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Why David Hockney’s Pool Paintings Keep Making a Splash

David Hockney, The Splash, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

David Hockney, The Splash, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A resident of the U.S. who wants a slice of the good life can have an in-ground pool installed in their backyard for as little as $20,000. But that same U.S. resident who merely wants a picture of poolside bliss—painted by no less than British art giant —will need to have closer to $30 million in ready cash.
There are few artists more in-demand than Hockney, who, for a buzzy moment in late 2018 and early 2019, held the title of the most expensive living artist. His Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 clocked $90.3 million at a Christie’s auction in New York; Hockney was knocked off his perch the following year by one of ’s sculptural bunnies. There are few motifs more closely associated with Hockney than the California swimming pool. Hockney’s own personal sales records are tied to pool-related works; the aforementioned Portrait of an Artist is his most expensive painting, while Piscine De Medianoche (Paper Pool 30) (1972) remains his priciest work on paper, having earned $11.7 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2018.
This week, Sotheby’s London is offering The Splash (1966), a 72-square-inch depiction of a classic post-dive moment. All the essentials are there: a diving board; a discretely chic, glass-walled cabana in the background; a flat, blue expanse of water interrupted by the titular splash. Sotheby’s is pushing hard with comparisons to the composition’s near cousins, including A Bigger Splash (1967), which resides at the Tate in London. The auction house has given the painting an estimate of £20 million to £30 million ($25.7 million to $38.6 million); it previously sold at Sotheby’s London in 2006 for £2.9 million ($5.4 million).

David dives in

Installation view of David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images.

Installation view of David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images.

Los Angeles is a city full of people who came from elsewhere, chasing a dream. Hockney was one of them—the artist arrived in 1964, when he was in his late twenties.
“For Hockney, L.A. was a land of possibility, of mid-century modern architecture, beautiful people, and deep-blue pools,” said Emma Baker, Sotheby’s head of evening sales in London. She compared the works from this period to ’s depictions of Tahiti, in that they share a similar “marked sense of the exotic.”
Hockney’s first experiment with the swimming pool motif was painted in 1964. Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool is an interesting, almost minimalist take on the subject. The tangled designs on the bottom of the pool itself make it seem like its own abstract painting-within-the-painting. Everything else is spare, almost an afterthought: a potted plant; some foliage in the background; a blue lounge chair that seems slumped in drunken relaxation. For Hockney pool aficionados, it’s now a classic. While the work earned a relatively modest $610,750 when it sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2001, it ended up back on the block with the house in 2019—this time, racking up an astounding $7.2 million.
Sometimes Hockney’s pool pictures have people in them; more often, they don’t. I’d argue that it’s the emptier compositions that are the more intriguing: all that sunny, cheerful ambience, yet oddly deserted. Works like The Splash and A Bigger Splash, of course, are presumably populated—it’s just that the people are underwater, hidden from view.
Consider Rubber Ring With Swimming Pool, from 1971. We see the edge of the pool; the water, rippling with bubbles; and a bright, pared-down flotation device drifting across the surface. We’re no longer in the realm of lazy glamour. Ben Davis, in an extended appreciation of the work, compared it to a moment in the film The Graduate (1967), fraught with psychological baggage: “Hockney’s aqueous, sun-kissed world has become an image stared into so intensely that disassociation has set in,” Davis said.

Dark waters

Davis isn’t the only critic to plumb a certain unease in these pictures of watery leisure. Pace Gallery’s Douglas Baxter pointed to the writings of art historian Martin Hammer in Burlington Magazine, who connected Hockney’s interest in the swimming pool to its appearance in a wider constellation of fraught cultural references, from The Great Gatsby (1925) to Sunset Boulevard (1950).
“I think David is a more complex artist than he is sometimes given credit for—there is, at the very least, ambiguity in the imagery,” Baxter said. “[In the ‘splash’ paintings] there’s no one there except someone who just disappeared into the water. There’s no chaise inviting you to relax by the pool. There are no trees, but there are what appear to be cacti.” The Splash might depict a laid-back utopia, or there could be more complicated emotions afoot.
“It’s a clear and sunny day, but there is perhaps as much anomie as luxe, calme, et volupté,” Baxter added, meaning “luxury, calm, and voluptuousness”—a reference to the painting that kickstarted Fauvism and the line from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857) from which Matisse took the title.
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.

Rippling outward

Beyond the white cube, Hockney’s depictions of poolside ease have sunk into our broader visual culture.
“Before Hockney, there wasn’t really a defined image of Southern California, and his paintings of the mid-1960s utterly encapsulated the carefree Californian ideal,” Baker said. “It became part of the whole swinging ’60s, and the California dreaming fantasy that lasted throughout the 1960s and into the early ’70s.” Hockney’s sunny visions, she said, have also cast a long influence on painters from to and .
Ultimately, though, it would be a mistake to only appreciate the upbeat surface of these pool paintings (though one would imagine some collectors are drawn to precisely that surface). Hockney may have been conjuring a certain generational vibe and mood hanging in the Southern Californian air, but he was also working out some deeper, painterly concerns.
“I think a lot of Hockney’s work from 1963 to 1967 is a critique of abstraction,” said Dr. Chris Stephens, current director of the Holburne Museum in Bath, who curated a major Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain in 2017. The strip of unpainted canvas surrounding the central image of The Splash and A Bigger Splash, he added, “emphasizes the fact that what you’re looking at is a made thing, not a view, not an illusion. The paint sits as a square pattern on the bare canvas, just as a abstract sits on the canvas. It’s like Hockney takes a cool abstract, turns bits of it into representational elements, and then subverts the whole thing by meticulously painting the splash.”
The paintings, meanwhile, have a life beyond their critical praise and auction prices. They have graduated from masterpiece to meme, parodied by cartoons like BoJack Horseman or deconstructed by younger artists like , who rebooted Hockney’s iconography, adding in the poorly paid domestic laborers who make Californian life so easy for the wealthy. Regardless of how one interprets these iconic works, Hockney will surely remain forever linked to the pool in the public imagination.
Scott Indrisek is a contributing writer for Artsy.