Despite his protestations of reclusiveness, Hockney, through the mediation of his protective camp followers, is a willing conspirator in the media circus because, from the moment he left the Royal College of Art in 1962 famously wearing white hair and a gold lame jacket, he was the first British artist to be treated like a showbiz star. Ever since, he has used newspaper obsession with his photogenic boyish (until recently) good looks to make himself as constantly visible in the public eye as if he had been resident in Notting Hill for the last 33 years, instead of Los Angeles. So indelibly has he become established in national affection that the moment cannot be far away when the National Portrait Gallery stages a substantial exhibition of photographic portraits of Hockney used on the front covers of Sunday supplements. We just can't help loving him. Everybody who meets him confirms what a charmer he is, and it's true.
He's home this time because his mother, Laura, the waking and dozing subject of some of her son's keenest, most moving drawings, died two weeks ago aged 99. There is also the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Show on 7 June in which Hockney has been vouchsafed a room to himself for some panoramic paintings of the Grand Canyon exhibited in Paris earlier this year.
Despite Hockney's much-remarked-upon (by him mainly) apostasy from photography, a medium that occupied him far up a blind alley throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s, advance comment focuses not on the pictures themselves but on the gimmickry of corner mirrors installed in the gallery to turn the panorama into a sort of quadrophonic "sensurround" experience, a piece of showmanship some might expect from an artist whose home neighbours Hollywood. Others might wonder why he doesn't jettison once and for ever such naff superfluities of presentation and concentrate on painting a bloody good picture which stands up on its own merits, something, it has to be said, he hasn't achieved for approaching a quarter of a century. There is always the lingering suspicion with Hockney that he is painfully aware of his own failings as a painter, hence all the gizmos, the faxes, the computer graphics, the latest whizzbang printers and wearisome conceptual subterfuge.
As an acceptably harmless eccentric, born in bloody-minded Bradford, he never misses an opportunity to raise hackles, and yet more publicity, by knocking what he calls "Nanny England" and mounting one of his many, and usually sensible, hobby horses. In the past this has meant rants about the anti-smoking lobby, because he's a doughty puffer even though he had a mild heart attack in 1990; the quarantine laws, because he'd like to bring in his two constant companions, the overweight dachshunds Stanley and Boodgie, themselves the subject of a series of execrable paintings three years ago; the licensing laws, which wouldn't be tolerated in America, you know; restrictive legislation on homosexual activities, which nearly caused him to cancel his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1989; hypocrisy over pornography, which he collects because he finds nudity beautiful and the law demonstrably inconsistent; the general philistinism of Britain; and, one of his longest-running objections, the failure of art colleges to encourage drawing and therefore concentrated scrutiny of the visual world. Last week he was banging the Lambeg for soft drug legalisation and he openly admits he's been using cannabis for donkey's years for relaxation and enjoyment. Some call it medication, he says, I call it cannabis. It's a good job artists aren't role models like rugby captains. Whatever you think of him, you can't say he's not good value, what with the slow seductive delivery in a tyke drawl and all.
The impossibility of disliking him is responsible for the generally charitable reception of his work. Critics are either generous to him, or they keep quiet. They applaud the melancholic character and lay off the work's more conspicuous inadequacies. Meanwhile, the public couldn't give a toss and attend his shows in record numbers, largely, one suspects, because of his genius for PR, although if postcard sales of the Tate's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy are anything to go on his paintings are truly appreciated. Paradoxically, it is the more conservative critics, those for whom all figurative paintings, whether old or new, are judged by the same criteria, who routinely savage him, and in particular the later paintings which by any art-loving criteria have little to recommend them except that they reproduce really well. In fact this is no accident, because so obsessed is Hockney with reproductive techniques and producing pictures which will look good second hand that he realises that in future his audience will appreciate his work mainly from books, especially if, as is the case with Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, the fugitive acrylics in which he painted them keep fading. He likes clear, strident reproduction because in his apparently simple world view bright colours are equated with optimism and joy.
Critically, the trajectory of his career has gone something like this: appreciation climbs meteorically to an ecstatic peak throughout the 1960s, the "boy genius" years of bare bottoms, swimming pools, crisp and inky etchings and drawings whose Holbein-sharp, nervous lines sparkle with life, until his first retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1970. Thereafter, some of the large portraits of his friends are impressive and those who doubt it can go to the National Portrait Gallery where Hockney's ambitious portraits and accurate likenesses come as a welcome relief in a corridor of, for the most part, wince-inducing daubs. Most agree that from the mid-1970s onwards his career has freewheeled steeply, relentlessly downhill. Perhaps the crucial year was 1972 when he designed The Rake's Progress for Glyndebourne, thereafter becoming increasingly involved with opera sets and costumes that were so jolly they were accused of upstaging the music. Some critics realised from the outset that the photographic "joiners", which he began in earnest in 1980 and in which dozens of enprints and Polaroids were collaged together to form a roughly legible though cubistically fractured image, are an embarrassment to a serious artist. As were the sheafs of material produced by faffing about with the latest toys, fax machines, ink-jet printers and the like. He became obsessed with space and its depiction and would lecture anyone prepared to listen about the advantages of photography over painting, apparently failing to realise that each does a different thing uniquely well.
The collapse in his confidence as a painter was cruelly exposed in the final rooms of his 1989 Tate retrospective where the most recent painted portraits of his friends and family were seriously awful. Then, two years ago, he presented flower paintings that won over many for their bright colours, but the space and light of Vermeer, which he said had been their inspiration, was conspicuously absent. Being easy on a vulgar eye, the flowers were publicly acclaimed. The truth was that there was no space and no light and every object was rigid as if carved crudely from wood. Of course, none of this matters because in public esteem Hockney has reached the summit of a Parnassus on which reign only unimpeachable reputations. He can do no wrong, and as his painting has got worse so his reputation has snowballed on the strength of his avuncular affability, his exceptional generosity to friends and students, the tragedy of his grief as hordes of friends have succumbed to Aids, and his inherited deafness. Neither does it matter to the art market, he can sell anything to which he chooses to attach his instantly recognisable initials. Small paintings sell for between pounds 200,000 and pounds 250,000 each and in 1989, at the height of the art fever, one picture was auctioned for pounds 1.2m, the highest price ever for a living British artist, a record since trumped by Lucian Freud.
The only thing that looks likely to lend his work renewed purpose and which might inspire the great picture he hasn't yet produced is a major public commission, an altarpiece for a cathedral perhaps, with a subject that will exploit his emotional maturity and rekindle the desire to draw figures of effortless feeling into an orchestrated scheme from which tedious pseudo-theories about space have been excluded.
David Lee is editor of 'Art Review'.