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Originally published Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

Hockney bio brings artist to dandified life

Biographer Christopher Simon Sykes delivers the first installment of a biography of British artist David Hockney — a life and personality too big to be covered in just one volume.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'David Hockney: The Biography, 1937-1975'

by Christopher Simon Sykes

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,

363 pp., $35

British artist David Hockney, about to celebrate his 75th birthday, is having quite the career peak.

Earlier this year, the Royal Academy of Arts in London hosted "David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture," covering 50 years of Hockney's landscape painting, with an emphasis on huge new multicanvas pieces he's done of his native Yorkshire, where he returned and settled about eight years ago.

Now photographer-author Christopher Simon Sykes has published "David Hockney: The Biography 1937-1975" (subtitled "A Rake's Progress"), the first installment in a planned two-volume life of Hockney.

Sykes' writing has a real raconteurial flair from the get-go. It helps that, in the early chapters, Hockney's parents provide subject matter almost as lively as anything their son delivers — especially his father, Kenneth, who was a conscientious objector during World War II. While Kenneth's strong moral stances and eccentricities could cause problems for the family, they also clearly liberated his son to forge the path he wanted in terms of his art and his personal life.

Art was all that interested young David from an early age, and it took strong pressure from his parents to make him apply himself in any of his other classes. As for being gay, he had no major worries about it. "I didn't really feel that normal anyway," he explains, "because I'd begun to realise that my talent made me different."

That talent eventually took him to the Royal College of Art in London just as the liberating atmosphere of the 1960s was about to eclipse Britain's lingering postwar gloom. Hockney embraced his freedom and was casually, fearlessly upfront about his homosexuality in his paintings — this, at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in Britain. Humor also marked his work. In "Picture Emphasizing Stillness" (1962), two male nudes, casually chatting, are unaware of a leaping leopard seemingly about to pounce on them. In tiny letters, between the leopard and the men, Hockney inscribes: "They are perfectly safe. This is a still."

That mischievous sensibility made Hockney's provocations go down smoothly with those around him. The more his confidence increased, the more of a dandy he became. But behind the foppery lay a serious work ethic and a spirit of experimentation that led him through varying painting styles and on travels overseas. Sykes vividly covers his time in New York ("a rather confusing city," Hockney wrote home, "as all the streets are absolutely straight") and Los Angeles where, with paintings like "A Bigger Splash" and "Beverly Hills Housewife," he became, in the public's mind, a Californian painter.

Along with Hockney's personal successes and travails (a romance with aspiring artist Peter Schlesinger that foundered when Schlesinger got tired of being known solely as "David Hockney's boyfriend"), Sykes pays close attention to the art. He takes you inside Hockney's head, noting the artist's dissatisfaction with even some of his most highly regarded paintings and recording Hockney's thoughts on such artistic challenges as painting water ("because it can be anything — it can be any colour, it's moveable, it has no set visual description").

Hockney hit a rough patch in the early 1970s when Jack Hazan's documentary about him, "A Bigger Splash," turned out to be as invasive of his private life as it was informative about his art. "A Rake's Progess," however, leaves him on an up note, with his first opera-design commission (for Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress") and ever-growing success with his paintings. Bring on volume two.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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