One of my favorite Hockney pool riffs is his Different Kinds of Water Pouring Into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica (1965). This work turns the subject into something of a cartoon diagram, with unrealistically shaded tubes and pipes moving liquid here and there. Sadly, collectors don’t seem quite as fond of this eccentric take as they are of Hockney’s more straightforward poolside scenes. The painting was bought in at Sotheby’s in 2018 on an ambitious estimate of £6 million to £8 million ($8.3 million to $11.1 million); it returned in 2019, and sold for a more modest £2.7 million ($4.4 million).
When Hockney’s pools are empty, they work as symbols. I can’t be the first to read an expansive poetry into the compositions, a metaphor for the creative process itself: an unbowed diving board waiting for someone to launch from its edge, to puncture the blank canvas of the water. With people involved, the vibe shifts into one of erotic voyeurism, which has its own appeal. Two Boys in a Pool, Hollywood (1965) is a good example, and a testament to a certain kind of decisive moment—when a tan-lined butt crests the pool’s still surface.
What further complicates an easy reading of Hockney’s pool paintings is the fact that some were made using appropriated photographs as their source material. The Splash and A Bigger Splash, for instance, both have their genesis in the cover of a 1959 book about swimming pools. “The wide border of The Splash, which echoes the square format and white frame of a Polaroid image, underlines the fact that this is a painting of a photograph, and not a work from life,” Baker noted.