Ever the boy wonder

As a major retrospective of the work of David Hockney opens at the Royal Academy
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David Hockney is arguably the best known and most popular British artist alive today. By late 1963, a year after he graduated from the Royal College of Art, his blond hair and glasses were already familiar as the image of the successful modern artist. When he moved to Los Angeles in December of that year, Tatler wondered, "Will success spoil David Hockney?" Thirty years on, Hockney is far from spoilt. It would be hard to "spoil" an artist who is himself never content with his achievement. Hockney's art exists in a continuous state of flux. While his unerring draughtsmanship has remained a constant, his early plays on style, marrying high and low art in the melting pot of Pop, have given way to the glossy naturalism of the Seventies, celebrated forays into stage design and experiments with photo-collage and the fax-machine.

Hockney's work has had a new meaning for every decade. In the Sixties his cryptically homosexual paintings seemed to embody the new freedoms of the "sexual revolution". In 1970s Los Angeles he defined the time and the place with his images of an earthly paradise. Amid the hard-hitting "cutting edge" art of the Thatcherite Eighties, Hockney represented something of an all-but-vanished Englishness: decorative and entertaining, but with Hogarthian hidden depths. It is perhaps this seductive insouciance, with a tendency to plunder, revere and satirise the art of the past, from Domenichino to Picasso, that makes Hockney's work so accessible to such a wide public.

While a few supercilious pundits may dismiss David Hockney's art as the conceit of a minor artist, it has a rare power to engage the popular imagination. As the following interviews reveal, Hockney is a bridge between the intellectuals and the masses, unlocking for a vast audience the all-too-often closed world of "modern art" and at the same time providing those already "in the know" with a continuing affirmation of art's capacity to surprise, console and intrigue through its essential mystery.

Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council of England

He's one of the greatest graphic artists in the world. I've just re-visited his astonishing set for The Magic Flute at the Met in New York. It's completely dazzling and in a sense drives the opera. It is very Mozartian - very witty and very profound. It's typical of the way Hockney plays ping-pong with certain masters - Picasso is another case in point. He's an amazing man, able to understand a concept almost instantly. He has a vast range of mind. He discovered Los Angeles as a place to paint. I hadn't been there until after I'd seen his paintings of it and noticed how extraordinarily like a Hockney it was. Like all important artists he revises the way we look at the world. When he drew me some years ago I told him, "You've made me look older, fatter and queerer than I am." "The first two will come," he said.

Peter Blake, artist

David is a very interesting artist because he invents all the time. He pushes the barriers. Just as people get used to what he's doing, he moves on. What he does consistently well are those portrait line-drawings, in the spirit of Matisse, Picasso and Grosz. He works in that style better than anyone else.

Even in his first year at the Royal College of Art you could see that he was a brilliant student. He was veering towards Abstract Expressionism for a while. But then I think that the draughtsmanship of RB Kitaj, who was in the same year, had a great influence on him. As an artist, what's so exciting about Hockney now is that he's not prepared to sit on his laurels. He works just as he has always done - doing just what he wants to.

Norbert Linton, art historian and critic

I've admired David since I saw his early student work in Bradford, before he went to the RCA and long before anyone realised that the name Hockney would be one to conjure with. I'm a great admirer of his pure line-drawings and his coloured crayon works. In particular I like his portraits of his friend, the designer Celia Birtwell. They have an extraordinary and unexpected sensuality.

I think of David as a great artist in all his graphic works. It's impossible to divorce the drawings from the prints in this context. He is continually making adventures, both technically and stylistically. The naturalistic drawings are at one extreme with, at the other, his Picasso-esque images.

David's drawings are among the most beautiful made by any artist this century.

Terence Conran, designer, retailer, restaurateur

I admired David's work very much in the Sixties, and it was extremely influential. He did some work for me which I liked very much. I'm not as fond of his work now as I was back then: it is highly experimental, and I feel that some of his experiments don't work. One of my sadnesses is that he is a remarkable draughtsman, but that doesn't come out in his work today.

Mary Quant, designer

I wish I had one of his Sixties paintings most of all. I love all those erotic male nudes. It was good for us women, as most nudes before Hockney were female. I still would love one. They are very easy to live with. Hockney is the most wonderful draughtsman; I do hope he is still drawing.

Michael Craig-Martin, Goldsmiths'

Many of David's drawings are really beautiful. I had one of them in the exhibition of drawings I curated. He's a very gifted draughtsman. His most successful drawings are those of people and animals that he makes in pen and ink. It's interesting that he quite quickly found a way of making drawings that were very telling of people, but unmistakably by him. There's no excessive cleverness about them. His most straightforward work is when he draws someone at one sitting. With pen and ink you have to fixate yourself on what you're doing. He must do them at one sitting, the line is just so perfect that I'm sure he could never get back into it once he'd left off.

Jeff Banks, presenter of 'The Clothes Show' and fashion designer

I must say, in the Sixties, when he was at the Royal - and I only knew him after he left the Royal - I thought he was a bit of a prat, to be honest. He was really out on his own, and at that time people were not into the kind of photo-realist illustration and draughtsmanship that Hockney was doing.

But then I went round to Ossie and Celia's flat one day, and David's picture of them was in the flat [Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy], and I was just blown away with that: that was the point when I suddenly realised what Hockney was about. I suddenly realised everything he'd been doing, everything he'd been saying. And then the second time that got affirmed must have been about 10 years later, when he did a TV programme with Howard Hodgkin and Jim Dine, drawing and talking. To hear David Hockney talk about illustration and to be able to put down a line that he was unerring in in one go, that was when I finally realised the strength of David Hockney. Not many artists are ever able to do it with that kind of skill.

Now, he's somebody a lot of people have followed or copied, and in that respect you always think the value of his work has been diluted, but it hasn't, because he was the first to do it. He was the inspiration for a whole school of new young painters, who have now grown to be middle- aged men. I still think he is the master of it.

William Boyd, novelist

I'm a great admirer of Hockney: among living painters I think he's up there with the major British artists such as Lucien Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Frank Auerbach - very much a dominant figure. I think his great strength is that he's a brilliant draughtsman, and that's not something you can say about every Pop or modern artist today.

Henry Meric-Hughes, director of the Hayward Gallery

David Hockney has the reputation of a wunderkind. There is still truth in this, and there was certainly something miraculous about his sudden apparition after the drab austerities of English painting in the 1950s. A sense of wonderment attaches both to his person and to his view of the world around him.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the drawings, which have formed such a consistent and intimate part of his activity; nowhere has he been so lavish in the display of his dual talent for accurate observation and theatrical illusionism.

Hockney on Hockney

I paint what I like, when I like, and where I like, with occasional nostalgic journeys... my own sources of inspiration are wide - but acceptable. In fact, I am sure, my own sources are classic or even epic themes. Landscapes of foreign lands, beautiful people, love, propaganda, and major incidents (of my own life). These seem to me to be reasonably traditional.

n From Thurs to 28 Jan 1996. Booking: 0171-439 7438

Additional interviews by Scott Hughes