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Portrait of a limelight junkie

A clutch of new books proves his enduring appeal, but there are questions about the quality of David Hockney’s work

Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006, 2006, one of David Hockney’s vast multi-canvas paintings of his native Yorkshire

Christopher Simon Sykes is clear about the status of his biography of David Hockney. As he writes in the acknowledgements: “The rules were simple. He would talk to me in his time, not mine, and would authorise the book, but not endorse it.” Sykes encountered so much material that he decided to divide the subject into two volumes, and this first book covers the Hockney story from 1937 to 1975. It is a fascinating narrative, well larded with quotations from the artist’s own autobiographical books (David Hockney by David Hockney: My Early Years and That’s the Way I See It), from his mother’s diary and from his personal letters. Briskly and sympathetically told, with a wealth of anecdotal and enlivening detail, the story unfolds from the artist’s tendency to play the clown at school, through his years at Bradford College of Art and friendships with Norman Stevens and John Loker, to his move to London and the Royal College of Art. Among others at the RCA he met R.B. Kitaj and Adrian Berg. Kitaj helped him to make art out of what really interested him and Berg, who was openly gay, helped Hockney come to terms with his homosexuality.

Art and commerce

From the moment he gave long titles to his student paintings so that his name would stand out in the catalogue, Hockney has been obsessed with publicity. A close friend referred to him as a “limelight junkie”, and this addiction has not diminished with the years. Much can be forgiven him for the glory, wit and inventiveness of his early work, and for his personal humour and cheekiness. Meeting John Kasmin gave him a hard-working and influential dealer; meeting Henry Geldzahler gave him a powerful supporter in America, which he began to visit with relish and regularity. His personal determination was evident when British Customs & Excise confiscated as pornographic some male physique magazines he had bought in the US. Hockney was prepared to fight them in court, and marshalled such an impressive array of expert opinion (including Sir Kenneth Clark) that the officials backed down.

As an artist, Hockney was so immediately successful that Kasmin had to ration the paintings, their prices rising fivefold in as many years. The early stylisations and artificiality gave way to a struggle with naturalism and alternative ways of seeing (mainly photographic and technological) that has continued. Great natural talent, particularly as a draughtsman, has been both his saving grace and his prison. His restless nature has taken him from one enthusiasm to another, with some majestic diversions—such as his superb stage designs—along the way. This biography states the facts, but hardly questions them. It doesn’t have the depth of field or the cultural weight of Richardson on Picasso or Spurling on Matisse, nor the art-historical analysis. But it is highly readable. I wonder if volume two will be as compelling.

Critical paralysis

Martin Gayford’s book of interviews is interspersed with commentary that makes for an agreeable lightness of touch. This volume does not have the slightly gushing tone that marred Gayford’s Freud book (Man with a Blue Scarf), and is altogether a more bracing read. It serves as an enjoyable and informative introduction to Hockney’s career, and is beautifully produced, marrying text and image in a format that is a pleasure to handle. Hockney is evidently a humorous, intelligent and witty man, widely read and widely knowledgeable in the history of art. He has made some excellent drawings, paintings and prints over the years, has enjoyed a very public love affair with photography and has engaged with ideas with a determination that is rare among practising artists. He evidently works hard and produces a very great deal, of rather varying quality. And that is the main problem—there is no quality control.

This attitude is mirrored by his admirers. “He communicates by word and image,” writes Gayford, “and almost everything he has to say in each is worthy of attention.” The resulting critical paralysis would foster delusions of grandeur in the humblest of men. It eventuates in such earth-shattering remarks as Hockney’s “we came to the conclusion that every day was totally different in this part of East Yorkshire”—not exactly news to those of us who live with the English climate. Occasionally there are moments of revelation, as when the artist admits that after drawing the hedgerow plants he started seeing them: “If you’d just photographed them you wouldn’t be looking as intently as you do when you’re drawing, so it wouldn’t affect you that much.” Quite.

Hockney is keen to disseminate his work, through various forms of printing and now through cyberspace. He loves the iPhone and iPad, which have superseded his passions for the fax and photocopier, and despite the lack of texture in on-screen drawing, he says you gain a lot—though he never actually says of what. There are a great many Hockney paintings, drawings and especially prints out there, changing hands for increasingly large amounts of cash, yet the artist claims not to be greedy for money, only for excitement. “I intend to have it exciting until the day I fall over”, he says. For a man who thinks of his painting as drama, art is evidently the answer, though increasingly his paintings resemble the flats of theatre design rather than the action on stage.

Yorkshire bound

The catalogue of Hockney’s controversial Royal Academy (RA) show “A Bigger Picture” (until 9 April) is a substantial tome, as one would expect. It contains a contextual essay by Marco Livingstone, the exhibition’s co-curator with Edith Devaney (who supplies a useful chronology at the book’s end); an essay by Margaret Drabble about how nice it is that the Bradford Lad has returned to Yorkshire; Tim Barringer on Hockney’s engagement with the history of art (rather good, this); Xavier Salomon on the artist’s dire versions of Claude’s The Sermon on the Mount, around 1656; and Martin Gayford on the artist and technology.

The book is stuffed with 300 colour illustrations, some of which look marginally better than the paintings do at the RA. The exhibition and book focus on the landscape work that the artist has made in East Yorkshire over the past decade. It begins with marvellous examples of his early work, plateaus out at great altitude with the Grand Canyon paintings and then nose-dives into insensitivity and garishness. Hockney may come from Yorkshire, but he seems determined to paint it in a Californian palette, with scant reference to appearances. His latest trick is to make vast paintings comprising as many as 32 canvases, as if the bigger he paints, the more potent the imagery. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be true, and what we have is toytown meets the grid, with appalling colour.

The exhibition has been much hyped, but the PR deluge cannot disguise the emptiness at the work’s heart. A triumph of showbiz over content, it reflects the tinsel values of our society and will probably be immensely popular. Of course it might be Hockney’s intention to satirise the superficiality of contemporary mores, but this work seems more like a celebration. He must be one of the best-documented artists ever. Intent on preserving every stage and variant in the production of his pictures, he has accumulated a photographic archive of several hundred thousand images to record just the landscapes of the past few years.

Marco Livingstone’s handsome book of conversations with Hockney records the artist’s thoughts in what I can only describe as a spirit of reverence. I’m sure it will be invaluable for future researchers, should anyone want to study these paintings in 100 years’ time, but it makes somewhat dull reading now. Nevertheless, the book has nearly sold out, and is available only as a deluxe limited edition direct from the publishers. “People need to look intensely, but they can’t. They need to be shown how to,” Hockney opines. Quite right. I hope his work has that effect on people, but if it does, will his own recent paintings bear such scrutiny?

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