Checkered Past

Peter Schlesinger, David Hockney’s Muse, Shows New Works in L.A.

The artist’s ex-boyfriend, Peter Schlesinger, opens a new show of sculpture and photographs in Los Angeles. Isabel Wilkinson reports.

Quim Llenas / Cover / Getty Images

In 1966, Peter Schlesinger was a 19-year-old California boy, raised in the Valley and enrolled in UCLA’s art program. There, he took classes with Richard Diebenkorn and eventually a painting class with David Hockney, 11 years his senior.

Schlesinger became Hockney’s boyfriend and soon, his muse. As Hockney was constantly painting and drawing, Schlesinger was constantly posing. Among Hockney’s most famous works are his paintings of California in the late 1960s—drenched in sun, set in the modern homes of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. “David had a big romance with California,” Schlesinger says now. “And I was an object in it.”

Schlesinger is the figure in many of Hockney’s pools—propelling himself along the bottom, fully submerged, and, in one famous 1966 painting, “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool,” hoisting himself onto the cement. Schlesinger laughs about that painting now. “I was actually posed against the hood of my MG,” he says, explaining that Hockney photographed him as a study, and then inserted the figure into the pool. “That’s why the part under the water isn’t painted well—because it was just invented.”

Hockney and Schlesinger traveled to London together in 1966, taking an ocean liner across the Atlantic and moving into Hockney’s flat in Notting Hill. Schlesinger transitioned from painting to sculpture and photography, and—as he fell in with Hockney’s circle of London friends—began to document his lively 10-year stay in the city. He photographed Paloma Picasso on her wedding day in 1978, Manolo Blahnik, Tina Chow, Hockney—and Vivienne Westwood’s very first shop in London. The pictures were published in Schlesinger’s 2003 book, Checkered Past and are now on view at the Duke and Duke Gallery in Los Angeles, recently co-founded by Michael Smith, interior decorator to the Obamas.

But Schlesinger is now in a different phase. His partner for the last 40 years is the photographer Eric Boman, and the two split their time between Manhattan’s Flat Iron district and Bellport, New York. Schlesinger spends his time sculpting—and several ceramic works can now be seen alongside the photographs in his new show.

Schlesinger says he’s still in contact with Hockney and that they are “friendly.” He pauses when asked what he learned from his former boyfriend and mentor. “He taught me that you learn painting by doing it,” he says. “It’s the work ethic. It’s about looking and observation.”