Why This Painting Will Make David Hockney the Most Expensive Living Artist
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Courtesy of Christie’s.
For the last five years, the title of most expensive living artist has been held by Jeff Koons, and was won at Christie’s in November 2013 when his 12-foot-tall sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) sold for $58.4 million with fees. The work, which had been consigned by Peter Brant, smashed the $37 million record for a living artist set by Gerhard Richter just months earlier.
But, if all goes to plan, Koons will be unseated next Thursday by the British-born, Los Angeles–based artist David Hockney, whose Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) is expected to sell for as much as $80 million during Christie’s post-war and contemporary art evening sale. Such a result for the large double portrait would nearly triple Hockney’s current record of $28.4 million, set this spring by Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990). It would also mark the fourth new auction record for Hockney set in the last two years, amidst a major traveling retrospective of his work.
Art historians and market participants spoken to for this story agreed that a groundswell of interest in Hockney’s work and leveling up of his place in art history has spurred increased supply of great paintings by the artist on the market, while also broadening demand among the most elite collectors. In an art market driven by trophies, Portrait of an Artist is quite possibly the best Hockney of all.
“Hockney is one of the last living artists of his generation who had art-historical relevance,” said Alex Rotter, chairman of the post-war and contemporary art department at Christie’s. “Hockney was always liked, he was present at auction, but he did not have prices that reflected his relevance in art history. Just three, four years back, his prices were average; $8 million for a very major painting. Compared to Bacon, to Freud, to Warhol, to Lichtenstein, his prices never moved up.”
Rotter said that this all changed on the coattails of Hockney’s wildly successful retrospective, which broke attendance records at Tate Britain and prominently featured Portrait of an Artist. He said that when the work hits the auction block on November 15th, he won’t be looking for bids from Hockney loyalists, but rather the kinds of mega-collectors who have made $100 million canvases a routine fixture of Christie’s evening sales in recent years.
“I’m not looking at, like, deep Hockney collectors, I’m looking for collectors of iconic works by iconic artists,” he said.
Hockney’s double portraits are among his most well-known series, the works’ life-sized figures always posed in a manner meant to evoke a palpable, simmering tension. This particular double portrait also has the ultimate Hockney hallmark: a glistening, cerulean-blue California pool.
“It’s one of those unique situations when everyone kind of agrees—critics, historians, marketplace people—that this is the painting that 9 out of 10 people would choose,” Rotter said. In a self-aware nod to auction houses’ propensity for hyperbole, he added, “We always say ‘this is the best’ or ‘this is the greatest,’ but here, I think there’s real stamina to this expression. This is one of his great paintings.”
It’s also a painting that was inspired by chance, and, just two months ahead of its first show, had to be started again from scratch.
David Hockney at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of an Artist was spawned in 1971, when two unrelated photos happened to land next to each other on the floor of Hockney’s studio. One was a picture of a man in a pool in Hollywood. The other was a boy looking at the ground. The way they had fallen, it looked as though the boy was staring at the man in the pool. Hockney was in the midst of his phase of painting two figures, which started when he painted the novelist Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy, and he found this serendipitous coupling an ideal next duo.
“The idea of once again painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately,” Hockney wrote in his 1988 autobiography, David Hockney by David Hockney: My Early Years.
But the effort was in vain. After months of work on the double portrait, Hockney realized the the way the pool was angeled was wrong—it had to be horizontal with the lower edge of the painting, not slanted, and so the work had to be scrapped.
“Throwing away six months is terrible,” Hockney has said about the decision, but having realized his error, he had no choice. “I couldn’t alter the water section and it was impossible to adjust it, so I decided to repaint the picture completely.”
There were only two months to go until his New York dealer, André Emmerich, was opening a show of his new work, so a feverish sprint to the finish line ensued. Hockney went to film director Tony Richardson’s house in the South of France with his studio assistant, as well as the photographer John St. Clair, and took pictures of St. Clair in Richardson’s swimming pool. The model for the figure peering over him would be Hockney’s former lover Peter Schlesinger, serving as muse to the artist one last time. Hockney shot him in London’s Kensington Gardens wearing that popping salmon-pink jacket, and then combined the image with that of St. Clair swimming in the pool with the Mediterranean landscape behind him. He worked on the painting 18 hours a day, for two weeks straight, in order to get it in the show.
“I literally finished the painting the night before it had to be sent off to the exhibition,” Hockney said.
Hockney biographer Christopher Simon Sykes wrote that the work was “undoubtedly” the “star of the exhibition.” The critic and curator Henry Geldzahler was also quick to recognize the importance of Portrait of an Artist to Hockney’s career, reading the title as a deeply personal commentary on the artist’s relationship with Schlesinger.
“David is giving Peter his birthright, his mess of pottage—he’s calling him an artist,” Geldzahler wrote. “It’s difficult to have your progeny learn to fly. And I think for David this is a very important painting psychologically because it gives Peter dignity, allowing him to be the artist that he is.”
Emmerich sold the work to an American collector for $18,000 (or roughly $110,000 when adjusted for inflation); that collector quickly flipped the work to an English collector for three times as much, according to Sykes’s biography (Christie’s lists the first owner as the London-based collectors Mr. and Mrs. James Astor).
Decades later, the work entered the collection of David Geffen, the entertainment billionaire, who installed it in his Malibu house, where Architectural Digest shot it for the magazine’s cover in July 1988. Geffen then sold the work to its current owner, the British-born, Bahamas-based financier Joe Lewis. While Christie’s declined to reveal the identity of the consignor, Lewis loaned the work in 2014 to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and in 2017, to Hockney’s traveling retrospective at Tate Britain, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Centre Pompidou.
Just five double portraits could be secured for the Tate and Met legs of the tour, and six for the Pompidou. Ian Alteveer, the curator at the Met who oversaw that museum’s presentation of the retrospective, praised the series for the works’ ability to convey “the tension and energy in the relationships between two people.”
“They are amazing in the sense that they are almost full scale,” Alteveer said. “The figures confront you, the viewer, with their presence in the gallery, and the emotional content is quite tangible, as well.”
Alteveer and Rotter agreed that the composite nature of Portrait of an Artist—with different parts of the painting based on pictures taken in Los Angeles, the South of France, and London—gives it a fantastical or dreamlike feel that makes the canvas distinct from the other double portraits.
“When you look at all of them, from an art history perspective, they’re all as relevant as the other ones,” Rotter said. “In terms of the one that we have, this happens to be, for me, the most beautiful of all of them. It’s very rare that the art-historical terminology fits with the aesthetic terminology.”
He added: “A lot of times, the most important painting of an artist is not the easiest to access.”
Rotter is confident that multiple bidders will push the work’s price to at least $80 million—perhaps more—despite the lack of a guarantee as a safety net. He said the $80 million price point rightly places Hockney alongside fellow post-war titans such as Cy Twombly, whose record of $70.5 million was set in 2015, and Mark Rothko, whose $86.9 million record came in 2012. The Christie’s team considered both the current heat of the auction market for post-war and contemporary art—which hit a high of $6.2 billion last year, according to a report by Art Basel and UBS—and Hockney’s own growing significance in coming up with what it felt was a fair price, Rotter said.
“We can justify it from the quality of the painting, and where the market for masterpieces is,” he said. “One-fifty would be too much; 40 would be too little.”