Where to begin? It is a question that any young artist needs to ask himself. David Hockney attended Bradford Art College as a young man in the 1950s, and there he learnt the orthodoxy current in those years. You painted like Sickert and the Euston Road School, which meant sober-suited, academically correct life studies and figure studies. And perhaps, for good measure, a few local landscapes.
We saw two of those early works in A Bigger Picture, a recent show at The Royal Academy. They were very competent landscape paintings of local scenes. They also seemed tonally dull, a little dutifully repressed, unequal to any young artist's urgent wish to make an art that he might call his own. Hockney later characterised that world in a single dismissive word: greyness.
Then Hockney went down to London, a place that he had first visited at the age of 19. There, at the Royal College of Art, he began to discover the kind of painter that he wanted and needed to be. The story of those beginnings – what he was seeking, what he found, and its California-dreaming aftermath – is told in a new exhibition exploring that first decade and a half of Hockney's emerging maturity, which opens at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool this week.
Hockney wanted above all things else to be a modern painter, and he was forever fearful of the fact that his impulses as an artist were not quite modern enough. Modernity in his day meant looking in the direction of the feverish abstract experimentation of New York – Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell. Paris was dead. New York was the new capital of world painting. The fact that abstraction was a la mode meant that figuration was inadmissible. That judgment was a great stumbling block for Hockney.
As the section devoted to early portraiture demonstrates, Hockney was very good at painting and drawing the human figure – and the desire to do so came naturally to him. He had done it all his life. The subject of his first serious painting had been his own father. But if modernity had ruled that figure drawing was unmodern, what could you do?
A fellow student called Ron Kitaj helped him to find himself. Kitaj was an opinionated American, over in London thanks to the G I Bill. He told Hockney to paint what he felt serious about. Hockney felt serious about books, politics and people.
Hockney's works from those Royal College years are the products of a mind in turmoil, a talent trying to break through to something authentic. Hockney tries to paint the figure, but it is a figure partly disguised – and even partly explained – by words added to the canvas. The figures themselves are wild things, self-consciously absurd as figurative representations, oddly cartoon-like in shape, and often near-obliterated by feverishly scribbled mark-making. The paintings are madly contested spaces, inconsistent with themselves. They are wild medleys of clashing syncopations. They include isolated passages of near abstraction, zoomed in from nowhere in particular. In short, they are all over the place.
And why add words anyway? Hockney knew that a painting needed to be a balance of form and content. Content mattered passionately to him. Abstract painting was unsatisfying, flat, barren, describable only in terms of itself. It didn't yield up enough human feeling, human response. So why not do paintings which used words to carry across some of their feeling? Hockney trusted words. He had always been a passionate reader of poetry and fiction.
So when he added words to the canvas, they gave a freight of meaning and direction to whatever it was that he was doing. And yet these paintings always feel off-kilter, unbalanced, works of slightly rash and unsatisfactory defiance, an uneasy jangling together of the public and the private, the tutored and the unsophisticated.
There was a further complication which helps to explain why content was so important to him, and it has to do with Hockney's lifestyle. Many of these early paintings came bearing urgent messages about his own situation as a young gay man in a world that not only found such behaviour inadmissible, but still deemed it illegal. In part, their urgent, heady feel is to do with the fact that Hockney is striving to be a propagandist about his own sexuality. And the coming allure of America, which he first visited in 1961, and which he begins to paint almost immediately – oh how he glories in the phallic thrust of the skyscrapers of New York! – is his recognition that as a young gay man, he would be able to live more freely there, relaxing into his art, relaxing into his own life.
At the same time that Hockney was wrestling with how to paint, he was also discovering that he had a great talent for print-making. This talent was also put in the service of words. Hockney first discovered the gay poetry of Constantine Cavafy at a library in Bradford. It was not on the open shelves. Hockney stole the book to make quite sure that he and Cavafy would not easily be parted. His passion for Cavafy's poetry prompted him to create an entire suite of etchings, loosely based on individual poems, moments of gay intimacy, drawn with great assurance of line.
And so, in 1964, Hockney went to California, and found a theme there that suited his burgeoning talents perfectly: the pool-side fantasia. Now he was at liberty to paint male beauty unfurtively, and to set the figure in combination with a substance, water, which, depending upon how you painted it, could be as abstract as you wished to see it. Water was the ideal abstract theme for Hockney because it was so humanly alluring to the partially clothed body. Though the theme of the bather was well tried, Hockney's paintings were sleek, modern and eminently saleable.
But are the paintings in this show ones we should travel to see? Not necessarily. They define a moment. They even define a new Hockney. They are good paintings, but not great ones. Hockney's best work from these years is his drawing, and we see that fleetingly here. This is a show more about the fascination of struggle than great achievement.
David Hockney: Early Reflections, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (0151 478 4199) 11 October to 16 March