David Hockney: Line of beauty

At 71, he still brims with creativity, and even in a recession people will spend big to get their hands on one of his paintings. How does he do it?
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The Independent Online

It is an irony that David Hockney would no doubt greet with one of his wry chuckles that, after a career so publicly devoted to flip-flopping between the UK and Los Angeles, his elevation to the top table of contemporary artists should take place in a city almost exactly in the middle of them.

Who'd have thought, you can imagine him asking, while peering over a pair of round glasses and patting a slobbering dog, that Christie's should this week have chosen New York, a place he doesn't even particularly like, as the location to sell one of his 1960s paintings, for the unprecedented and staggering sum of $7.9m (£5.28m)?

The 12ft portrait of the Californian philanthropist Betty Freeman was called Beverly Hills Housewife. In the depths of a recession, it fetched almost twice the previous record for a Hockney, an achievement that puts him, at the age of 71, in league with Lucian Freud for the coveted status of "world's most expensive" living artist.

All the more remarkable was the fact that until the sale, the diptych wasn't even particularly well known. The work was, however, a classic of its kind: a confident and refined, in crisp point-perspective that perfectly renders the brightness and joie de vivre of a wealthy Californian lifestyle. It was owned by Freeman ever since it was finished in 1967, and came on the market only after her death in January.

"What this really showed is that [Hockney] is a truly international artist and it was a fantastic international response to the quality of his work," said Brett Gorvy of Christie's, following the telephone bidding war won by an anonymous private collector. "These are tough times but an artist like Hockney can transcend that."

In truth, Hockney has been transcending the boundaries of his trade ever since he burst on to the scene, fresh out of the Royal College of Art, in the early 1960s. Art lovers thrill to his trademark style, which speaks emphatically of the everyday joys of life, and has made Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy the most popular picture in Tate Britain. Critics marvel at his flawless execution, heralding him as the most gifted draughtsman of his generation.

Behind the phenomenon lie two competing narratives. One is of a vigorously creative visual artist who has never stood still, working across media as diverse as printmaking, photography, theatre design and most recently, in a move that saw him dubbed the "iPriest of Art" on his iPhone. ("You must stroke the screen very softly," he said.)

The other David Hockney is a complex, gifted and outspoken public figure, who emigrated to California to escape the twin burdens of the English class system and public hostility to his homosexuality. Today, he has adopted the persona of grumpy old Yorkshireman. Taking advantage of his status as a national treasure, he mischievously rails against contemporary mores. Headline writers have dubbed him Britain's "moaner in chief".

Hockney has pounded the streets in favour of fox-hunting, and hit the airwaves to criticise the health fascists trying to ban smoking, informing listeners to the Today programme that Labour MP Julie Morgan was "absolutely dreary" and announcing: "I think you are too bossy, chum!"

He has also taken libertarian positions against Europe and Iraq, and is resolutely sceptical about New Labour. He once compared Tony Blair to a school prefect, and described Gordon Brown in print as "a dreary atheistic Calvinistic prig, who I'm sure will never be elected in England".

The outbursts – always witty, often speaking to a silent majority – reflect Hockney's lifelong attraction to the spotlight. However, they have perhaps overshadowed an important recent development: since returning to the UK a few years ago, he has been producing some of the best work of his career.

He first came back in the aftermath of 9/11 following twin personal setbacks. First, a beloved dog died. Then his partner, John Fitzherbert, was effectively banned from the US for overstaying a visa by a couple of days.

"I wasn't going to stay here," he said, of the countryside around Bridlington. "But as things changed, and the corn got golden I realised there's a fucking good subject here. So why should I go back to LA?"

His East Yorkshire Landscapes, unveiled in an important exhibition at the Tate in 2007, have been described as making "Cézanne look Pop". They are among his greatest works, and represent the culmination of a lifetime's experimentation with visual depth, and different artistic media.

"David Hockney has never been afraid to give up doing things people love and go off in a new direction," says Lawrence Weschler, the prominent US art writer who recently published a book of conversations with Hockney. "He also felt one-point perspective was a straitjacket, and spent three decades trying extricate himself from it. Now he's in Bridlington, where he buried his mother, and he's finally managed it. Seventy years from now, I believe people will go to Hockney in Bridlington shows the way they go to Van Gogh in Arles."

The art world seems to agree. Hockney's new paintings now sell for between $850,000, $1.6 million, or $4.5m (depending on size), up from $650,000/ $1.3m/$3.5m in early 2007. He currently has a new, highly-regarded exhibition of landscapes on show in Germany, and is building up a collection for a career-defining show at the Royal Academy, tentatively scheduled for 2012.

Hockney works constantly, across diverse fields, even if one of his favourite sayings is "I must get back to painting". He keeps a studio in London, but is mostly based in Bridlington, where he says he doesn't get interrupted. However, his headquarters and entire archive of previous work are kept at a sprawling mansion manned by assistants off LA's Mulholland Drive.

Born in Bradford, to honest-to-goodness parents who raised him on thrift and godliness, he won a scholarship to the local grammar school. He decided to become an artist, or so the story goes, at the age of 11, and distinguished himself at the RCA.

Hockney's most distinctive early works, such as Two Boys Together Clinging, are often poignant confessionals that candidly emphasise his (then criminal) homosexuality. He swiftly became famous in London art circles for his camp wit. In 1963, he wore a gold lamé jacket to receive an award from the Queen Mother and dyed his hair blond, an affectation that continued for much of his adult life. In 1964, Hockney relocated to Los Angeles, which turned him into an artist of international standing and inspired some of his most famous works, many of which experiment with classical perspective and inventive ways of portraying movement.

He perfected the art of repackaging America and selling it back to the Americans. His photographic collage Pearblossom Highway, owned by LA's prestigious Getty Centre, a few miles from Hockney's Californian home, is perhaps one of the greatest US landscapes of the post-war era. Today, after almost five prolific decades, Hockney's work is a staple of art institutions across the world, yet continues to inspire debate. His latest exhibition, at the Annely Juda Gallery, was of work created on a computer, camera and printer, neatly marrying the traditional and the technologically advanced.

"People are attracted to him from all the different areas that he's worked in, from painting, printmaking, the theatre, even computer applications now," says Peter Goulds, whose LA Louver gallery has been selling his work for three decades. "He's never stopped thinking about art."

Though now in his eighth decade, Hockney has good genes (his mother lived to 99), and with a following wind can carry on capturing his confident beauty for decades to come. "I don't think about it much," he announced recently, in a rare moment pondering his mortality. "I assume I'll just work until I fall over."

A life in brief

Born: Bradford, 9 July 1937.

Family: Parents were Kenneth and Laura Hockney. Has an older sister, Margaret, who is also a painter.

Career: Studied at the Bradford College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, bursting on to the scene in the 1960s before moving to Los Angeles where he created arguably his most celebrated work. Expanded into set design, printmaking and photography, continuing to enjoy both critical and popular acclaim. In 2006 one of his LA swimming pool paintings sold for £2.9m, a then record price for a Hockney. This week he eclipsed it, with the sale at Christie's in New York of Beverly Hills Housewife, a portrait of philanthropist Betty Freeman, for $7.9m (£5.3m). An inveterate smoker, he has become a champion of individual freedoms, campaigning vigorously against smoking bans. In recent years has returned to his live in his native Yorkshire.

He says: "I hate Gordon Brown. I really do hate him. I'm going to be made a criminal because I smoke. They're taking away our liberties and there's no one saying a thing."

They say: "When I see a book of my work next to one by David Hockney, I think it's a dream." – British artist Damien Hirst.