearly as long. She is the author, most recently, of Conversations with Frank Gehry (Knopf, 2009).

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