Thu, Sep 14, 2006 - Page 15 News List

David Hockney's radical heart beats strong at 69

He was the blond rebel who shocked and rocked the art world. As he nears 70, David Hockney prefers sketching in Yorkshire, England, but still rails against authority and takes risks

By Jonathan Jones  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

David Hockney is relaxing after lunch. The house feels full as his friend John, who made the meal, and assistant Jean-Pierre, an accordionist — true: I've seen the accordion — move around.

“I remember seeing a Sargent in the Chicago Art Institute,” he says, “and thinking, fucking good, you know, great, and even the bravura slickness, I admire it. And then I went round the corner and there's a Van Gogh portrait, and you just think, well, this is another level. A higher level, actually. I love the Sargent, but it's not the level of Van Gogh.”

The house is a brilliant succession of different colored rooms, a kind of benign House of Usher. Like his London home, it transports you into a generous roving space. I have to admit this was not how I imagined it when I was on a dank train from Doncaster to Bridlington in Yorkshire in the north of England, looking over at a woman reading a book called The World's Greatest Serial Killers. It was a dismal late-summer day as I headed north towards the Yorkshire seaside town where Hockney has been spending much of his time painting the local landscape. I knew that his sister Margaret lives there, that his mother spent her last years there, and somehow I had pictured the famous Los Angeles-based British artist lodging in a spare bedroom in a relative's house.

There is a photograph taken of him in the 1960s with Andy Warhol, in which it is not the evasive Warhol but the bold, blond David, naturally smoking a cigarette, who looks cool. There are many other images of Hockney from the 1960s and 1970s that have that deadpan glamour. He seems sometimes nowadays to have changed unrecognizably. It is not just that he has gray hair and looks like the 69-year-old Yorkshireman he is. It is the polemics and debating fury that make him so different from the dreamy painter of men in swimming pools. He buttonholes politicians in defense of the right to smoke. He advances arguments about the death of photography. He writes art history that sells by the bucketload and enrages academics. It is all a long way from the Hockney of Jack Hazan's 1974 film A Bigger Splash, which portrays him as an enigmatic flaneur on the boundaries of art and fashion.

With a retrospective of his portraits opening at the National Portrait Gallery in London next month, as well as a show of his Yorkshire landscapes and a new edition of his book Secret Knowledge, it is time to look beyond our current image of a bluff and British David Hockney. A couple of years ago, I went with him to see the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery in London. He had a theory to expound, a new chapter for his book Secret Knowledge, and in front of each picture he showed me why he thinks Caravaggio must have used a camera lucida (an artist's optical aid), constructing his scenes like a film director in the editing suite.

Afterwards, we went to his London home and John made dinner. David Graves, who helped Hockney research Secret Knowledge, came too. More fascinating for me, Gregory Evans, who appears in A Bigger Splash, was there, scrolling through recent Hockney watercolors on a Powerbook screen. The show at the National Portrait Gallery includes Hockney's portraits of this old friend and assistant, including the 1975 drawing Gregory Leaning Nude. As Hockney rolled out a reproduction of a Chinese scroll with an endless landscape that, he pointed out, wonderfully depicts the world without any need for the western invention of perspective, I was really starting to enjoy myself.

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