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Intimate new bio of British painter David Hockney

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:48 PM

"David Hockney," by Christopher Simon Sykes (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

David Hockney may be Britain's greatest living painter, and if not the greatest, then certainly the most recognizable. He's the Englishman who taught Americans that L.A.'s swimming pools were something worth looking at.

Over Hockney's long, prolific career — he turns 75 this year — his restless creativity has driven him to work in a variety of media, from painting and printmaking to film, photography and theater. Lately, he's been drawing on an iPad. You may have seen his pictures on the covers of The New Yorker.

Now, Christopher Simon Sykes, an English writer and photographer, has won the cooperation of Hockney and his four siblings for this entertaining and intimate two-volume biography, which leaves no aspect of the artist's life unexplored, including his brave choice to lead an openly gay life at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.

Sykes begins in northern England, where Hockney was born in 1937 to poor but upwardly aspiring parents. His eccentric father, Kenneth, was a political gadfly, conscientious objector and amateur inventor; his mother, Laura, an accomplished seamstress, devout Methodist and vegetarian.

Sykes relies on Laura's diaries, which reveal not only her own keen intelligence but also her unconditional love and support for the brilliant boy whose increasingly "out" persona, once he left home for London, was at odds with her fundamentalist beliefs.

Relying on these diaries and the abundant letters and memoirs of Hockney's art circle friends, Sykes is able to virtually reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the creation of many of Hockney's early major works, as well as the wild parties of London in the swinging '60s.

Certain passages read like celebrity-gossip columns, as the peripatetic Hockney races off to the south of France to visit director Tony Richardson or the Rolling Stones. The gregarious Hockney seemingly knew everyone who was anyone in the art world, including influential designers, musicians and photographers.

But Sykes writes well about the artwork and Hockney's art historical influences, tracing his evolution from early experiments with abstraction and graffiti in college to the emergence of his pop-inflected naturalism.

The first volume ends in 1975, when Hockney has already made his iconic images of Los Angeles swimming pools and is back in England designing sets and costumes for a new production of Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress." The second volume isn't expected until late 2014.

I'm betting it will be worth the wait.

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