How did David Hockney, born and raised in working-class Yorkshire, become perhaps the modern painter most associated with Los Angeles? The lively, affectionate documentary "Hockney" doesn't necessarily answer that question, but it provides entertaining glimpses of the man just the same.
As directed by Randall Wright, who did a previous film on fellow British artist Lucien Freud, "Hockney" is less interested in providing a conventional top-to-bottom narrative than in capturing a sense of who Hockney is and what is important to him.
Made with considerable cooperation from the artist, who will turn 79 in July, including access to his personal archive of photographs and film, "Hockney" lets us hear from the man's friends, listens to theories about what drives him, and most of all shows us his art in all its fecund diversity.
For, like Pablo Picasso, the artist he feels closest to, Hockney worked in a variety of vivid, playful, always colorful styles. Especially as he got more and more successful, he very much, as a friend puts it, "does not want to become a machine for producing items of value."
Born in 1937 in Bradford in East Yorkshire, Hockney's earliest memories are of taking shelter in a cupboard underneath his home's staircase during a World War II German bombing blitz.
Though the documentary (which is light on dates and specifics) doesn't mention it, his father was a conscientious objector, which made it especially difficult for the family.
From the first time friends encountered him in art school, Hockney, blessed with a puckish sense of humor and a questioning, questing intelligence, always had a sense of himself as someone who mattered. A gay man who came of age in what he called the "bohemia" of London's art scene, he always wanted to be on the side of the unexpected.
On an early visit to New York, for instance, he saw a TV commercial for Clairol that said "everybody should go blond" and promptly took that advice. A committed smoker, he took umbrage at the smoking deaths tote board on a Los Angeles billboard and thought about putting up a competing one across the street that read "Death Awaits You Even If You Don't Smoke."
"Hockney" is strongest in the intimate glimpses it offers of the artist's personal life, especially his close friendship with the influential curator Henry Geldzahler, who is shown in home movie footage hugging Hockney when the artist was distraught over a romantic breakup.
Hockney moved to Los Angeles in 1963 and promptly fell in love with the place, buying a car and learning to drive during his first week here. The city had, he felt, the energy of America "with the Mediterranean thrown in, a wonderful combination."
Hockney's cool, private swimming pool paintings ("They're landscapes waiting for people to arrive," one critic wrote, "even when the people are already there") are as iconic as Los Angeles art gets, and "Hockney" features a clip explaining that the namesake splash in "A Bigger Splash" took him seven full days to execute.
Hockney's creativity went in many other directions as well, including set design for numerous operas, starting with Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," as well as a project called "Blue Guitar" inspired by both Picasso's "The Old Guitarist" and the Wallace Stevens poem it called forth.
Though best known as a painter, some of Hockney's most interesting thoughts — and projects — have to do with photographs and the collages he made with them. (We even see footage of him going to a one-hour photo kiosk to pick up the latest batch.)
Asked by an interviewer why he thought he was so popular, Hockney replied, "I'm interested in ways of looking, and everyone does look," which is as good an explanation as any for the artist's remarkable success.