... but isn't this a fair price for a great painting?
A year ago at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction in New York, the art world held it's breath as the hammer went down on David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool and Two Figures) at $80 million ($90.3 including fees), making it the most expensive artwork by a living artist. This year, the highest estimated lot in the same sale was - yet again - a painting by David Hockney. This time the estimate was a relatively measly $25-45 million. 'Sur la Terrasse' sold just within estimate in the fall auction for $29,501,250 (hammering down at $25,750,000). But frankly, for me, this is neither a surprise nor a disappointment, and is both a painting and an auction price the artist and seller should be pleased with.
The evening sale started with a bang, with the Rashid Johnson and Adrian Ghenie pieces over-doubling their top estimates in the first three lots. And the star of this year's show was, in fact, Ed Ruscha's 'Hurting the Word Radio #2'. The painting which held the second highest estimate in the sale rocketed to $46 million ($52,485,000 with fees), over its $40 million top estimate.
With such a promising start, hopes were high. The bidding on the Hockney started at $18 million and quickly rocketed to $23 million, before spluttering in $250,000 increments up to a just-respectable $25,750,000. Although within estimate, the painting fell short of its predictions, surprising in a room where the excitement was palpable.
So why was this Hockney so comparatively low versus last year's much-talked about piece? In last year's blog post on the record-breaking painting I discussed its importance in terms of the rafts of literature about the piece, key exhibitions it had appeared in, and the fact that it was a monumental piece that brought together two of the artist's most iconic themes: the double portrait and the pool.
This year's Hockney just didn't quite match up in any of these departments. It has many mentions in literature, but has rarely been shown. In fact, it has been in private hands and therefore hadn't been seen in public for 45 years before this auction. Oftentimes, this is a selling point, and one that was mentioned by the auctioneer during the sale. But the world - art or otherwise - does not recognise this piece as it does 'Portrait of an Artist'. And while the feel of the painting is not vastly different, the subject matter is. There is one lone, but recognisable figure of Hockney's former lover Peter Schlesinger, who, incidentally, is pretty bored of being the subject of these high profile paintings. It is set in a bright and beautiful background, reminiscent of Los Angeles, but actually of Marrakesh. The piece itself is not too far off the monumental size of 'Portrait', at just 30cm smaller. It is large, beautiful, and contains sought-after motifs in the artist's oeuvre. But it just doesn't quite cut it. Or does it?
In the coming days I expect to see press saying that this result is 'measly', or 'falls short', but (despite the autumnal pun), this is harsh and frankly incorrect. Before last November's sale, Hockney's auction record was $28.5m. In short, a year ago, this would have been his highest priced painting ever. It is fair to say that 'Sur la Terrasse' is just not quite as iconic, not quite as large, not quite as detailed, not quite as famous, and not quite as well marketed as 'Portrait of an Artist'. People expected this piece to sell well, but it didn't have the hype of the last piece. And rightly so. This is not a painting that has performed below-par, but it proves that last year's record was an anomaly; an exceptional price for an exceptional painting, and the best example of David Hockney's work we will ever see.