English painter, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer. Perhaps the most popular and versatile British artist of the 20th century, Hockney made apparent his facility as a draughtsman while studying at Bradford School of Art between 1953 and 1957, producing portraits and observations of his surroundings under the influence of the Euston Road School and of Stanley Spencer. From 1957 to 1959 he worked in hospitals as a conscientious objector to fulfil the requirements of national service. On beginning a three-year postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art, London, in 1959, he turned first to the discipline of drawing from life in two elaborate studies of a skeleton before working briefly in an abstract idiom inspired by the paintings of Alan Davie.
Encouraged by a fellow student, R. B. Kitaj, Hockney soon sought ways of reintegrating a personal subject-matter into his art while remaining faithful to his newly acquired modernism. He began tentatively by copying fragments of poems on to his paintings, encouraging a close scrutiny of the surface and creating a specific identity for the painted marks through the alliance of word and image. These cryptic messages soon gave way to open declarations in a series of paintings produced in 1960–61 on the theme of homosexual love, for example We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961; London, ACE), which took its title and some of its written passages from a poem by Walt Whitman. The audacity of the subject-matter was matched by the sophisticated but impetuous mixture of elevated emotions with low life, of crudely drawn figures reminiscent of child art with the scrawled appearance of graffiti, and a rough textural handling of paint. These pictures owed much to the faux-naïf idiom of Jean Dubuffet and to the example of Picasso, whose retrospective at the Tate Gallery in the summer of 1960 had a decisive impact on Hockney’s free-ranging attitude to style. Early in 1962 he exhibited a group of paintings under the generic title Demonstrations of Versatility (priv. col.; see Livingstone, pls 24–5, 36), each proposing a different style chosen at will: flat, illusionistic, scenic. The force of Hockney’s personality and humour, together with his commanding draughtsmanship and with subjects drawn from his own experience and literary interests, enabled him to transcend his influences and to establish a clear artistic identity at an early age. He was awarded the Royal College of Art gold medal for his year in 1962.
Hockney’s subsequent development was a continuation of his student work, which was initially regarded by critics as part of the wave of Pop art that emanated from the Royal College of Art, although a significant change in his approach occurred after his move to California at the end of 1963. Even before moving there he had painted Domestic Scene, Los Angeles (1963; priv. col.; see fig.), an image of two men in a shower based partly on photographs found in a homosexual magazine. It is clear that when he moved to that city it was, at least in part, in search of the fantasy that he had formed of a sensual and uninhibited life of athletic young men, swimming pools, palm trees, and perpetual sunshine. Undoubtedly Hockney’s popularity can be attributed not simply to his visual wit and panache but also to this appeal to our own escapist instincts.
On his arrival in California, Hockney changed from oil to acrylic paints, applying them as a smooth surface of flat and brilliant colour that helped to emphasize the pre-eminence of the image. The anonymous, uninflected surface of works such as Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966; Liverpool, Walker A.G.) also suggests the snapshot photographs on which they were partly based. The border of bare canvas surrounding the image reinforces this association, allowing Hockney to return to a more traditional conception of space while maintaining a modernist stance in the suggestion of a picture of a picture. By the end of the decade Hockney’s anxieties about appearing modern had abated to the extent that he was able to pare away the devices and to allow his naturalistic rendering of the world to speak for itself. He was particularly successful in a series of double portraits of friends, for example Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970–71; London, Tate), later voted the most popular modern painting in the Tate Gallery. While some of the paintings of this period appear stilted and lifeless in their reliance on photographic sources, Hockney excelled in his drawings from life, particularly in the pen-and-ink portraits executed in a restrained and elegant line, for example Nick and Henry on Board, Nice to Calvi (1972; London, BM). It is as a draughtsman and graphic artist that Hockney’s reputation is most secure.
Hockney’s originality as a printmaker was apparent by the time he produced A Rake’s Progress (1961–3; see 1979 exh. cat., nos 17–32), a series of 16 etchings conceived as a contemporary and autobiographical version of William Hogarth’s visual narrative. Hockney’s large body of graphic work, concentrating on etching and lithography, in itself assured him an important place in modern British art, and in series inspired by literary sources such as Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C. P. Cavafy (1967), Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969; see 1979 exh. cat., nos 70–108), and The Blue Guitar (1977; see 1979 exh. cat., nos 199–218), he did much to revive the tradition of the livre d’artiste.
Hockney’s work for the stage since 1975 brought out his essential inventiveness and helped free him of the ultimately stultifying constraints of his naturalistic mode. His most notable designs included productions at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in 1975 (see [not available online]) and of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 1978, and at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, as well as other French works in 1980 and a Stravinsky triple-bill in 1981. These were followed by other ambitious designs, for example for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera in 1987, for Puccini’s Turandot at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1992, and for Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1992. The example of Picasso, especially after his death in 1973, was also an important factor in Hockney’s return to the stylistic gamesmanship that distinguished him as a student. His obsessiveness, energy, and curiosity resulted in large bodies of work in different media, including the Paper Pools and other pulped paper works of 1978, as well as experiments with polaroid and 35 mm photography: several hundred composite images in which he applied the multiple viewpoints of Cubist painting to a mechanical medium. These experiments were part of a continuing fascination with technology that led him to produce ‘home made prints’ on photocopiers in 1986 and later images conveyed by fax machine or devised on a computer. The photographs also directed his attention to theories on perspective in large panoramic paintings that combine direct observation with memory as a means of suggesting movement through space, for example A Visit with Christopher and Don, Santa Monica Canyon (1984; artist’s col., see Livingstone, 2/1987, pp. 230–31), a painting on two canvases measuring 1.83×6.1 m overall. His restless desire for innovation was vividly manifested in the series of Very New Paintings (see 1994 exh. cat., pp. 140–43) initiated in 1992, in which he gave almost abstract form to his experience of the Pacific coastline and the Santa Monica mountains as an intoxicating succession of plunging perspectives, dazzling views, brilliant light, and intense colour. Hockney’s identification with Picasso, Matisse, and other modern masters has been viewed with suspicion by those who think his motives cynical and self-promoting. Such an interpretation, however, seems foreign to an artist whose ambition was consistently to claim for his work a range and openness rare for his generation.
"Hockney, David." The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 5 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e1214>..