David Hockney has often been regarded as a playboy of the art world. He has had lascivious relationships, and he has run among strange and crazy artistic circles. Yet he has always retained a sense of stability in his life through his constant and tireless devotion to his work. Hockney is an artist that has always enjoyed success and praise, facing little to no hardship in his career. What is interesting about his life is not the problems he has encountered, but the strides he has taken to bypass much human suffering and malaise.
David Hockney was born on July 9, 1937, in Bradford, England, to Laura and Kenneth Hockney. The Hockneys were, as David said, a “‘radical working-class family.'” Laura and Kenneth were solid parents who only wanted their children to have the best education possible. Laura raised her children as strict Methodists and resolutely shunned smoking and drinking in the home. Kenneth was a passionate radical and a conscientious objector during World War I. David Hockney was always considered an eccentric in Bradford. He never really cared what people thought of him and always did as he pleased. He spent afternoons at Sunday School drawing cartoons of Jesus, much to his teachers’ dismay. As a young child, Hockney also developed an obsession with opera when he first saw the Carl Rosa opera company’s production of La Bohème.
In 1948, David Hockney won a scholarship to the Bradford Grammar School, one of the best schools in the country. Here he enjoyed his art classes most and thus decided that he wanted to become an artist. Furthermore, he disliked the other subjects he was required to study. In 1950, he asked to be transferred to the Regional College of Art in Bradford so that he could more seriously pursue his interest. However, the headmaster recommended that he first finish his general education before transferring anywhere. Hockney responded with misfit behavior towards his teachers and poor grades, even though he had found much success in school before this. He spent his class time doodling in notebooks. Nonetheless, his artistic leanings also won him prizes and recognition, and he drew comics for the school newspaper. Overall, he was a likeable and intelligent student with many friends.
In 1953, Hockney finally enrolled in the College of Art and began painting with oils, his medium of choice for most of his life. Hockney learned that painting was a process of seeing and thinking, rather than one of imitation. His artwork was abstract and quite personal and allowed him to deal with human sexuality and love in a public, yet still inhibited manner. He developed a penchant for painting mirrors and loved the artwork of painters such as Francis Bacon and other contemporaries. Socially, he made a lot of friends, but never really expressed any sexual interests. His group of acquaintances would often travel into London to catch various art shows. In the summer of 1957, Hockney took the National Diploma in Design Examination. He graduated with honors and then enrolled in the Painting School of the Royal College in London two years later, where and when he would gain national attention as an artist.
Hockney immediately felt at home at the Royal College. There were no steadfast rules or regulations. Not only did he find much success and pride in his work, but he also thrived in the many friendships he made there. He and his friends spent much of their time in the studio, but they explored the pubs and coffee bars around town as much as possible. Hockney was a serious student, however, and dedicated much effort to painting. During his first term, he experimented with more abstract styles, but he felt unsatisfied with that work, and he still sought his own style. His professors were good and receptive to his artwork, but Hockney seemed to learn the most from his fellow students who shared similar artistic interests and insights. Furthermore, he was quite a self-motivated sort of person and began to feel a need for meaningful subject matter, and so Hockney began painting works about vegetarianism and poetry he liked reading. After a little while, Hockney even began painting about his sexual orientation, writing words such as “queer” and ‘unorthodox lover” in some of his paintings. While Hockney had been aware of his attraction to males growing up in Bradford, he had never felt comfortable talking about his sexual orientation until he came to the Royal College and befriended other gay men.
In the summer of 1961, Hockney traveled to New York for the first time. His friend Mark Berger showed him around all the city’s galleries and museums, while his other friend Ferrill Amacker showed him the hot gay spots. To pay for the trip, Hockney sold several of his paintings. He was also able to work on other paintings and sketches while he was there at the Pratt Institute’s facilities. It was from his New York sketchbooks that Hockney came up with the idea for an updated version of William Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress,” which he eventually finished two years later. Hockney was offered five thousand pounds for the plates and thus was able to live in America for a year at the end of 1963. In the mean time, he finished his studies at the Royal College and received considerable attention from critics, professors, and peers at several student shows. At this time early on in Hockney’s career, his artwork was poetic and tended to tell stories. He even wrote poetic ramblings on many of his paintings as well. For a short time, Hockney was in danger of not receiving his diploma because he had failed his Art History courses. Nonetheless, he was awarded the gold medal for outstanding distinction at the convocation and ended his college career on a tremendously good note.
In New York, Hockney befriended Andy Warhol, at whose studio young artists often met and socialized. He also met Dennis Hopper that same night. However, Hockney’s main purpose in returning to the States was not to meet peers, but rather to travel to California. Hockney had become fascinated with the images of young, built, and tan men in the publication Physique Pictorial, which he had collected while in London, and he was hungry to experience the sleazy underground world of Los Angeles. He immediately loved the city and made Santa Monica his home. Spending much of his day at Santa Monica pier, Hockney would just people-watch and admire the beautiful boys that seemed to be at the beach every day of the year. This new environment greatly inspired him. In his California paintings, such as Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964), Hockney featured mainly wet, sculpted men and typically colorful southern California architecture. Overall, he was enamoured of the more laid-back, sunny lifestyle that the city of Los Angeles provided. It was around this time that Hockney developed the naturalistic, realistic style he is most known for today.
In the summer of 1964, Hockney was invited to teach at the University of Iowa. He was generally bored with this new milieu but was able to complete four paintings in six weeks there. An old friend from London Ossie Clark came to America for the first time and visited Hockney in Iowa. The two traveled across the country a bit, visiting gay bars. At the same time, Hockney hosted his first American exhibition in New York. He received rave reviews and sold every painting.
In December of 1964, Hockney returned to London to give a talk on homosexual imagery in America. A year later, he returned to America to teach at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There he lived in an apartment without windows and painted the Rocky Mountains from his memory. After his term there, Hockney went to California with some old friends. One night in Hollywood, Hockney met the blond beach bum of his dreams, “a marvelous work of art, called Bob,” and took him home. The two drove to New York, and Hockney flew Bob out to London, but soon realized that it was a mistake and sent the boy home.
Two years later, Hockney experienced his first true romance with a nineteen-year-old student named Peter Schlesinger. Schlesinger was just about everything Hockney ever wanted in a man. He was attractive, smart, young, innocent, and in great need of Hockney’s guidance. Schlesinger became a favorite subject of Hockney’s, and the many drawings of him show the informal intimacy of the two. A year later, Schlesinger transferred to Los Angeles from Santa Cruz and moved into an apartment with Hockney. During the day, Hockney would paint, but at night the two would often lie in bed drinking wine and reading. Hockney was very happy. In June of 1967, Hockney took his new beau to Europe, and the two toured the continent. At this time, Hockney’s interest in photography grew. He would take endless shots of Schlesinger, mostly for fun, but also for study.
For many years after that, Hockney remained content painting and showcasing his work at various exhibits. His work had gained much esteem and attention all over the world. Critics instantly recognized the power of his art. Most of his paintings from the late sixties and early seventies, particularly Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy (1970-1971), adhered to the concept of naturalism — that is, representing things as they were actually seen. His interest in photography greatly advanced his skill in this area, but Hockney felt as though he depended on it too much from time to time. He liked using the photographs more for the study of light, rather than to aid his memory. For the most part, Hockney was concerned with finding a balance between pure skill and pure art in his idea of naturalism. He did want his art to seem overtly academic, but moreover, he had not satisfied his abstract tendencies.
In 1971, Hockney experienced some tension in his relationship with Schlesinger. The age difference had become a problem, and Schlesinger wanted some independence and room to grow. Hockney’s eye also began to wander, and his social life became more active once again. He continued to entertain large groups of people in his studio and basked in the glory of his fame. Hockney decided to travel to America for a break, and when he returned, he found out that Schlesinger had moved to Paris and had been having an affair. Although he was hurt, Hockney was very relieved. A while later, the two reunited in Barcelona, but once again had many difficulties. Schlesinger felt that Hockney placed his work above everything else and felt as though he himself were only an erotic object to be shown off to others. He decided never to move back in with Hockney again. Hockney was devastated and started taking Valium to combat the depression and loneliness he suffered.
In February of 1974, Jack Hazan finished a biographical film on Hockney’s life. At first, Hockney was shocked and devastated by the film, which had brought many issues that hit too close to home for him. In particular, he was disturbed by the film’s portrayal of his romantic relationship with Schlesinger. However, after the film had received some attention and praise, Hockney realized that he had to swallow his pride and sign for its release in order to give Hazan the respect and admiration he deserved. The film was banned in many countries for its explicit portrayal of homosexuality, but won many awards among the critics.
In the eighties, Hockney turned to photo collage. Using a Polaroid camera, Hockney would assemble collages of photos that he would take as quickly as possible. Hockney was fascinated with the idea of seeing things through a window frame. This medium allowed him to see things in a whole new fashion. He took a drive in the southwest United States taking thousands of photos and fitting them altogether into various collages, such as You make the picture, Zion Canyon, Utah. His artwork also began to take on a psychological dimension. In the autumn of 1983, Hockney began a series of self-portraits, allowing the public to enter his personal inner life. It is obvious in these works that Hockney was quite vulnerable and unsure of himself, even though he had achieved major success in his life as an artist.
In the nineties, Hockney continued to experiment with rising technologies. He used a color laser copier in some of his works and reproduced some of his paintings. Hockney was impressed with the vibrancy of color that could be achieved using such devices. He also began sending drawings to friends via fax machines and was thrilled with this new way of communication. Much of the appeal lay in the fact that these newly produced images had no financial value at all. Thus sharing art became a true act of love and appreciation.
Hockney’s life and all his loves are always on display to the public. By embracing all sorts of technology and media, Hockney has made his art accessible to people everywhere. He has used art to express the love he has felt for others, and consequently, his works show personal stake and personal meaning. Ironically, his artwork caused much personal suffering and strife in the making and breaking of his romances, while at the same time, garnering him much respect and admiration. Hockney has truly made art a form of real human interaction and communication.