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David Hockney is having a moment—50 years in the making

Staying relevant is a struggle for any artist, but doing so across five decades is next to impossible. What makes David Hockney an exception to the norm? "He's a genius," says author Christopher Simon Sykes. "Everything he does has a freshness about it."

With constant innovation and experimentation in media, Hockney has been an art-world star since appearing in the 1961 Royal Society of British Artists blockbuster exhibition, Young Contemporaries. Two recent documentaries, a solo show at London's Royal Academy of Arts, and a brand new biography--David Hockney: A Rake's Progress, penned by Sykes--show that Hockney's as fresh as the flowers he's taken to painting on his iPad.

"He's got such staying power because he's always moving forward," says Sykes, whose anecdote-fueled, exhaustively researched book explores the first half of Hockney's life (a second installment is planned for 2014).

From humble beginnings in Yorkshire to art school in London and then to the U.S., Rake's Progress chronicles Hockney's bohemian adventures and love affairs. Sykes deftly weaves together his artistic contributions--including early paintings graffitied with homosexual codes--and sardonic humor. On painting the writer W. H. Auden, Hockney told Sykes, "I kept thinking, If his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?"

Rake's Progress ends in 1975 with two important events in Hockney's life: the disintegration of his relationship with long-time lover Peter Schlesinger and his own exploration of art beyond the canvas. Fearful that he'd become known as a society portraitist, Hockney began focusing on photography and photo collage, exploring Cubist notions of movement. In 1989, he faxed his contribution to the Sao Paulo Biennial to be printed out and assembled.

Hockney returned to painting in 2005, after moving from Los Angeles back to his native Yorkshire, and has been creating landscapes "at the remarkable rate of almost a canvas a day," says Bruno Wollheim in his 2009 documentary,David Hockney: A Bigger Picture.

This prodigious output forms the basis for David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, the solo show at the Royal Academy, whichincludes more than 150 works, a third of which Hockney created using the Brushes app. "The landscapes that he's doing now are intensely romantic," Sykes says. "I think he loves the beauty of England."

The Yorkshire landscapes hark back to the Shoreham Ancients, artist devotees to William Blake's epic prophetic book, Jerusalem. But Hockney isn't looking back. "I'm not in the mood for reflection," he told Sykes, before authorizing the biography. "I've got too much to look forward to."

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture through April 9 at the Royal Academy in London.

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