- - Friday, June 8, 2012

By Marco Livingstone, Margaret Drabble, Tim Barringer, Xavier Salomon, Stuart Comer, Martin Gayford
Abrams, $95, 304 pages, illustrated.

By Christopher Simon Sykes
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $35, 363 pages, illustrated

When Queen Elizabeth II recently named David Hockney to Britain’s prestigious Order of Merit, it was a truly royal accolade but was only the cherry on a magnificent cake that, although well into his 70s, he is continuing to ice vigorously. Founded by the present monarch’s great-grandfather, King Edward VII, the O.M. was designed for those luminaries who did not feel comfortable with a title, but such is its exclusive prestige (limited to 24 people at one time) that Mr. Hockney is one of just a handful of its holders not in possession of what his countrymen refer to as a handle to his name. So one might indeed say he is just the sort of person for whom it was created.

His sovereign’s recognition marks a kind of national welcome home for this Englishman, who for many decades made Southern California his home - and his subject - but recently has returned to his native heath. In her contribution to the essays in “David Hockney: A Bigger Picture,” novelist Margaret Drabble, a fellow Yorkshire native, recalls her first sight of him at Bridlington, where he now lives. She invokes that supreme poet of nostalgia A.E. Housman’s “Home is the sailor from the sea,/the hunter from the hill.”

Indeed, this beautifully produced, handsomely illustrated volume catalogs another recent accolade, by Britain’s Royal Academy, which mounted an exhibition showcasing the amazing series of landscapes Mr. Hockney has produced since returning home.

What a contrast they are to those bright canvases of the swimming pools and palm trees of Los Angeles, with their garish colors and bold presentation that seem to draw inspiration from the shock to his system of encountering such a climate and a light so strikingly different from the English gloom. As Christopher Simon Sykes makes clear in his thorough, graceful account of Mr. Hockney’s first four decades - the first of two planned volumes - the artist found a great deal in America, but more than anything else, he fell in love with Southern California:

“He was endlessly thrilled by what he saw and took inspiration from everything - palm trees, banks, squares and avenues, office blocks, not to mention the weird and wonderful variety of domestic architecture. ‘Los Angeles is the only place in the world’, he says, ‘where the buildings actually make you smile when you drive around.’ “

No wonder he wired a friend soon after his arrival: “Venice California more beautiful than Venice Italy.”

Mr. Hockney’s ability to engage - imaginatively and wholeheartedly - with a variety of milieus is key to the unique nature of his art. As you look at any of the illustrations in these books, you know that only Mr. Hockney could paint something that looks like this. Whether it is the blue Pacific or the gray North Sea, he puts a distinctive stamp on it. Another important factor in the continuing and evolving vibrancy of Mr. Hockney’s oeuvre is his openness to - indeed, his enthusiasm for - new materials and methods.

As art critic Martin Gayford quotes him in his essay in “A Bigger Picture”: “‘Technology always has contributed to art. The brush itself is a piece of technology isn’t it?’ ” adding that “in this typically pithy remark, David Hockney condenses one of his essential insights.” Mr. Sykes notes Mr. Hockney’s enthusiasm for the new acrylics, which did so much to enable his Southern California paintings, and we see the Royal Academy ones (along with his discovery of photography and digital media) as spurs to new forms of creativity.

In his essay for the book, Yale art historian Tim Barringer places Mr. Hockney firmly in a tradition of English painting that harks back to Turner, Ruskin and Constable while noting the influence of French painters like Monet. Biographer Sykes shows how artistic and open to culture both Mr. Hockney’s parents were despite their relatively humble circumstances. He also points to Kenneth Hockney’s militant political views and conscientious objection to supporting the war effort in any way during his son’s infancy as shaping the artist’s evolving attitudes and personality.

But Mr. Hockney has not left California behind altogether: it crops up in numerous paintings in the Academy Exhibition, including the fruits of a recent trip to Yosemite. Whichever way he crosses the Atlantic, Mr. Hockney goes home.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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