David Hockney’s pool with Two Figures fetches $90.3 million at auction

POSTED: Friday, November 16, 2018



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On the 15th of November, David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million, becoming the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction. This historic event occurred at Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening, part of a much celebrated biannual marquee art auction in New York. Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist was the main event. A packed sales room (standing room only!) erupted into applause after a nine-minute bidding battle, dominated by two telephone rivals and one by an anonymous bidder. 




Hockney In Kensington Gardens 



The piece, recently described by Alex Rotter, co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s as "one of the great masterpieces of the modern era” was originally sold for just $20,000 in 1972. Today it fetched three-times Hockney’s previous auction record of $28.4 million for "Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica”. An iconic combination of two of Hockney’s favourite motifs, it is one of his most recognisable and best-loved images. It is also a work of passion, the product of a pained perfectionist and a true labour of love. 



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David Hockney is beloved and respected as one of the great British artists of the twentieth century. A pioneer of the pop-art movement, Hockney experimentation with colour, has inspired great art globally since the 1960s. His Portrait of an artist is an iconic example of his two great themes, swimming pools and double portraits, it also encapsulates the struggle and passion of a great love lost. 



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In the 1960s and fresh out of art school, Hockney celebrated and explored his sexuality through art during a period when gay sex was illegal in the UK. This courage is a fundamental part of his art. This very painting is a product of a vibrant love affair and a broken heart. In 1966, Hockney met Peter Schlesinger and experienced his first true love until 1971. His devastation in 1972 led to an extraordinarily prolific period, in which he found his only solace in painting. “For about three months I was painting fourteen, fifteen hours a day. There was nothing else I wanted to do. It was a way of coping with life.’



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Portrait of an Artist came about from a chance juxtaposition of two photographs on Hockney’s studio floor in 1971. Hockney recalls one image of a ‘figure swimming underwater and therefore quite distorted… the other was a boy gazing at something on the ground,’ Hockney later reminisced, ‘the idea of painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately.’ However, after months of working and reworking this first attempt, it was eventually destroyed by the artist. 




Hockney In Studio


With only two months until a planned exhibition at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York, Hockney worked 18 hour days for two weeks solid, finishing this labour of love the night before it was due to be shipped across the Atlantic! He recalls, ’I must admit I loved working on that picture… working with such intensity; it was marvellous doing it, really thrilling.’ This great work, into which Hockney poured a broken heart, is a true tribute to his passion as a painter and as a man in love. 



David Hockney Exhibit Pool And Steps Le Nid Du Duc 71A22



Hockney’s fascination with swimming pools began nearly 60 years ago, inspired by his first trip to LA. In his words, ‘I looked down to see blue swimming pools all over, and I realised that a swimming pool in England would have been a luxury, whereas here they are not.’ The abundance of LA’s swimming pools became the bountiful subject of his major works from the 60s and 70s, and the idyllic setting for his exploration of the male form. 



Hockney St Tropez Pool



However, as in this painting, it was a technical struggle and journey that led to the playful and evocative paintings we love. ‘It is an interesting formal problem; it is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything. It can be any colour and it has no set visual description,’ Hockney has said. In this piece, the contrast between the two figures is fascinating, the abstract an patterned style of the pool separating the dream world experienced by the swimmer from that of the fully clothed viewer. 



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Today, aged 81 Hockney paints for around seven hours a day, it remains his great love and passion. He told Channel 4, painting is "all I want to do now at my age. That's all I care about,… when I paint, I feel I'm 30. It's only when I stop I feel my age!”. The playful, colourful and technically brilliant painting is emblematic of Hockney’s vibrant, joyful and deeply committed love for art.