Where his father, Kenneth, was a conscientious objector in wartime (and thereby mocked as “Yellow Hockney”), David Hockney was a conscientious objector in art, breaking free from his era’s great trends (abstraction, minimalism, conceptualism, pop) even as he rehearsed some of them.
The fourth child of five in a struggling, Methodist, working-class Yorkshire family, Hockney was born to be an artist at a time when art was treated as a frivolous frill in schools (in Canada today, grammar and punctuation are the frills). He drew in chalk on the kitchen linoleum and doodled in church hymnals. His first encounter with painting was watching his father fix and paint prams and bicycles in the cellar of their home in Bradford (a market town and once-thriving centre of England’s wool trade, immortalized in novels by J.B. Priestley). Kenneth could paint a straight line freehand on a bicycle handlebar. Young Hockney converted one of the prams into a mobile art studio, wheeling it around the town in search of suitable subjects. He turned the family washing-up chart into a pictorial illustration with cartoon heads of each family member.
At school, he created posters, did illustrations for the school magazine and, when deemed too young for art school at 8, he protested that Rembrandt and Michelangelo were not much older than 12 when they started art. He excelled at clowning and “tactical idleness” before winning a scholarship to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London, where he became an early star in the art world by his distinctive figurative expressionism.
In some ways, he was merely following his father: a dandy dressed in up-market second-hand clothes, and a socialist to boot. But in other ways he was more extreme, imitating the look of Stanley Spencer with National Health glasses, fringed haircut and the ubiquitous umbrella, drawing perfect sketches of skeletons, painting pictures of vegetables, exasperating his teachers and exploring his own homosexuality, having relished the forbidden fruit at scout camp. He had a crush on pop singer Cliff Richard, resulting in Doll Boy, a coded painting inspired by the film Baby Doll and his ardent love for Walt Whitman’s poetry.
Later, of course, would come outstanding art inspired by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, as well the famous swimming-pool paintings created in California, where he wrestled with the formal problem of how to represent water (“it can be any colour, it’s movable, it has no set visual description”) just as he would later struggle with the problem of painting glass.
Linked to his defiance of prevailing aesthetic trends was his bold sexual assertiveness through paintings of his young male lovers (particularly Peter Schlesinger), a wonderfully suggestive painting of himself nude at a table with Pablo Picasso (an acknowledged idol), double portraits of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and a lifestyle that brought into his orbit figures such as Derek Jarman, Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Tony Richardson, Lord Snowdon and other celebrities. (When he agreed to paint W.H. Auden, he was dumbfounded by the poet’s craggy, lined face. “If his face looks like this,” he wondered, “what on earth must his balls look like?”)
Hockney turns 75 this year, and Christopher Simon Sykes’s book (the first of a two-volume biography) is saturated with details of a story that begins in prewar Bradford and ends with an excessively hedonistic celebration at Glyndebourne in 1975 (Champagne, lobster and LSD) to mark Hockney’s debut as opera designer for The Rake’s Progress. There are anecdotes (Vincent Price serving cocktails from a coffin-shaped cabinet; Lord Snowdon throwing a glass of wine over Princess Margaret) that add a little titillation, and evidence of Hockney’s sexual dalliances and relationships which show his defiance of England’s homophobia. Hockney’s adventures abroad (Paris, New York, Tokyo, Bangkok etc.) are mainly a superficial sexual travelogue, and show us little of how they affected his art.
His close friendships with figures such as Ron Kitaj, Henry Geldzahler, John Kasmin, Mo McDermott, Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell are observed, and Sykes quotes freely from the diaries of Hockney’s loving but somewhat perplexed mother, who manages to be open-minded about her son’s eccentricity and bravado. However, there is little shape to the material or, at least, little beyond a too-facile charting of the artist’s growing successes, without any significant aesthetic analysis or sense of real drama. The closest Sykes gets to Hockney’s inner suffering and recourse to Valium is in the matter of his failed relationship with Peter Schlesinger, for which Sykes relies heavily on Jack Hazan’s documentary film A Bigger Splash, which focused on this breakup.
Sykes does make a convincing case for Hockney’s continuing self-renewal. He took a child’s scribbling toy (the crayon) and transformed it aesthetically, just as he discovered the scope of acrylic paint, the camera and digital art. At book’s end, he has a happy new relationship and his faith in work has returned with new inspirations. Ahead lies a time of great excitement – or so writes Sykes. One can only hope that the second volume will, indeed, be far more exciting than the first.
Keith Garebian is working on a biography of William Hutt.