The Many Lives of Artist David Hockney

The artist has achieved what often seems impossible—to stay relevant throughout his entire career. His secret: not being afraid to change with the times.

Like a pop diva at the VMAs, artist David Hockney has managed to stay relevant through a constant series of transformations since he burst onto the scene nearly six decades ago.

There is usually something transparent about the artifice required by famous artists trying to remain current. Yet, there is nothing forced in all of the metamorphoses Hockney undertakes that are documented in the second installment of Christopher Simon Sykes’s biography of the artist. In fact, new technologies—copiers, fax machines, and recently the iPad—were significant sources of inspiration for him. Hockney is also refreshingly genuine when it comes to revealing another source of inspiration—other artists.

David Hockney: The Biography, 1975-2012, picks up after Hockney has already become an established artist. It traces his life as he finds immense success in designing sets for a variety of operas, is confronted with close friends dying from AIDS, watches the commercial value of his art skyrocket, and competes with brash, new artists clamoring for attention.

While Sykes does a better job than most at capturing with words what an artist has put on paper or canvas, the most fascinating parts of the book are his insights into Hockney’s inspiration.

Perhaps due to a fear of being labeled as “pastiche,” some artists are touchy about revealing where they find inspiration for their work. Michelangelo once pushed Italian painter and writer Ascanio Condivi to claim that Michelangelo “received absolutely no assistance” from his teacher Domenico Ghirlandaio. But Hockney, as depicted in the book, is open about his inspirations, two of which were particularly influential during this time period.

The well in which he unabashedly dips back into over and over is that of Picasso. In 1980, a retrospective of the artist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York captivated Hockney. He wrote to a close friend that “it’s like the National Gallery all painted by one man … no artist ever left such incredible evidence of his experience before.” Inspired by both Picasso’s daily output as well as his work on perspective, Hockney “arrived back in L.A., charged with energy and inspired to paint in a new way.” In the winter of 1984-1985, Hockney would again be inspired by Picasso, this time his Sleeping Woman, to create a series of portraits. The inspiration was perhaps too obvious to critics; printer Ken Tyler defended him saying, “I think [David] was trying to come up with another language, a language that did have its roots in Picasso, but so what? Artists have always copied other artists.”

For those unfamiliar with Hockney’s work, his most intriguing source of inspiration is Chinese art. In 1982, Hockney traveled to China on a trip organized by his editor at Thames & Hudson, Nikos Stangos. While there, Hockney became not only enthralled by Chinese drawing materials but also techniques. “The Chinese method of painting also has a profound influence on his drawing style in that it loosened him up, freeing him both from worries about what was expected of him and from his hang-ups about watercolor,” Sykes claims.

In 1983, Hockney’s fascination with Chinese art continued as he dove into the world of Chinese scroll-making. While reading a book called The Principles of Chinese Painting, Hockney found a kindred spirit in the Chinese artists working on the problem of how to put the spectator in the painting. The solution they came up with was the scroll, which let viewers walk through the painting as they unfurled it. In an interview with Lawrence Weschler, Hockney would declare that, “I’d really only just begun to try and deal with how to portray movement of the observer’s whole body across space. And that’s precisely what the Chinese landscape artists had mastered.”

Out of the scores of work he examined in the Department of Asia at the British Museum, one scroll in particular was “a profound experience” for him. A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, which was commissioned by the Emperor in 1690, was over 70 feet in length and had taken a year to paint. The effect of the Chinese scrolls on his art was immediate, beginning, says Sykes, with A Visit with Mo and Lisa when Hockney returned to Los Angeles.

While Hockney may have belittled what was considered art at the time—he famously declared that some of the works displayed in the Tate would be “stepped over” if they were on the street—few artists straddled the transitioning art world as well as he did.

The real joy in Sykes’s book is what can only be described as Hockney’s child-like excitement over new technological advances. The excitement about the possibilities that technology could unlock for the artist is at the heart of what kept Hockney and his work relevant.

In 1978, for instance, Hockney was introduced to a new printing method by the famed printer Ken Tyler. It involved the printer and artist putting the dyes for the print directly into the pulp of the paper within what was essentially a cookie-cutter mold, which was then weighted down to become part of the paper. In an interview with Sykes, Tyler declares, “David was instantly attracted to it. A new process for David is like everything. It’s like an all-time high.”

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A similar fanatical high would be gained when Hockney was introduced to Mylar in the mid-1980s, or in 1985 when he was enthralled by the possibilities of the television graphic tool Paintbox and declared that “The only equivalent where you get colors like this is in stained glass itself.” When he gets his hands on a Canon copier, the reader gets a glimpse into the unique fashion in which his mind works. Hockney saw the object that would become the bane of office secretaries everywhere as bringing him closer to his art. It gave him, writes Sykes, “the ability to become his own craftsman.” Using the copier, Hockney claimed, “was the closest I’ve ever come in printing to what it’s like to paint: I can put something down, evaluate it, alter it, revise it, reexamine it, all in a matter of seconds.” Beginning in 1988, he also dove into making art using a fax machine.

While many today lament that iPhones and iPads have become almost extra limbs, for Hockney they were a breakthrough for his art. He kept his iPhone by his bedside and would draw the dawn using the Brushes app. “For the better part of a year, Hockney hardly ever had the iPhone out of his hand,” Sykes avows. The iPad was an even bigger hit, especially as it had a new function that allowed him to play the drawing back. “The only thing like this before was Picasso drawing on glass for film,” Hockney exclaims, a detail that no doubt boosted his enthusiasm.

Whether through his innovative use of technology or his inspiration from other artists, the Hockney that emerges from these pages is one full of vitality. In documenting nearly every detail of what Hockney was up to during these decades, Sykes convincingly conveys his stunning work ethic. Unfortunately, the deluge of details weighs the book down in parts. However, buried in some of the detail are wonderful nuggets like why Hockney wears two different socks—it’s his tribute to Robert Herrick’s poem Delight in Disorder.