Book review: ‘A Rake’s Progress,’ a biography of David Hockney

David Hockney

A Rake’s Progress

The Biography, 1937-1975

Christopher Simon Sykes

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 384 pp., $35

With the deaths last year of Lucian Freud and Richard Hamilton, David Hockney suddenly catapulted into position as England’s leading painter. Although the cultivated image of a dandified English schoolboy in white pants, mismatched socks, polka-dot bow tie and beanie is long out of date for an artist who, at 74, is identified with iconic 1960s paintings of Los Angeles swimming pools, the thought is a bit of a shock. Still, the timing couldn’t be better for this enjoyable and well-sourced book, which — like Hockney’s own work — is both conversational and perceptive.

The artist’s paintings serve as chapter headings in the first, fluent volume of Christopher Simon Sykes’ planned two-part biography. The list, roughly but not rigidly chronological, is not a gimmick.

“My Parents” draws the outlines of Hockney’s fascinating father, Kenneth, a radical pacifist whose principled stance as a conscientious objector in World War II made him a social outcast in the small, northern industrial city of Bradford, where the family lived; and his earnest mother, Laura, a devout Methodist who raised five children (David was the fourth) and whose meticulous habit of recording diaries provided Sykes with a wealth of previously unreported detail. (“I commend my boy to God and leave it to Him to decide,” she sensibly wrote upon discovering that her son was gay.) “Self-portrait” records young David’s growing adolescent awareness that art would be his lifelong obsession — no mean feat in Yorkshire, far from Britain’s centralized London art scene.

“Doll Boy,” a painting mixing Jean Dubuffet’s graffiti-style emphasis on commonplace events of everyday life with heartthrob British pop singer Cliff Richard, is also the chapter that exposes Hockney’s rambunctious fusion of high art and popular culture in contrast to a stuffy and often academic art milieu. “We Two Boys Together Clinging” chronicles his perhaps surprisingly unruffled acceptance of his homosexuality in the late 1950s — a subject that, like the literariness of Walt Whitman’s poetry, would become one central feature of his achievement.

And so it goes through “Man in a Museum” (Hockney’s introduction to postwar London and student success at the Royal College of Art), “A Hollywood Collection” (his fateful 1963 visit and 1964 move to L.A.) and seven more. They conclude with “A Rake’s Progress” — also the biography’s subtitle — which refers to three things at once.

There are the tensions between the rapid transformations of modern life and British artistic tradition, represented by Hogarth’s famous series of witty paintings and engravings lacerating 18th century social mores; Hockney’s loosely autobiographical suite of etchings riffing on Hogarth, which signal his commitment to an egalitarian sensibility while displaying impressive graphic skills; and, finally, his set designs for Stravinsky’s opera, “A Rake’s Progress,” a sensation at Glyndbourne in 1975. As Volume 1 concludes, the 38-year-old artist-rake has progressed enough to become firmly established as a major international figure.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Hockney’s life as Sykes tells it is his almost casual, always determined attitude of doing as he wished. How many artists speeding to career notoriety straight from a Royal College scholarship, as he did, would pick up and move to L.A., where an art scene barely existed? (For that matter, who would buy a car almost immediately upon arrival, even though he couldn’t drive?) It reflects a bohemianism not as much encountered now.

England, struggling to rebuild in the glum, postwar 1950s, was awash in glossy American goods, including movies. Hockney’s famous bleached-blond hair, which later helped prompt Andy Warhol to adopt his trademark silver wig, originated as a playful prank during a 1961 American visit to a friend’s house on Long Island, where he impulsively decided to answer a television commercial for Lady Clairol asking, “Is it true blondes have more fun?” After graduation from art school, he made a beeline for Southern California with a stack of L.A.-published beefcake magazines in hand.

Some mistake Hockney for a lightweight because gloom, which he had worked hard to escape in his childhood and adolescence, is missing from his art. Not missing, however, is a frequent unease or an expanding degree of perceptual sophistication that, at its best, deepens the way one sees. Many pictures are an incisive comedy of manners — about people, recalling Hogarth, but about painting’s codified standards of conduct too. No false choice is demanded between art about life and art about art, which sometimes bedevils critics.

Instead, art and life together appear as equally essential to worthwhile painting. Sykes draws admirable smaller sketches of the influential people in Hockney’s art life — in addition to family, art dealers John Kasmin, who first organized the artist’s hyperactive energy, and Nicholas Wilder; egocentric New York curator Henry Geldzahler; lovers and muses Peter Schlesinger, Celia Birtwell and Gregory Evans; artists and writers Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood, Mo McDermott, Patrick Procktor, Cecil Beaton and more.

Closely connecting Hockney’s unfolding life and art has two prime virtues. During the 1950s, an age that valued American abstract painting most highly, Hockney emerged as an unrepentant figurative painter. Without belaboring the point, the book also embeds that art in a young artist’s tumultuous daily existence. Sykes neatly chronicles both in sometimes striking detail, a talent perhaps enhanced by the author’s other profession as a photographer.