Hanging in a newly renovated and expanded gallery space at Christie’s New York showroom in Rockefeller Center is David Hockney’s vivid 1972 masterpiece, Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures). The painting, which will be offered in Christie’s 15 November evening sale of post-war and contemporary art, is estimated to fetch $80 million – an unprecedented price point that would dethrone Jeff Koons’s current record-holding $58.4 million Balloon Dog (Orange) and crown Hockney the most valuable living artist at auction.
“There were two main subjects that made Hockney famous: one is the double portrait – portraits of his family to friends to acquaintances – and the pool,” explained Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of post-war and contemporary art, at the painting’s unveiling. “This is the only painting in Hockney’s career where he combined those two subject matters that were so important to him.”
Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) depicts one of Hockney’s quintessential California pools nestled in a dramatic, verdant landscape. The vibrant image is perhaps one of Hockney’s most intimate compositions; the featured subject is Hockney’s former lover, Peter Schlesinger. Schlesinger was an student of Hockney’s at UCLA in 1966, and would become the painter’s great love and favored muse. At the end of their relationship in 1972, a devastated Hockney painted Portrait of an Artist, which is widely regarded as his magnum opus.
“There are so many speculations about what this painting resembles, but as most narrative paintings of great artists, there is a lot of [auto]biography,” Rotter says. “There is a swimmer in the pool; you have another figure looking down at the swimmer, who is his ex-lover; there’s a goodbye, a melancholic moment in this painting. Some people say the pool itself resembles Hockney so it’s a self-portrait; other people say that [the swimmer] is Peter’s new lover and Hockney is out of the picture.”
Upon moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Hockney cultivated the ability to capture California’s abundant sunlight and plentiful swimming pools, water being one of the most complicated subjects to master. “[Los Angeles] was the first time I had ever painted a place,” Hockney once said in Sarah Howgate’s book David Hockney Portraits (2006). “In London, I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts…” Though he hails from Yorkshire, England, Hockney is best known for his colorful depictions of California.
“To have what is generally considered the best work of one of the greatest living artists is a very special moment,” Rotter said. “It’s been many, many years since we started competing for this painting… We knew exactly what we were going after – the apex, the absolute masterpiece of one of the greatest living artists: David Hockney.”
David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) will go on view in Hong Kong from September 28-29, London from October 3-5 and Los Angeles from October 23-27 2018 before returning to New York City ahead of Christie’s November sale.