Who is the most famous US artist of the 20th century? David Hockney explains his choice

In behind-the-scenes footage from an award-winning documentary, the British artist talks about the art he believes remains fresh and memorable today


"Hockney Unlocked" is a series of 80 short films produced, directed and edited by Bruno Wollheim. The films are outtakes from Wollheim’s award-winning documentary, "David Hockney: A Bigger Picture", filmed single-handedly over five years with David Hockney. Here, Wollheim writes a commentary on some of the short films informed by a friendship stretching back 30 years.

Who is the most important American artist of the 20th Century? I was caught out on this one. Is “important” the same as influential or famous or revolutionary? And what counts as “American”?

Warhol seemed a good guess—perhaps closely followed by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Roy Lichtenstein—but David was thinking outside the box. Like many others who were probably asked that same question, I was thinking too narrowly.

What was David's answer? Walt Disney.

When David arrived in Southern California in 1965 it was considered an artistic backwater. Never one to subscribe to conventional hierarchies, especially concerning high and low art, David saw Los Angeles as the home of Disney and Hollywood and as such a world capital of the visual. Over the next decades he would regularly take trips to Disneyland, especially with English visitors.

In his and Martin Gayford’s book A History of Pictures (2016), Disney remains in the pantheon: “Walt Disney was a great American artist. He might be a bit sentimental, but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. If you ask people about Hollywood films in the 1930s they start mentioning Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable or Greta Garbo, but Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are still there today.”

For David, the freshness, the staying power, the memorability of an image count for a lot. Fame and popularity, a little less.

“Whatever we think today the future thinks, sees, a bit differently, clearer. There is no expert on contemporary art, you can’t fully know what’s going on.” Then the clincher: “ If the art is alive, it’s contemporary, it doesn’t matter when it was made.”

This video was shot in 2004, and it was not so much a parlour game as a perspective on art hierarchies and how David Hockney ranks, or refuses to rank, his fellow artists.

I was counting David as English, although he has spent half his lifetime in the US and would qualify as American by the Whitney Museum’s 1958 definition, which discounts place of birth or citizenship and concentrates on whether an artist’s career has been identified with the country.

David claims he grew up between Bradford and Hollywood, in the cinema. In Bridlington, Yorkshire, he had a home cinema installed to watch favourite films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit, Robert Zemeckis' live-action/animation feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)and anything by Jacques Tati or Laurel and Hardy.

We are probably still not far enough into the 21st century to have a clear answer to the question David poses—if we ever will, given how crowded, contested and stratified the art scene has become. Perhaps by then, in that new space-time continuum, David will be proven right and contemporary art as we know it will no longer exist.

Perhaps most of all this video affirms David’s belief that making art, or pictures, is about communicating. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said:

“Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.”

• David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is now available online