David Hockney at his studio in Los Angeles in March this year © Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima
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“When [the American critic] Clement Greenberg said that ‘with an advanced artist, it’s not now possible to make a portrait’, de Kooning answered, ‘Yes, but how can you not make one?’”

David Hockney is telling me this story, twirling around in a wheelchair, occasionally getting out of it to pace the galleries of the Royal Academy. “I think you can just paint!” he says. “I just had people sitting there, and I thought, ‘I can do this and it’s marvellous.’ ”

California-tanned in his white cap and yellow shirt, Hockney is surrounded by 82 people “jumping off the walls”, as he puts it. Each is portrayed full-length in identical vertical format, 48 by 36 inches, sitting in the same open chair in Hockney’s Los Angeles studio against a flat two-tone background: “a blue curtain and a green carpet — sometimes I just swapped them over”.

All the paintings in his new exhibition 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life share a steady Californian luminosity — “the light there is very, very strong” — reminiscent of Hockney’s 1960s swimming pool pictures, as well as having his trademark graphic brilliance and crystalline simplicity. Absent is the satirical edge that made iconic portraits such as “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” and “American Collectors” fizz and disturb. Here Hockney is in unforced intimacy with his sitters, depicting them entirely from life, close up and with long-held affection.

“This is a very psychological project,” Hockney continues. “They were always sat there all the time I was painting, and I didn’t paint them if they weren’t sat there. When I’d finished, sometimes I’d think, ‘Do they really look like that?’ Then when they went and I was left with the painting, I thought, ‘Yes they are here now, I got them — now they’re here on the walls.’ It was a mad thing to do.”

A few subjects are familiar — Celia Birtwell, the impossibly cool Mrs Ossie Clark of Hockney’s famous 1970 picture, is now a glamorous grandmother in a white cotton dress. Her granddaughter Isabella has a charming adolescent gawkiness and pink shoes — “shoes tell you a lot! Remember Pygmalion: you can always tell a gentleman by his shoes”. Art world types include art dealer Larry Gagosian in a blue suit, tense hands registering impatience at having to sit still; angular Jacob Rothschild, too tall for the chair, answering Hockney’s scrutiny with his own quizzical intelligence; Barry Humphries flamboyant in pink trousers and red spotted tie.

Mostly the sitters in this vast taxo­nomy of how we live now and dress (“30 years ago there’d have been a lot more suits”) or hold ourselves — “I wanted the whole body” — are unknown. They range from Hockney’s wry, stoical 87-year-old dentist, “a very funny man, unusually for a dentist”, painted six weeks before his death, to a wonderfully precocious 11-year-old Rufus Hale, blond in a grey waistcoat, clutching pencil and notepad, his shining seriousness recalling both Henry Raeburn’s 1814 portrait of young William Blair, and Hockney’s own youthful self-portraits.

‘John Baldessari, 13-16 December’ (2013) © David Hockney/Richard Schmidt

As an ensemble, the works form a narrative of youth and age and, emphasised by the standard format, a celebration of difference, because “when you put them all together, you can see their individuality. I see everybody as an individual, that’s what we all are”.

Perhaps it is because the project began in grief that it is so moving.

In 2013 in Hockney’s Yorkshire home his young studio assistant Dominic Elliott died from drinking household bleach while high on ecstasy and cocaine. Hockney was asleep and in no way involved, but he fled Britain, returning to his Los Angeles home. The shock and distress left him “very down” and, exceptionally, unable to paint. It was in this condition that one day he observed his studio manager and amanuensis Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima “sitting with his head in his hands like this” — Hockney imitates the posture with a dramatic fall of his own head.

“I felt like that as well. I said, ‘I’ll paint you like that’. I just went and got a cheap canvas at an art store and painted it.”

‘Rita Pynoos, 1-2 March’ (2014) © David Hockney/Richard Schmidt

Hockney then began posing friends for three-day, six-hour sessions. “I drew them out with charcoal in the first hour: that was very very tense, I worked in silence, but when I’d done the drawing I accepted it, after that they didn’t have to sit that still. I’d done 10 when I realised I could go on quite a bit.”

The series includes a single compelling still-life made “when somebody was coming and then couldn’t, so I thought, ‘I’ll just put some fruit here instead and paint it’, so I did that for three days”.

The initial painting of the slumped, despairing “JP” against a bright zigzag rug is, Hockney says, “really a self-portrait”, but in a sense the whole cycle, linked by friendship, charts Hockney’s process of healing. He admits these days to being “a bit lonely”, isolated by deafness, needing “a pile of books now more than ever, because I can hear every word in a book”. But across the two years of this series’ making, the works (which are displayed chronologically) become lighter as “my mood changed, because I thought I’m getting something more positive, they grew and I realised I have a lot of friends, I could ask people to give me three days. It’s a funny thing to look at somebody. Most people weren’t used to it; it was the first time they’d been painted; they were curious.”

Did they enjoy the results?

‘Celia Birtwell, 31 August-4 September’ (2015) © David Hockney/Richard Schmidt

“I didn’t ask them. It’s what I think. I’m not flattering people. But the more I did, the more people would be willing to come.” He glances around and adds matter-of-factly: “The show looks terrific. It’s the first time I’ve seen them together. If these were photographs, they wouldn’t be that interesting. A 20-hour exposure is a lot different from a frame in a fraction of a second.”

Like all artists of dazzling, easy virtuosity, Hockney is most spirited when he has something to resist. And it is clear, as the series gained ground, that it became a conceptual project, a challenge to photography and, as with his 2012 landscape show here, an opportunity to demonstrate that painting can pull off an immersive spectacle that is just as theatrical as contemporary installations.

‘Lord Jacob Rothschild, 5-6 February’ (2014) © David Hockney/Richard Schmidt

“I’m just going to be blunt,” he says. “Photography’s not good enough. I get bored with photographs because the textures are all the same. And you bring your own time to painting, but video brings its time to you — that’s its weakness. Even film now looks ephemeral, most old films I never want to see again.

“Unfortunately they gave up teaching painting and drawing. What’s going to happen? If you stopped teaching mathematics, bridges would fall down. Well, I’m an optimist even though I know the world’s a terrible place. I like life, I like people. When I’m painting, I feel 30. I came out of Tate’s Matisse Picasso show and there were some big photographs and I thought, ‘the world looks very dull in a photograph but Picasso and Matisse made it exciting.’

“I think the world is exciting and I think the world is beautiful, yes I do!”

‘David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life’, Royal Academy, London, July 2-October 2. Sponsored by Cazenove Capital Management. royalacademy.org.uk

Photographs: Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima; David Hockney/Richard Schmidt

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