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Frieze Los Angeles 2023

Don Bachardy: The Man Who Drew Joan Didion (and Everyone Else)

Based in Santa Monica for six decades, the artist has spent a lifetime capturing likeness through line, from David Hockney to his life partner Christopher Isherwood

BY Jonathan Griffin in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine , Profiles | 10 FEB 23

Beyond the French windows in Don Bachardy’s Santa Monica portrait studio, a canyon studded with white-painted houses, palm trees, pines and eucalyptus tumbles down to the gleaming blue Pacific Ocean. It’s the kind of view that epitomizes visitors’ fantasies of Los Angeles, but which people who live here seldom get to enjoy firsthand, and certainly not on a daily basis.

Bachardy, now 88, has lived here on Adelaide Drive, on the upper border of Santa Monica, for most of his life. From his balcony you can glimpse the beach on which he first met the British writer Christopher Isherwood, on Valentine’s Day in 1952. Though Isherwood was 30 years his senior, they shortly after became a couple, and soon moved in together. In 1959 they bought this home. (Incidentally but perhaps auspiciously, they were not the canyon's only creative residents: the house next door was home to the artist-couple Luchita Hurtado and Lee Mullican.)

Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood, 1969, pencil on paper, 74 × 58 cm. Courtesy: © Don Bachardy and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California

Isherwood, who died in 1986, was respected in Britain but hardly famous; in the US, he was almost unknown—at least until 2009, when his novel A Single Man (1964) was adapted for the screen by designer Tom Ford.

‘I couldn't ever have become an artist without his backing,’ Bachardy reflects. As an adolescent, Bachardy liked to copy the faces of movie stars from magazines. When they first met, Isherwood asked to see some and—to Bachardy’s delight—recognized every single one. Isherwood offered to sit for him.

‘It was such a discovery for me!’ says Bachardy. All the headshots he’d been drawing from, he realized, had been retouched to smooth out every crease and wrinkle. ‘It was so much more interesting—a real face with all the lines!’ When he showed the portrait to Isherwood, Bachardy remembers, there was a long pause. Isherwood was shocked: his young lover had drawn him to look even more decrepit than his 48 years. ‘It’s good,’ he eventually mustered, in a strangled tone. ‘After that I couldn’t work from a photograph ever again,’ Bachardy says. ‘The experience of looking closely at a living face, a real face—I got drunk on it!’

Isherwood, though never well off, paid for Bachardy to go to art school, at the Chouinard Art Institute near MacArthur Park. (Chouinard became CalArts when it moved to Valencia in 1970.) Bachardy was unbothered about getting his diploma, but he took every drawing class available. ‘Because I was so determined to succeed and make Chris proud of me, I did succeed,’ he says. ‘It really made my life.’ In recognition of the transformative potential of arts education, in 2017 the Christopher Isherwood Foundation established the Don Bachardy Fellowship, which sponsors a post-graduate artist from outside the UK to study for three months at the Royal Drawing School in London.

Don Bachardy, W.H. Auden, 1967, pen and ink on paper, 74 × 58 cm. Courtesy: © Don Bachardy and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California

Though their age difference scandalized some, Bachardy and Isherwood were beloved figures in a cultural milieu composed largely of European émigrés. After Isherwood, Bachardy’s first sitter was the British-born historian and philosopher Gerald Heard, who had emigrated to the US in 1937 with his friend Aldous Huxley. The resulting portrait was acquired by another feted émigré to LA: Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, who settled in a house in West Hollywood in 1941.

All of these figures were friends of Isherwood long before Bachardy came on the scene. Doing portraits was a way for Bachardy to forge his own relationships with them, outside of the sometimes overbearing intellectual dominance of his partner. One of his proudest moments came in 1969 when the National Portrait Gallery in London acquired his pen drawing of W.H. Auden, one of Isherwood’s oldest friends, whose notoriously lined face was an ideal subject for Bachardy.

Bachardy’s incisive technique begins, and ends, with drawing. Until the 1980s, he rarely touched colour, sticking to pencil, pen and ink wash on paper. Later, he developed a style of painting with vibrant strokes of water-based acrylic, although plenty of white still shows between the coloured lines. Every formal decision is in service to speed and economy. Bachardy is painfully aware of how difficult it is to sit still for a portrait; he always positions sitters in his studio with a prime view of the ocean.

It is impossible to separate Bachardy the social being from Bachardy the artist. He was a fan as well as a friend to many of his sitters, who ranged from the anonymous to the world-famous. ‘If you’d told me that one day I’d have people like Bette Davis sitting for me!’ he exclaims. He could be dispassionate too—‘both merciless and loving,’ as Stephen Spender put it. When he drew Davis, then in her 60s, he pulled no punches. ‘She was a good sport,’ he says, even if he sensed she didn’t like the drawings he did of her. (‘There’s the old bag,’ she commented when he showed her his drawing.)

Don Bachardy, Joan Didion, 1972, pencil on paper, 74 × 58 cm. Courtesy: © Don Bachardy and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California

A 1972 portrait by Bachardy of the writer Joan Didion features in the recent, Hilton Als-curated exhibition ‘Joan Didion: What She Means’, at the Hammer Museum, LA. Following her screenplay for The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Didion was being fêted in Hollywood, but Bachardy’s picture shows her as girlish and pensive. Als, who owns the picture, describes it as ‘romantic without being sentimental—because she’s romantic without being sentimental.’

When David Hockney moved to LA in 1964, Spender suggested he look up Isherwood. The young painter found he was much closer in age to Bachardy: the three became lifelong friends and Isherwood and Bachardy became two of Hockney’s most iconic subjects. Fascinated by the complicated dynamics of their partnership, he often painted, drew or photographed them together. (In return, Hockney was an indelible influence on Bachardy’s work.)

On the walls of their home, artworks are hung from floor to ceiling, almost all gifts from friends. Paintings and prints by Billy Al Bengston, Jessie Homer French, Ken Price and Ed Ruscha nestle up against works less identifiable but equally significant to their owners. Few are figurative (Bachardy never hangs his own portraits in his home), with the major exception of the walls entirely given over to pictures by Hockney.

Don Bachardy, W.H. Auden, 1961, ink on paper, 74 × 58 cm. Courtesy: © Don Bachardy and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California

It’s moving to follow Bachardy from his living room, with its Saltillo tiles and wicker furniture, to a corridor in which Hockney’s photo-collage shows Bachardy and Isherwood sitting in that same furniture in 1983. ‘To Christopher + Don with much love and admiration,’ runs the inscription. The work—widely reproduced in books of Hockney’s collages—is, in this context, as sentimentally meaningful as Isherwood’s Repton School photograph from 1923, or the photograph of a grinning teenage Bachardy next to Marilyn Monroe, or a rare self-portrait by their friend Tennessee Williams, all of which hang in their kitchen.

When Bachardy dies, the house on Adelaide Drive will be preserved by the Santa Monica Conservancy, an assurance that gives him great satisfaction. It is a time capsule—and has been, perhaps, since Isherwood’s death—but it is also a living monument to love and to friendship, to a circle of luminous personalities who found community in this house over the ocean.

‘Joan Didion: What She Means’ is on view at the Hammer Museum through February 19

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, February 2023 under the headline ‘Face to Face

Main image: Don Bachardy in his studio in Santa Monica, November 2022. Courtesy: Chad Unger

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.