A man of the wold

 Hockney: The Biography Volume 1 19371975, A Rake’s Progress, by Christopher Simon Sykes, Century, RRP£25, 363 pages

David Hockney My Yorkshire: Conversations with Marco Livingstone, Enitharmon, RRP£30, 84 pages

A Bigger Message:Conversations with David Hockney, by Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, RRP£18.95, 248 pages

Literary vultures – erudite, cultured, polite, but in for the kill – are inevitable courtiers to an ageing celebrity artist in the 21st century. They hovered about Lucian Freud and Cy Twombly before their deaths this year and, absorbing gossip, hoping for revelations, nudging towards archives that will unlock biographical treasures, they surround David Hockney now. His canny, charming triumph, as related in these three volumes, is to deflect and tame the lot of them.

English class, global sex and the creation of some of postwar art’s most iconic images make Hockney an irresistible subject. In a rush to coincide with a major Royal Academy exhibition next month, all the authors here have got him to talk – yet only in conversations where he is the guiding, controlling, unchallengeable voice.

Hockney winds Martin Gayford, an experienced interviewer who mastered Freud in last year’s Man with a Blue Scarf, and Marco Livingstone, an old friend, round his little finger. In different ways, their books are manifestos for his enthusiasms and mythologising. More coolly, he also conquers his first biographer, Christopher Simon Sykes, a magazine journalist he has known slightly since the 1960s. The 20 hours of interviews the artist granted Sykes are recycled to shape A Rake’s Progress – part one of the biography – so definitively that the book reads almost as if Hockney had dictated it.

The result is as prodigiously entertaining as it is short on critical insight. Swinging London; counterculture California; a Mayfair gallery whose receptionist “liked to measure [her bosses’] penises during the office break”; Berkeley youth hostels where “as soon as they heard the shower going, there would be two or three other guys who’d come and join you and you got what you wanted pretty quickly. I just thought this was amazing. This is America”: what a terrific rake’s progress the young Bradford bombshell enacted en route from grey austerity Britain to sun, space and boys on the Pacific coast.

Sykes splendidly evokes each backdrop, from smoky Methodist 1930s Yorkshire where Hockney’s parents, vegetarian Laura Thompson and pacifist Kenneth Hockney, met on a weekend ramble on the moors, to the 24-hour champagne and LSD party celebrating Hockney’s sets for a Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress in 1975, which concludes this first volume.

Born in 1937, Hockney had an unusual war childhood, conditioned by his ostracised conscientious objector father. Jobless but resourceful, imaginative, impervious to convention or mockery – all traits inherited by his son – Kenneth set up in the cellar of the family home reconditioning prams and bicycles. Alongside, Hockney drew and watched: “It is a marvellous thing to dip a brush into paint and make marks on anything, even on a bicycle ... he’d put silver paint on the wheels, but the one thing I remember was he’d paint a straight line down the bar ... I thought: incredible that you can make a straight line like that with just your eye. It’s like watching Michelangelo draw a circle.”

Like his Yorkshire contemporary Alan Bennett, Hockney’s good fortune was to hit education just when the welfare state opened undreamed-of possibilities to gifted, working-class boys. He won a grammar school scholarship, a place at Bradford College of Art, then moved in 1959 to the Royal College of Art. Initially shy and broke in London – he lived in a garden shed with no water, taking baths in a sink in the college studio – he was quickly noticed as a draughtsman of genius. On day one Ron Kitaj “spotted this boy with short black hair and huge glasses, wearing a boilersuit, making the most beautiful drawing I’d ever seen in an art school. I told him I’d give him five quid for it.”

His teachers took longer to appreciate Hockney’s fresh, witty figuration. “Well, I hope they don’t get any closer than that!” was senior tutor Roger de Grey’s only comment on the blocky figures, sparest articulations of the human form, in the early masterpiece “We Two Boys Together Clinging”. But before he left college, Hockney was signed by John Kasmin, louche dealer at the heart of bohemian London. “I knew I had a star on my hands straightaway,” says Kasmin, “though David did not have a big head. He was neither a boaster nor did he expect things. He took it all with great ease and grace.”

Hockney is the most popular living British artist because he dovetails that laconic modesty with optimism and once-in-a-generation virtuosity – facility of line and stroke, easy anchoring of figures in space, acute observations unobtrusively nuanced – to create bright, stylised, recognisable pictorial worlds. The deadpan, deliciously abstracted surfaces of “A Bigger Splash”, “Beverly Hills Housewife” and “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” look as deceptively effortless as Matisse’s. They are also as deeply concerned with questions about picture-making, as well as with fixing moment – the celebration of space, light, time – and epoch: the rewriting of the 1960s emotional landscape.

Sykes is a biographer, not an art historian, but in ducking analysis of such major works in favour of banal narrative he squanders a signal opportunity. Hockney “put blood sweat and tears” into his famous portrait “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy”, Sykes tells us, but the work is dispatched in a paragraph with scant explanation. “A Bigger Splash” is summed up merely as “a mesmerising depiction of order and chaos”. Meanwhile appearing on Radio 4 was “incredibly exciting”, and on holiday “the weather was warm and sunny, the food was delicious, and everyone lazed around .. falling under Carennac’s magical spell”. Even Hockney’s single emotional trauma in this volume, the break with his first boyfriend Peter Schlesinger, reads like a ripple on calm water.

One voice alone counterbalances the smooth tones: Sykes has exceptional access to Laura Hockney’s diaries. Her loving, wondering, increasingly out-of-sync comments (“Only I pray will he keep good and use his gifts for the world’s good”) not only form an ironic subtext, but tell a psychological truth – Laura probably was a constant presence in her son’s head. Like many great artists – Whistler, Chagall, Gorky, de Kooning – Hockney had a particularly intense relationship with his mother. Although her dominating presence perhaps drove him overseas – four of Laura’s five children chose to live on different continents from her – he returned frequently to visit, and when she died aged 98 in 1999, he said that until that day he had always known where she was and that he could speak to her.

Not until after her death was he able to return to live in England – and to take command of his native landscape in paint. His volte-face from California’s unlikely poster boy to East Yorkshire’s even less likely one has been dramatic. Since 2004, Hockney has obsessively depicted the rolling hills of the Yorkshire wolds around his Bridlington seaside home in monumental oils – notably the 12-metre, 50-canvas “Bigger Trees Near Warter”, shown at the Royal Academy in 2007 – and, increasingly, in iPhone and iPad drawings, and using camera, video and digital technology.

This body of work is the subject of the beautifully produced David Hockney: My Yorkshire, which includes top-quality reproductions of an entire series building up to “Bigger Trees”, and of enormous canvases such as the six-metre magenta-gold–blue “Winter Timber” and the lush high summer “The Road to Thwing”, alongside two lengthy interviews. The first rhapsodises the big skies and empty vistas of this “very very unchanged bit of England”, endorsed by Livingstone: “I’ve known you for 28 years now and I’ve seen your ups and downs ... and the whole time you have been up here you have been really buoyant.” The crazier second one documents recent twists in Hockney’s love-hate affair with photography.

Easy mastery always drives Hockney to seek new media; fascinated with the nature of image-making – “I make images. I’ve made memorable images, quite a few. Most people haven’t made any” – he enjoys, too, investigating how technologies help artists. Returning to Yorkshire in 2004, he announced a “photographic detox”; but now he is making videos using nine cameras to multiply perspective, and proposing Caravaggio’s early camera use.

This story tumbles out with nothing-to-lose bravado – Hockney has “just pulled the ground from under [the] feet” of museum experts; his 18-screen videos will outdo television (“We’re very aware that we’re very early with these nine cameras ... what we’ve made is fantastic ... Anybody who uses a video camera will have to go and look ... ”). And by the way, “a lot will blow up soon: financial, political, artistic perhaps, which I think might be rather good. Because ... the only thing now about art is that it’s worth a lot of money. That’s all it does.”

An old man’s tale? Yes – and one poignant in the context of the actual works shown here, homages to the seasons, cycles of growth, decay, regeneration, which recall in theme late Twombly, late Poussin. Trust the paintings not the painter – the more so because this painter manipulates his public persona intriguingly, shape-shifting from Livingstone’s apocalyptic hustler to a gentler sage in Gayford’s A Bigger Message.

Hockney raises his idées fixes with Gayford too, but with more consideration and restraint, because the emphasis here is on the long art-historical view. Gayford opens with a chapter called “Turner with an iPhone”; Hockney enthuses about his iPad, saying: “Van Gogh would have loved it. He could have written his letters on it as well ... Picasso would have gone mad with this.” The book is illustrated with boldly flowing iPad pictures – interiors, an ashtray, a night sky, Hockney’s naked foot beside a slipper. “Van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling,” Hockney believes, “a rundown bathroom or a frayed carpet.” His iPad drawings, transforming mundane subjects, recall Van Gogh’s sketches in his daily letters.

Presumably to emphasise such quotidian intensity, Gayford laboriously evokes their interviews’ mises-en-scène (“Hockney suggested it was time for coffee”; “As I turned into Dering Street I saw Hockney standing on the pavement having a cigarette”) and even phone communications (“I was sitting in a West End restaurant ... when embarrassingly but fortunately fairly quietly my mobile telephone rang ... It said ‘David Hockney Missed Call: David Hockney Voice Mail)”. It is a device I find infuriating, and which sits clumsily with the gravitas that both artist and writer seek.

For what makes this book essential to Hockney studies are the revelations emerging through discussions of artists past. “The best form of living I’ve ever seen is Monet’s,” says Hockney. “All he did was look at his lily pond. After painting all those years, he would have systems in his head. I assume he went with a question, and found the answer ... I’m just going to look at this. How do you really see the clouds reflected in the water? ... If you don’t have a question in mind, there’s far too much to look at.” For Giverny in 1900, surely, read the Yorkshire Wolds in 2011.

Is Hockney an old-fashioned, too-late modernist? Or a vital conduit connecting 19th and 21st-century sensibilities? Pop pioneer, pictorial innovator, new media experimenter? A position in art history is secure, yet his exact role is still being defined – and of course he wants a hand in negotiating it. All the accounts here contribute something interesting and distinctive but the bigger picture of this extravagantly original artist will be impossible to fix within his lifetime.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.