an a-z of david hockney

As the biggest retrospective dedicated to Britain's best living painter opens today, we salute the legacy of David Hockney.

by Felix Petty
09 February 2017, 8:50am

is for A Bigger Splash
Where else could we start but A Bigger Splash? Conveniently it starts with A. If you were to reduce the entire 60 plus years of Hockney's varied career into one image in the public imagination, then it would be this. A swimming pool. Flat, thick, blocks of acrylic. Odd sensation of depth. The narrative just glimpsed in the action of that Splash! The pastel emptiness of everything. The perfect composition. The effortless stylishness of it. California. Mid century modernist architecture. Sunshine. It's all there. Dive in.

is for Bradford
Bradford couldn't be less California could it, but somehow those two places are what jump straight to mind when we think of the blond bombshell. Born in the city in 1937, he's retained a Yorkshireman's love for a flatcap and chippy aggro, and despite having ended up halfway around the world and back, he's always returned to the city of his birth. Last year the city even announced a permanent museum dedicated to his work, set to open this year to celebrate his 80th birthday.

is for California
Bradford might've birthed him, but California made him. After a visit in the early 60s, he moved permanently to Los Angeles to in 1964. It had a dramatic upon his style. The pictures of swimming pools sure, but pre-California, David was making neo-cubist works, once he touched down in Santa Monica, he switched everything around. He threw away the oils paints and picked up the acrylics. Creating gorgeous, flat, colourful compositions inspired by the state's modernist architecture, from pools to lawn sprinklers.

is for Drawing
Looking beyond David Hockney the pop painter of pools, sunshine and sunbathers, he's tackled just about every art form imaginable in his 60 odd years as a practising artist. One of the most overlooked aspects of his work, is his drawings, which thankfully, in the Tate retrospective gets a whole room dedicated to it. A rare treat is a self-portrait made when he was a teenager on display. There's a cuteness to much of his drawings, reduced to the simplest of lines, shapes, colour, it shows the indefinable spirit that runs through his work.

is for Etchings
Unfortunately Hockney's etchings aren't joining the drawings at the Tate, but are another overlooked aspect of his career. A prolific printmaker throughout his life, they form a neat counterpoint to his development as a painter. And it was in fact the £100 prize money he won from an etching competition that paid for his first trip to America, and put him on the path to art-stardom. 

is for Fashion
David Hockney is the most fashionable artist. A man who takes the same bold colourful approach to his wardrobe as he does his paintings. No one dresses quite like Dave. A man who can somehow pull off clashing prints, stripes, colours, fabrics, and usually odd socks. A man who can pull off a bow tie, and a flat cap, at the same time. A man who can pull of a yellow bucket hat. Often, he can pull all of these things off at the same time.

is for Going deaf
Pardon? Sorry I didn't catch that. Hockney's been losing his sense of hearing for awhile. Although he does credit it with improving his sense of vision. It also makes it easier to ignore boring people at art openings.

is for Hockney, Kenneth
Dave's dad was a pretty stellar fella. A conscientious objector during WW2, he was so against any kind of war activity he refused to take on even being a fireman. Instead, ostracised by the local community, to get some money he ended up repainting prams, which left one of those "the rest is history" marks upon young David, who fell in love with painting, and at point was even using an old pram as a mobile studio, pushing it around full of paints and brushes.

is for iPad
Hockney loves a bit of technology. Never afraid to boldly go where no artist has gone before, he's tried his hand with every technology gizmo and gadget going. Computers, cameras, and iPads too. Recently he redesigned the Sun's logo via a work he made on one. One can only hope he was doing a bit of elaborate trolling of the famed fake news outlet.

is for Joiners
Maybe the most beautiful room at the Tate retrospective is dedicated to the joiners series of works he started making in the 80s. Dissatisfied with the stark single scope the camera offered, he turned to the polaroid camera, and created a barrage images, joining them together, in a kind of hypnotic cubist inspired take on reality. Within a few months he'd made over 140 works. He moved on swiftly to using 35mm film, annoyed at the white borders of the polaroid images.

K - Kasmin
John Kasmin is the man who discovered David, and nurtured him throughout the early part of his career. A leading figure in the art scene of Swinging London, John Kasmin launched his first gallery in 1963, with Hockney, just graduated from the RCA, as the first artist. Hockney would make many workof John during their course of their professional and personal relationship, spanning most of Hockney's styles and forms, from photography to collages to intimate drawings.

L is for Landscapes
Few have painted landscapes as vibrantly as Hockney. After the pop-ish 60s period and his naturalist 70s, in the 80s and 90s, his work turned towards landscapes and gardens, delighting in the painterly possibility of manipulating space and sense. Full of winding roads and deep canyons, snaking through with lines and colours, his landscapes pull the eye around.

is for National Treasure
Well he is, isn't it he.

is for Ossie Clark
Throughout the 70s Hockney moved away from flatness towards depictions of psychological and emotional depth, especially in portraiture. Fashion designer Ossie Clark was a regular sitter for David, famously posing with his wife, Celia Birtwell and cat, for a 1971 group portrait. In fact, group portraiture was a particular concern for Hockney during this period. Capturing his close circle of friends, often painted life size, carefully staged, they combine informality of domestic life with the grandness of traditional portraiture.

is for Playing with pictures
The first room of the Tate retrospective isn't given over to the big famous works, the pools and portraits and Yorkshire landscapes, but to exploring his career-long fascination with deconstructing picture making itself, exploring the idea of making and looking at pictures. From at 63 work of John Kasmin trapped behind a piece of perspex, to a 2014 work, Blue Stools, that combines 100s of pieces of digital photography to create a strange Trompe L'Oeil effect, or Kerby, that combines multiple points of perspectives into one surreal cubist masterpiece.

is for Queerness
David's always been open about his sexuality, and more than that, he's always been openly expressing it in his art. From early works, like We Two Boys Together, or 63's Domestic Scene he painted two men in Los Angeles showering together. Homosexuality was still illegal in the UK at the time, lending this innocent depictions of love and gay attraction, a dramatic context.

R is for RCA
Maybe the most intriguing period of Hockney's career. Between 60-62 Hockney was a student at the RCA, finding the forms that would mark out his later work, and pulling together the pieces that would inform his mature style. He experimented with abstraction, cubism, text, childlike naivety. In 62, he was part of the Young Contemporaries exhibition, a landmark in his career, that led to his discovery.

S is for Swimming Pools
No one paints water quite so sexily do they? Those snaking lines, shimmering surfaces, swirling blues. Always framed in dramatic landscapes, or amongst modernist architecture, or with cute nudes bobbing out the pools, like mermaids.

T is for Tobacco
Cough cough! Always got a ciggy dangling from his mouth, Our David has, one of the few unrepentant smokers out there, campaigning to let us light up again. He once even guest edited The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 in order to air his pungent views. According to Wikipedia, he also holds a license to purchase medical marijuana in California, which might explain the rather fruity colours in his later landscapes.

V is for Video
Never content to work in just one (or two, or even three mediums) Hockney's video works. One room at the Tate retrospective is dedicated to a typically Hockney-ish work, The Four Seasons, made in 2010. Taking its cues from his earlier, cubist-infused work, and his later investigations of the Yorkshire countryside. In The Fours Season Hockney fixed a number of cameras onto a vehicle and then drove them along the road near his home in Bridlington. He repeated for each season of the year, creating a beautiful portrait of the world around him.

W is for Wayne Sleep
Wayne Sleep was Hockney's lover, as well as a famous ballet dancer. He sat for Hockney in one of his most famous double portraits George Lawson and Wayne Sleep 1972-5. It took him three years, and multiple attempts, to capture the stunted simplicity of the final painting, indicative of his work in the 70s. Speak year's later, Wayne said of the image: "George's hair looks awful. He should have combed it."

Y is for Yorkshire
After Hockney decamped back to the motherland, he ended up setting out on a startling new body of work. Imagining the rolling countryside of Yorkshire into wild colourful worlds. Often painted in large scale, sometimes across multiple canvases; the landscapes, painted between his return in 2006, and the tragic death of his assistant in 2013, act as a gorgeous late period of the artist's work, coming full circle.


Text Felix Petty
All images copyright David Hockney
Photography Matt Jones

Tate Britain
David Hockney