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By Peter Clothier
Abbeville PressCopyright © 1995 Peter Clothier
All rights reserved.
For the contemporary artist of serious aesthetic purpose, David Hockney enjoys immense, perhaps unequaled public visibility: the shock of dyed blond hair, the owlish glasses, and the shy schoolboy grin are known as much through the popular press as through the journals of the art world. His renown results in part from his early emergence as the enfant terrible of contemporary British painting, photographed by Lord Snowdon for the Sunday Times in the flamboyant gold lame jacket in which he opted to receive his medal for work of outstanding distinction” as he graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1962. This was the time, too, when London was the swinging capital of the new jet set, and the high-spirited antics of youngsters like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had rocketed their country to the vanguard of international popular culture. It was an ideal context for Hockney’s disarming openness, for the cheerful disrespect for convention that characterized his life and work, and for the zest with which he embraced his growing fame.
Yet behind the eccentric individualist who appeared so eager for success lurked a relatively shy and introspective artist, whose determination can be gauged by the injunction that he painted in careful Roman lettering on the chest of drawers by the bed in his first London studio: Get up and work immediately.” This dual spirit of play and stubborn dedication has continued to determine both his chosen path in life and the nature of his work. A celebrity and world traveler who makes his home in Hollywood, he continues to cherish his roots in Bradford, the northern British town where he was born in 1937 to a radical working-class family.” An intellectual of wide-ranging erudition and culture, he still speaks with the blunt, unabashed simplicity of a Yorkshireman. He reveres the parents whose qualities he blends: his mother, Laura, a Methodist and a vegetarian, a woman of unstinting dedication to the work of keeping a brood of four sons and one daughter in strict but loving order; and his father, Kenneth, a true British eccentric who penned protest letters on political issues to world leaders like Stalin and Mao. He taught me,” Hockney said, not to care what the neighbors think.” Kenneth’s fascination with technologyfrom clocks and watches to the collection of battered, Scotch-taped cameras he would wear around his neckwas perhaps the source of Hockney’s own continuing obsession with invention and the latest high-tech gear.
It may seem a contradiction that this son of the gloomy north eventually produced those pictures for which he is best known, images of the brilliant light and the good life of Southern California. Paintings like A Bigger Splash (1967)and the movie that borrowed its namecreated a bigger splash than Hockney may have expected, generating an unwanted stereotype from which he found it hard to separate. The popular appeal of these paintings also placed a weapon in the hands of detractors who mistrusted their beauty, their extraordinary facility with line and color, and their delight in depiction at a historical moment when representational painting had been declared retrograde by a powerful critical elite. Yet for Hockney, in the words of his friend Henry Geldzahler, Art from the first has been the need to communicate directly with the viewer. [He] is not at all involved in the creation of beauty as an end in itself. It is exactly this urgency, this need to be heard plainly and to be understood clearly, which is the basis for his phenomenal popularity.
Hockney’s vision ranges from the grandiose to the intimate, often embracing both at the same time. From early paintings of theatrical intention and scope like A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in the Semi-Egyptian Style to photo collages of the Grand Canyon and his recent operatic set designs, he has engaged the challenge of space on a massive scale. At the same time, a great body of his work is devoted to things most close and dear to himfriends, family, home, and studio. To come to know his work is to learn to recognize those faces that recur everywhere in paintings, drawings, photo collages, graphic works, and snapshots: his mother, Henry Geldzahler, and his friend and frequent model Celia Birtwell, among many others. Prominent in this personal gallery are the faces and sensuous bodies of the young men he has admired and loved, seen through his eyes in all their erotic beauty.
The human body has been central to Hockney’s art, most obviously as its subject. But painting has also meant physical action for him. As a child he watched his father refurbish old bicycles with a coat of paint and modernize” the family house by decorating all the doors with sunsets, and he felt the fascination of the brush dripping in paint, putting it on, I loved that even then, I love it now.” He has become increasingly aware in recent years that the love of Cubism derives from his sense that it was about our bodily presence in the world It’s ultimately about where we are in it, how we are in it.” His idea of representation is not to reflect back images of the external worldthose naturalist” images that, he has argued frequently, the photographic process has deceived us into accepting as realitybut to re-create the process of our seeing, to invent in art a world in which we experience the visceral reality of space and time, physical substance, change, and movement.
Invention, the driving force behind his art, is in good part play: If art isn’t playful,” he once commented, it’s nothing.” In part, too, it is the unfailing spirit of curiosity and exploration. Hockney is the kind of artist,” one critic noted, who, upon encountering a question in his work, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, will follow the path that opens up until he feels comfortable with the new terrain.” Alarming to those who are more comfortable with clear progression and continuity, this quality has contributed to Hockney’s separation from the mainstream of contemporary art. It is also the asset that he himself prizes most.
Excerpted from David Hockney by Peter Clothier. Copyright © 1995 Peter Clothier. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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