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Christie’s Has High Hopes for Hockney

The artist’s celebrated 1972 painting, 'Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),' may become the most expensive work by a living artist.

David Hockney Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) Photo: Courtesy of Christie's

It wouldn’t be November if Christie’s wasn’t working to pull out the stops for its New York fall offerings. Hoping to follow the record-smashing sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450.3 million (which happened at this time last year), the house will be offering David Hockney’s iconic Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) in its evening sale of postwar and contemporary art on November 15. Tagged at $80 million, the 1972 painting is poised to become the most expensive work of art by a living artist to sell at auction.

“If there is a defining picture in an artist’s career, this most certainly is it,” says Alex Rotter, co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art at Christies. Brightly hued and handsomely scaled at 7 feet by 10 feet, the acrylic on canvas is among the most celebrated works by the British artist, now 81, having been included in his traveling retrospective organized by Tate Britain, the Centre Pompidou, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art just this past year. It is also the only known painting by Hockney that combines two of his most recognizable motifs—the swimming pool, which he took great interest in upon his arrival in California in 1964, and the device of the double portrait.

There is so much self-biography and reflection within the picture,” Rotter explains, adding that the pool itself is a metaphor for Hockney, while the swimmer represents his ex-lover’s new flame—the artist’s former paramour Peter Schlesinger standing poolside awaiting his arrival. “The work is in many ways a melancholy goodbye, as it captures the moment when Hockney realizes that he is now out of the picture.”

In pinning an unpublished estimate of $80 million on the painting, the house clearly has great expectations in light of the fact that Hockney’s own artist record at auction—set at Sotheby’s New York just this past May with the sale of Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990)—currently stands at $28,453,000. At press time, only four paintings by the artist had crossed the $10 million mark on the block.

The current auction record for a work by a living artist is held by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994-2000), which achieved $58.4 million at Christie’s in New York in November 2013.

In addition to Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which was consigned by Bahamas-based billionaire Joe Lewis, the house is offering a second Hockney that evening, Sprungbrett mit Schatten (Paper Pool 14), a work composed of six sheets of colored, pressed paper pulp from 1978, which hails from the vaunted holdings of California power collectors Harry “Hunk” and Mary “Moo” Anderson. It carries an estimate of $6 million to $8 million.

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