Talk about making a splash. David Hockney has become the most highly valued living artist after one of his best known swimming pool paintings sold for $90.3m (£70.3m) in a New York auction.
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was snapped up after nine minutes of heated bidding at Christie’s on Thursday, smashing the previous record for a living artist held by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold for $58.4m in 2013.
Yorkshire-born Hockney, 81, painted the picture in 1972, as one of a series of works inspired by swimming pools. It shows a smartly dressed man standing by the edge of a pool while another man swims underwater.
The first man depicts Hockney’s former lover and muse, Peter Schlesinger, who was one of his students at the University of California, Los Angeles. The couple had separated a year earlier, and it is thought the swimmer might be Schlesinger’s new lover.
Christie’s did not disclose the identities of either the buyer or the seller, but Bloomberg and the Artnet website reported that the painting had belonged to the Bahamas-based British currency trader Joe Lewis, whose company owns Tottenham Hotspurs football club.
Unusually, he opted to sell the painting without a reserve, meaning that bidding could have started at $1. In the event, the opening bid was $18m.
The auction house had promoted the painting as “one of the great masterpieces of the modern era” and the “holy grail” of Hockney’s work, estimating its value at $80m.
“We rarely can say: ‘This is the one opportunity to buy the best painting from the artist’. This is it,” Ana Maria Celis, vice-president of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, said before the sale.
The painting, described as “particularly labour intensive and emotionally harrowing” on Hockney’s website, was initially inspired in 1971 by two photographs on the floor. “One was of a figure swimming underwater and therefore quite distorted … the other was a boy gazing at something on the ground,” the painter later recalled. “The idea of painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately.”
An early version was destroyed after months of reworking, but in 1972 he returned to the idea, taking a series of photographs at a villa in St Tropez which he reworked in his London studio, in a two-week frenzy of 18-hour days, into the final version. He completed it the night before it was due to be transported to the Andre Emmerich gallery in New York.
Hockney said later: “I must admit I loved working on that picture, working with such intensity; it was marvellous doing it, really thrilling.”
The work has featured on the cover of a number of monographs about the artist and was part of Tate Britain’s blockbuster retrospective last year celebrating Hockney’s 80th birthday.
The artist, who lives in California, showed a series of portraits at the Royal Academy in 2016.
While a record for a living artist, the Hockney price is dwarfed by the sum paid last year for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was bought for $450.3m.
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