As a small boy in Bradford, David Hockney would watch his father paint old bicycles and prams. “I love that, even now,” he remembered decades later. “It is a marvellous thing to dip a brush into the paint and make marks on anything, even a bicycle, the feel of a thick brush full of paint coating something.” He knew he was going to be an artist, even if he wasn’t sure exactly what an artist did. Design Christmas cards, draw signs, paint prams: it didn’t matter, so long as his job involved the unmatched sensuality of making marks.
He’ll be 80 this July: the best-known living British artist, his verve and curiosity undiminished. In 1962, he spent a painstaking day lettering a note to himself on a chest of drawers at the end of his bed. “Get up and work immediately,” it said, and he’s been obeying it ever since. From monumental paintings of swimming pools and seething summer fields to tender, meticulous pencil portraits, from cubist opera sets to vases of flowers drawn on iPads or sent by fax machines, Hockney has always been a relentless reinventor, an artist who appears familiar while refusing to stay still.
As a spectacular new retrospective at Tate Britain makes clear, these twists and turns in thematic preoccupations and new techniques do not represent a lack of discipline or focus. Instead, they are staging posts in Hockney’s great quest: his passionate, obsessive attempt to remake the solid, moody, fleeting world in two dimensions. What do things look like, really, to stereoscopic human eyes, connected to a human heart and brain? Never mind the camera, with its rigid Cyclopean vision. There is a better way of seeing, though it might take a lifetime to master.
He was the fourth of five children, born in 1937 to creative, politically radical working class parents. His father had been a conscientious objector and was a lifelong campaigner for nuclear disarmament, while his mother was a Methodist and vegetarian (years later, asked by Women’s Wear Daily what he found beautiful, he picked his mum).
From the off, Hockney was canny if not outright machiavellian at pursuing his ambitions. At Bradford Grammar, art was only taught to people in the bottom form. “They thought art was not a serious study and I just thought, ‘Well, they’re wrong.’” A bright scholarship boy, he promptly went on strike, idling in all his other subjects in order to gain access. At 16, his parents finally consented to art school, first in Bradford and then, in 1959, at the Royal College of Art.
A cheeky lad in cartoonish glasses and weird, elegant clothes, he stood out at the RCA immediately, not least for the Stakhanovite intensity of his working day. Drawing was the foundation, the bulwark of his buoyant self-belief. If you could draw, he reasoned, you could always make money. The bloke selling sketches in the park was a comfort, not a fear, though in fact before he’d even graduated he was already making substantial money from his work.
In the late 1950s, abstract expressionism – the sploshes and splashes of Jackson Pollock – was casting a long shadow over British art. At first, Hockney played along, but the figure burned at him, a source of illicit fascination. It took a fellow student, the American RB Kitaj, to nudge him towards representation, suggesting he try mining his real interests for subject matter.
Their conversation unlatched a door. Hockney had known he was gay since boyhood. Reading the poets Walt Whitman and CP Cavafy in the summer of 1960, both of whom attested freely to their love of men, he saw a way of inhabiting his sexuality that was at once frank and fruitful. Desire could be his subject; he could make what he described as “propaganda” for queer love. The paintings came fast. In We Two Boys Together Clinging pastel escarpments of pink and blue announce a mood of romance, while in Adhesiveness two squat scarlet figures like pornographic Mr Men engage in oral sex, one sporting an alarmingly fanged mouth nicked straight from Francis Bacon.
Coming out so emphatically took courage. Until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, homosexual acts were illegal even in private. These new images were a political act, as well as a fantasy he willed into being. Take Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, in which a lanky pink boy in pinny and socks soaps the back of a naked hunk standing beneath a solid blue jet of water. Hockney was imagining California permissiveness before he had even been there, conjuring a utopia that would become both his home and best-known subject.
Mr Whizz, as his new friend Christopher Isherwood nicknamed him, first visited LA in 1964, and immediately recognised a scene in need of a chronicler. The swimming pools, the sprinklers and jungle foliage, the taut, tanned people in their glass houses full of primitive sculpture were simultaneously raw material and aesthetic problems to be solved.
Light on water, iridescent ribbons of glitter, a splash: he could deploy all the lessons of abstraction here, among them Helen Frankenthaler’s trick of diluting acrylic paint with detergent, so it would flood the canvas with reflective pools of colour. As for the people in his paintings, the lovers and friends, the central question was how to depict bodies in space while simultaneously capturing something of the relationship, the currents of emotion between them.
That many of his subjects were famous, the glamorous beau monde of Tinseltown and swinging London, can distract from the seriousness of his investigation, the weirdness of his solutions. The first of his double portraits was 1968’s Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. The novelist sits in hawkish profile, eyes locked on his much younger lover. A bowl of fruit, behind a phallic cob of corn, distorts the horizontal line into a triangle, forcing the viewer’s gaze to circle restlessly around the canvas.
This marriage of artificiality and liveliness returns in a visionary portrait of the curator Henry Geldzahler sitting on a pink sofa, haloed by a glowing window. Standing to his left is the rigid, transfigured form of his boyfriend, Christopher Scott, who in his belted trench coat has something of the air of a messenger angel, causing the museum curator Kynaston McShine to compare the painting to an annunciation. Though both men’s feet rest emphatically on the same tiled floor, they exist in different orders of reality.
Over the next few years, Hockney’s work became increasingly naturalistic, culminating in portraits such as Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy and 1972’s melancholy Portrait of an Artist, in which his former lover Peter Schlesinger peers coolly down at a distorted body moving through the troubled light of a swimming pool. At first, naturalism had felt like freedom, allowing him to spring away from his contemporaries’ obsession with flatness, their need to labour the artificiality of a painting. He became fascinated by one-point perspective, a development that coincided with a growing interest in photography.
But by the mid 1970s, naturalism too had become a trap, a convention of seeing that failed to accurately capture the world. “Perspective takes away the body of the viewer. You have a fixed point, you have no movement; in short, you are not there really. That is the problem,” he observed. “For something to be seen, it has to be looked at by somebody and any true and real depiction should be an account of the experience of that looking.” In short, he wanted to invite the viewer inside the picture.
The two main zones in which he discovered his new approach were opera and the camera. In 1974 he was commissioned to design a production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne, and over the next decade he returned repeatedly to set design, gripped by the puzzle of incorporating real bodies into artificial spaces.
The camera offered possibilities far removed from voguish photorealism. In his 1982 exhibition Drawing with a Camera he showed the composite cubist portraits he called “joiners”, made by collaging Polaroid photos, an approach that quickly inflected his paintings, too. The eye is bounced continually, alighting on small details; though the image is still it gives an illusion of motion, capturing the subject’s joggling hands and shifting emotional weather.
Pearblossom Hwy, 11 – 18th April 1986, #1. Photograph: The J. Paul Getty Museum/David Hockney
New technologies were always a thrill. Just as mastering etching, lithography and aquatint had opened horizons for possible pictorial constructions, so too did the photocopier and fax machine, the latter fondly described by Hockney as “a telephone for the deaf”. He became so addicted to sending friends enormously complex images, comprising hundreds of pages to be pieced together by the recipient, that he created an imaginary institute, The Hollywood Sea Picture Supply Co Est 1988. The smartphones and tablets of the new millennium would prove equally irresistible (many of his 1,500 iPhone and iPad drawings can be seen in a capacious new survey, David Hockney: Current, published by Thames and Hudson this month).
Hockney first realised he was going deaf in 1978, when he couldn’t hear the voices of female students in a class. He painted his hearing aid in cheerful red and blue, but the diagnosis depressed him, especially when he remembered how isolating deafness had proved for his father. The loss was progressive, gradually inhibiting his ability to hear conversations in groups or in the noisy restaurants he had once loved. There were compensations, though. He suspected it induced a compensatory sharpening of his vision, clarifying in particular his sense of space.
The other long shadow in those years was Aids. During the 1980s and early 90s, dozens and dozens of his acquaintances and closest friends died, among them the film director Tony Richardson and the model Joe McDonald. “I remember once going to New York and visiting three separate hospitals. It was the worst time of my life.” Years later, he confided to a friend that he did sometimes consider suicide, adding “we all have a deep desire to survive, because we like the experience of loving”.
You might expect death to darken his palette, but what emerged at the century’s end were revelatory landscapes. In 1997, Hockney was back in Yorkshire, making daily visits to his friend Jonathan Silver, who was dying of cancer and who suggested he might make a subject of his native county. Driving each day across the Wolds, he was struck by “the living aspect of the landscape”. It was seasonality that captivated him now, the slow decline and stubborn regeneration of the natural world. “Some days were just glorious, the colour was fantastic. I can see colour. Other people don’t see it like me obviously.”
The Yorkshire paintings that emerged over the next decade were vast, often made from multiple canvases joined together. Damp, fecund England, as luxuriant as a Matisse, the hedgerows writhing with renewed life. There is something cartoon-like and unadulterated about them, even gluttonous, a need to seize the mad abundance before it becomes something else, bud to leaf, puddle to ice, the endless migration of matter through form.
Hockney has long since attained the status of national treasure, a passionate cardiganed dandy vocally impatient with the nannying anti-bohemianism of the 21st century. In 1997 he was made a Companion of Honour by the Queen; in 2011 the first volume of Christopher Simon Sykes’s warm and knowledgeable biography Hockney was published.
A small stroke in 2012 didn’t inhibit his interest in breaking new ground. Card players have his attention now. Sometimes these group portraits have the look of photographs, and then you spot one of his own paintings hanging on the wall, a witty rejoinder to different kinds of pictorial truth. But as well as the wit, lightness and exuberance of Hockney’s constructions they have a weighty quality, too.
“If you come to dead ends you simply somersault back and carry on,” he once said. The English are perennially suspicious of this kind of acrobatic ability, finding it easier to commend the diligent ploughing of a single furrow. When faced with negativity or bafflement about his new avenues and experiments, Hockney’s response has often been to note tersely that he knows what he is doing.
Learning to look, that’s what he’s been up to, and learning too that looking is a source of joy. Asked a few years ago about the place of love in his life, he answered: “I love my work. And I think the work has love, actually … I love life. I write it at the end of letters – ‘Love life, David Hockney.’”