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Hockney Makes a Splash with $90.3 Million Sale to Become World’s Most Expensive Living Artist

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool and Two Figures), 1972, Acrylic on canvas, 213.5 x 305 cm (courtesy of Christie's)

Just minutes ago, at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction in New York, 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. Overtaking Jeff Koons’ Bubble Dog (Orange),which sold for $58.4 million (including fees), this sale over tripled Hockney’s previous record of $28.4 million set in April this year.

The sale got off to an exuberant start, with the first lot – a Philip Guston graphite on paper – hammering at $2.6 million – over five times its high estimate. My personal favourite, the Alexander Calder mobile, 21 Feuilles Blanches, at lot 5, then smashed its estimate of $5-8 million, hammering at a very well-deserved $15.7 million (over $17.5 million with fees).

the sale room was buzzing with anticipation. The fact that the painting was up for sale with no guarantee or reserve – and therefore at a considerable risk, and with no starting price to speak of – made the tension all the more palpable. [For a fantastic analysis on the pros, cons and potential reasons behind this, check out this great Artnet article].

The bidding began at $20 million, and rapidly rose to $70 million. And then it stalled. Cue slightly awkward water drinking. For a painting that has been tipped to get towards nine figures, even having broken the record, it all got a little tense. For almost six minutes, we went very slowly up in $1 million increments until the final hammer at $80 million. The auctioneer did a sterling job to bully the buyers up to exactly on estimate. A little disappointing for those of us that wanted nine figures, but a fantastic result nonetheless.

Why So Special?

Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist depicts his former lover, Peter Schlesinger, standing on the edge of a pool, staring down at a swimming figure, with a background of rich green mountains and vegetation. The contrast of the naturalistically rendered background and man and the patterned, almost abstract suggestion of a swimmer are somehow united by a modernist flattening of certain areas. The vibrant colours, tactile surfaces and pleasing patterns make this painting aesthetically beautiful, and successfully capture the ripples and reflections made by the water. The composition itself was accidental: with two separate photographs – that of a swimmer and of a boy looking down at the ground – falling next to each other. By chance, the boy seemed to be looking down at the swimmer in the pool, and the idea of two different styles in one image emerged. However, it was not this simple, with Hockney having to re-stage both scenes – one in his friend’s pool in St Tropez, and the other with his ex-lover in Kensington Gardens – and merge images. The finished article was so important to him that he only finished the piece hours before the exhibition in which it was to be shown, after abandoning six months of work on a first attempt. The full story of how the painting was created, in all its physical and emotional glory, is a riveting one, and told brilliantly by Christie’s in this feature.

Film still from A Bigger Splash, 1974, as Hockney worked tirelessly to finish the piece hours before it was to be exhibited. Photo: Jack Hazan / Buzzy Enterprises Ltd. Artwork: © David Hockney

Why so important?

This painting is arguably the most important and iconic of Hockney’s works to ever come up for auction. The centrepiece for many recent and historical shows, it has been displayed at Tate Britain, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Centre Georges Pompidou, to name but a few. It is featured in numerous books, articles and exhibition catalogues, and there are very few art collectors or enthusiasts that do not know of its existence.

In this piece, two of Hockney’s most iconic themes emerge, together: the double portrait and the Californian pool (although this one is actually in St Tropez). It is imbued with his famous vivid, joyful colours and highly recognisable mixture of three-dimension and surface flatness. The story behind it is of love, loss and despair, behind a screen of joy and hedonism. In short, it has everything you could ever want from a Hockney painting.

The sale also follows a touring retrospective of his work, which broke attendance records at Tate Britain. This, the fourth price record to break in two years, shows he is now recognised as a tour de force, and now collected by not only Hockney enthusiasts, but the big collectors: those who want iconic pieces that are part of art history. If we compare him to Mark Rothko ($86.9 million record in 2012), and Cy Twombly ($70.5 million record in 2015), we could argue that he has been under-priced for such a prevalent artist, and therefore a new record has been on the cards for some time.

What does this mean for the art market as a whole? Well frankly, not a huge amount. It shows some of the biggest collectors are taking notice of living artists, and that finally Hockney is being positioned as a post-war great. If I was advising a client, I would tell them it was a good deal. In fact, if they love the piece, $100 million in my eyes would have been a good deal. It is highly unlikely to drop in price upon the artist’s death, and could potentially break more records as time goes by. But one thing is for sure: amidst the Brexit chaos and uncertainty, it has shown us that the best of British is still a force to be reckoned with.

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