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I doubt I am the only middle-aged gay man in the contemporary United States whose first memories of British artist David Hockney’s work center on his paintings from the late-60s and early-70s featuring swimming pools. He captured the water’s undulations as reflected in the bright Los Angeles sunshine with a range of deep blues and greens punctuated by a pop of yellow or red. What really caught my eye, however, were the men who appeared in this painting or that, especially the nude backside of his then-partner Peter Schlesinger rising out of the pool. Decadent was not a word I would have conjured at the time, but that is how this world seemed to me. This nude man was outside, after all, even if he was in the backyard of a private home. There was no hiding, no secrecy, no invisibility in this world. I never forgot it.
Christopher Simon Sykes’s new biography of Hockney is the first in a planned two-volume set; this one covers 1937 to 1975, beginning with a scene in 1940 when three-year-old David crowded with the rest of his family in the basement of their home in West Yorkshire, England. German airplanes dropped a string of bombs overhead, destroying one home down the street and shattering windows and roofs in all buildings except for the one where the Hockney family was hiding. From there, Sykes provides readers with a bit of history as to how his parents, Laura Thompson and Kenneth Hockney, met, married, and started a family. Early on, his mother recognized that the doodles David would scribble in his notebooks instead of doing his homework signaled skills to be encouraged, so she sent him to a neighbor who could teach him calligraphy. This neighbor supported David’s talent, and the path to becoming an artist opened up before him.
This is not a biography that will entice those seeking gossip. Instead, it offers rich research and details about how Hockney grew up without a lot of money but deeply steeped in culture. His entrance to the Royal College of Art was delayed when Hockney registered as a conscientious objector after reporting for the nation’s compulsory military service, which led to work as a medical orderly and little time for art. Patience prevailed, and Hockney entered one of the world’s most prestigious art schools in 1959. From then on, art became Hockney’s life. He traveled widely and met many influential people, meaning people who encouraged Hockney’s work by serving as subjects or leading to others who could promote the creation or dissemination of his work.
Throughout his life, there were men like Schlesinger who fueled his physical and emotional being. His private life and public work collided often though not as explicitly as in, say, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Sykes interviewed many of these people including Hockney, who allowed Sykes to pursue this biography but was more interested, as usual, in creating art (London’s Royal Academy of Arts has mounted an extensive exhibition of new paintings by Hockney and it is currently on display until 9 April 2012). Personally, I am a little excited for the next volume, which will continue where this one left off and cover the time in which Hockney became not just a star of the art world but a part of its canon. This volume presents a portrait of a man who loves art and has some talent for it but who is ultimately just a man who loves, hurts, and creates. Luckily, readers and viewers have more coming, not just from Sykes but from Hockney himself. There certainly is more to him than the paintings of swimming pools I first encountered decades ago.
David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday
Hardcover, 9780385531443, 352 pp.