Let’s assume you’re in the market for a nice new painting to hang above your toilet. What’s your price range? Would you like to stick to a six-figure number or bump it up to 8 just for fun? Do you want a living artist or a dead one? Someone with a recognizable name, just for extra bragging rights, perhaps? Or maybe you just want the clout that comes with being the person who bought the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction. Whatever floats your boat.
David Hockney is indeed still alive, and his 1972 piece Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) just sold for an eye-watering $90.3m at Christie’s. That’s a record for a living artist. Suck on THAT, Jeff Koons! Hockney’s work smashed the previous record set by Koons by over $32m. And yes, this painting is so much nicer than his balloon dogs.
Hockney’s work is very distinctive and his self-portrait of sorts is a very striking and decidedly Hockney-esque painting. The colours are bold, the California landscapes inviting - Hockney is British but moved to America several decades ago - and there’s a bittersweet sense of longing as Hockney gazes down at an unknown figure in his swimming pool. Talk continues to this day that the swimmer is Hockney’s ex and that the painting is about their break-up but both sides of the party deny that claim.
So, why is this painting so expensive? The reasons are pretty simple but kind of hard to pin down in the weird world of art auctions. First, the big name of Hockney helps, and so does the iconic nature of the painting, which has been printed onto t-shirts and postcards the world over. Christie’s themselves said that the painting was Hockney’s best work ever, and given Hockney’s own candidness in talking about the intensive process of creating it, that also holds sway when it comes time to sell. Provenance often helps - that’s the chronology of an art-piece’s ownership, meaning that a painting can become more valuable if its history or past owners are important enough - but this Hockney piece doesn’t really have that. From my point-of-view, I think it sold well because it’s a gorgeous painting that anyone can understand. It’s not abstract or weird or any of the insults people usually lob at modern art. It can be appreciated by everyone, both for its craft and intent. Nobody is going to go around scoffing that their kid could have painted that.
The art market is fickle, so this record could be broken again quickly or it could go on for many years. Still, its price is easily dwarfed by the price fetched for an artwork by a dead artist: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was bought for over $450m last year. But it also might not be a real da Vinci so I’d say the Hockney investment was wiser!
Header Image Source: Getty Images.