When David Hockney began his career, figurative painting was considered old hat and even retrogressive. The assumption in advanced circles was that abstraction was wholly superior, raising large, lofty questions about the essence of painting instead of getting bogged down in the picayune details of postwar life. What possible wisdom could be gleaned from a painting that depicts a palm tree, for instance, or the glistening turquoise of a backyard swimming pool?
Hockney, who is often described as Britain’s most celebrated living artist, has painted those precise subjects and is well aware of the suspicions of triviality his work can arouse. Sitting in his studio in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, he recalls an amusing snub. He was visiting a gallery in New York, when he bumped into critic Clement Greenberg, abstract art’s most vociferous defender. “He was with his eight-year-old daughter,” Hockney remembers, “and he told me that I was her favourite artist. I don’t know if that was a put-down. I suspect it was.” He laughed softly, then adds in his gravelly, Yorkshire-inflected voice, “I thought I was a peripheral artist, really.”
Nowadays, in an age when the choice between abstraction and figuration is dismissed as a false dichotomy, and when younger artists imbue their work with once-taboo narrative and autobiography, Hockney is an artist of unassailable relevance. One suspects we will see as much when a full-dress retrospective of his work opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November. An agile, inquisitive draughtsman inclined to careful observation, he has always culled his subjects from his immediate surroundings. His art acquaints us with his parents, his friends and boyfriends, the rooms he has lived in, the landscapes he knows and loves, and his dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley. He is probably best-known for his double portraits from the Sixties and his scenes of American leisure, the sunbathers and swimming pools that can have a strange stillness about them, capturing the eternal sunshine of the California mind with an incisiveness that perhaps only an expatriate (or Joan Didion) could muster.
In the 1960s, Hockey was easy to recognise, a boyish figure with an apple-round face, a mop of blond hair and his trademark owlish glasses. Nowadays, at 80, he has grey hair, and he wears a hearing aid in each ear. “Every time I lie down, I have to take them out because they fall out…