Friday 24 October 2014

On David Hockney

The current Times Literary Supplement carries a brief review by me of the second volume of Christopher Simon Syke's biography of David Hockney. As an admirer of the artist I'd like to ramble on at greater length about him (f not the biography) 

The beguilingly-titled ‘Etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’ were produced in the Atelier Crommelynck in Paris where Hockney acquired the sugar-lift technique, allowing him to recreate brush marks on the etched plate, and to use a single plate for multi-coloured etchings. The resulting portfolio of twenty virtuosic etchings and aquatints, all drawn directly onto copper plates during 1976 and 1977 was published in an edition of 200. I finally acquired a copy of the book during a visit to Salt's Mill outside Bradord, which houses a magnificent collection of the artist's work assembled by a boyhood friend, Jonathan Silver. 

The etchings made a great impression on me as a teenager, when, on the evening of Saturday February 4th 1978, they featured in a profile of the artist on The South Bank Show, a weekly arts programme broadcast by London Weekend Television and hosted by Melvyn Bragg, I loved the etchings and everything about Hockney appealed to me: his languid mid-Atlantic Yorkshire drawl, his expensive dandyish outfits (baggy linen suits, rugby shirts, covetable blunt-ended silk knitted ties and tennis shoes), his peroxide hair and thick-framed owlish glasses and, above all, his  'lifestyle'. 

Hockney's way of life was not just enviably American but wholly, gorgeously Californian. He lived, vividly, in a world of spacious white-walled rooms in modern buildings with, beyond floor-to-ceiling windows, a glittering blue pool surrounded by shaggy palms trees. Beyond that were sun-drenched boulevards patrolled by gliding rollerskaters, then Hollywood, and Disneyland and Venice Beach, which Hockney described as 'a sunny, naked version of Portobello Road'. I wanted all of that, and preferably with girls. That Hockney was gay never occurred to me, though it would have made no difference. He stood for freedom, for self-realisation through art - that was enough, and more than enough for me, then.

He is immensely popular today - 600.000 admirers attended his last Royal Academy show, and when Lucian Freud died in July 2011 the mantle of 'Britain's Greatest Living Painter' was bestowed (by the British press, which allocates such titles) on Hockney, who shrugged it off: 'I don't care about the greatest living painter thing,' he said, 'nor do I think life's about prizes. I'm just busy working.'

Working is what he does best, and what he does most of the time, so the challenge for a biographer is to sustain the reader's interest in a repetitive cycle of work and play. What comes across clearly in the second volume of Christopher Simon Sykes's biography is Hockney's restless energy, his tireless reinvention, his single-minded work ethic and his geeky, rejuvenating love of new technologies: Canon photocopiers (allowing single-handed production of three hundred and sixty original Hockneys in a day), fax machines, Polaroid cameras, the Quantel Paintbox, video and, more recently, the iPad and iPhone. 

'If David is tired of drawing then he'll take photographs, if he's tired of taking photographs he'll paint; if he's tired of painting he'll design an opera. He's constantly thinking he hasn't worked hard enough recently' said his friend Henry Geldzahler. Hockney admits to placing work ahead of  relationships and, while he clearly has many devoted friends, few of them seem to become or remain particular intimates. 
A Pilgrim's Progress is informal, gossipy, good natured and rich in quotable anecdote. I particularly enjoyed the eccentric broadcaster Fyfe Robertson's baffled encounter with a 1977 Hayward Gallery exhibition that, Hockney's paintings aside, showcased what he dubbed phoney-art: "You can condense these two words into one which has the proper flavour of contemptuous derision, Phart." This was almost forty years ago. Hockney's transition from Rake to Pilgrim over those four decades is not simply the development from footloose innocence to mellow maturity, but also from a raffish worldliness to more serious and arguably humbler priorities. Critical maulings (his flower paintings were described by Brian Sewell as 'vulgar cheap-jack daubs') are met with serene imperturbability  ('It's what I think that counts, always') and Hockney is now firmly embedded in mainstream British culture to a degree few other contemporary artists have achieved. This makes it easy to overlook his defiant, combative, principled opposition to, say, the Thatcher government's Clause 18 (banning local councils from 'promoting' homosexuality). He hates 'the fucking Blairs' is scathing about Gordon Brown ("a dreary aesthetic Calvanist prig'). (There has always been something of the reactionary about Hockney, but then all artists become reactionary about things they understand). I was touched by a 1981 letter from his mother in which she openly raises the matter of his homosexuality for the first time (Hockney was 44) and writes, sweetly: 'I'll be modern where I can!' Her son follows the same policy, and his researches into the camera lucida and return to watercolour painting in 2003 reflect his tireless curiosity and range. 

Some years ago Hockney moved from sunny LA to the seaside resort of Bridlington, where he now lives much of the year in a rather dour-looking former guest house with views overlooking the North Sea. He is presumably very wealthy indeed and I confess to a vulgar interest in how much brass he has stashed away. In fact I'd like to know much more about Hockney in general - Sykes as an insider and loyal friend doesn't give much away. 

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