Described as “one of the greatest masterpieces of the modern era”, David Hockney’s Portrait of An Artist (Pool with Two Figures) has become the most valuable work of art by a living artist sold at auction. The painting fetched a monumental $90m (£70m) at auction in Christie’s, New York, on the 15th of November. The new record topples its predecessor, Balloon Dog (Orange), a stainless-steel sculpture by Jeff Koons which sold for $58m (£45m) in 2013.
The immense sum of money the piece sold for is unsurprising given Hockney’s importance to contemporary art and that Portrait of An Artist is largely considered one of his most iconic works. The 1972 painting, measuring a striking 213.5cm x 305cm, is the culmination of a variety of themes and iconographies Hockney explored in the years leading up to it.
Many of Hockney’s pieces in the 1960s and early 1970s revolve around common images, motifs and themes, and it is the combination of these in Portrait of An Artist that makes the painting so significant. Images of pools, like the one that takes centre stage in Portrait of An Artist, frequent a great number of his works, with iridescent water surfaces and wide-open landscapes full of light. Such paintings were widely interpreted as representing a social optimism concerning the opposing ways of living in the UK versus in other places like LA and Southern California, and especially in respect to the artist’s homosexuality (something highly stigmatised at the time of its painting).
Hockney’s double portraits are hailed as masterpieces for the way they shed light on the complexity and intricacies of human relationships, and are littered with references to Hockney’s extensive knowledge of the history of art. The two figures in Portrait of An Artist are an anonymous man in the pool and Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s partner and muse, stood looking down at him. Portrait of An Artist is the only piece by Hockney to combine both his pool paintings and his double portraits.
Other factors had similarly prophesised the significance of the piece; the painting was the poster of Tate Britain’s retrospective of Hockney’s work, David Hockney: 60 Years of Work, the Tate Britain’s most visited exhibition ever. The exhibition was a retrospective of 60 years of the artist’s work, ordered in chronological order to trace the development of Hockney’s work throughout his career, and almost 35,000 tickets were sold before the opening, more advance tickets than have been sold for any other exhibition.
More than just well-deserved, it feels almost inevitable that Portrait of An Artist, compounding all the things that illustrate Hockney’s artistic mastery, is the painting which has created a new record in the art world. The record proves what art critics already knew: David Hockney is one of the greatest living artists in the world, and his art is part of history.
Image Courtesy of Christie’s