Market Soars for Britain’s Most Popular Painter
David Hockney is no stranger to the limelight, but lately the Los Angeles-based painter and photographer has had unprecedented exposure and the value of his work has risen exponentially, culminating in a canvas selling for more than $90 million. Nearly a million and a half visitors swarmed the Hockney retrospective that in 2017-2018 traveled from Tate Britain to the Pompidou Centre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the blockbuster established a new record at the Tate for a show by a living artist (surpassing Damien Hirst), headlines dubbed the Yorkshire-born Hockney Britain’s most popular artist, and the Hockney market has since gone on a tear.
A year ago, his auction record was $11.7 million, paid in 2016 for a king-sized multi-panel landscape of Woldgate Woods (2006). A few months after the retrospective ended its run at the Met, that record was matched for Piscine de Medianoche (Paper Pool 30) (1978), a pressed paper-pulp piece measuring around 6 x 7 feet. In that same May sale at Sotheby’s NY another big landscape, Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990), soared to $28.5 million (prices include fees).
The auction house had hyped the picture’s art historical importance with characteristic grandiosity: “Hockney fuses the language of Cubism with a Fauvist sensibility, executed in the endlessly varying marks of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, all compounded into one magnificent tour de force of painterly vigor and exultation.” But in fact, Pacific Coast Highway is a kitschy piece notable mainly for its large size and high-keyed palette of contrasting colors. The cartoonish patchwork composition may be inspired by Synthetic Cubism, but the color scheme has little to do with Fauvism, and the breezy paint handling bears closer relation to German Expressionism or Edvard Munch than to the more precise and descriptive brushwork of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists. In any case, Pacific Coast Highway is not a masterpiece of the genre and not even one of Hockney’s best landscapes. (The same money could have purchased half a dozen more innovative California landscapes by Wayne Thiebaud.)
The $90-million Picture
So, it was not unexpected that the record was far exceeded when a superior work, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) – another colossal canvas at 7 x 10 feet — sold in November at Christie’s NY for $90.3 million, a record not only for Hockney but for a work by any living artist, zooming past the $58.4 million paid in 2013 for Jeff Koons’ shiny Balloon Dog (Orange). Portrait of an Artist represents Hockney’s boyfriend Peter Schlesinger as a clothed figure standing beside a pool looking at a submerged swimmer who approaches with arms extended. A deep vista of forested hills unfolds into the background. Hockney painted the picture after he and Schlesinger had separated, leading critics to interpret it as an expression of longing and disconnection.
Without getting into the question of whether or not a picture is worth $90 million, suffice it to say that Portrait of an Artist is a beautiful painting – an intriguing subject depicted with absorbing naturalism and a pleasing palette, the spatially interesting composition masterfully rendered on a large scale. Although only one of the figures is recognizable, the picture is considered one of seven “double portraits” that Hockney painted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They are all formidable and significant works, and one of the two that remains in private hands is coming to market.
Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969) features Geldzahler – then the Metropolitan Museum’s influential curator of Twentieth-Century Art — enthroned on a plush lavender sofa while his younger boyfriend, the painter Christopher Scott, stands to the right wearing a raincoat and looking away, as if he has just entered or is taking his leave. The year Hockney completed it, André Emmerich Gallery in NY sold the work to art book publisher Harry N. Abrams. In 1992 Abrams sold it to Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen, who five years later parlayed it to Seattle-based travel-industry maven Barney Ebsworth. Before he died, Ebsworth had promised his superb collection to the Seattle Art Museum, but last November his estate auctioned off 42 of his mostly American paintings for $317 million. The Hockney was held back for Christie’s London where it will be offered on March 6, 2019. Only one other double portrait is still privately held — Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968) — and the last work in the series was left unfinished, making it likely that Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott will spur intense bidding. (It already has pre-sold to a third-party guarantor.)
Condemned as a “Lightweight”
With everyone hailing Hockney, it is easy to forget that his reputation has suffered ups and downs. The realistic portraits and Los Angeles swimming pool pictures were condemned at a time when abstraction, Minimalism, and Conceptualism were ascendant. In 1977, Hilton Kramer, then the chief critic at The New York Times, called him a “lightweight” “bourgeois” painter. Hockney’s groundbreaking penchant for picturing homosexual themes also found little favor among mainstream commentators. Now, however, when diverse styles and personal content are deemed relevant, Hockney’s once-slighted pictures impress with their technical finesse and vivid evocation of the lives of his contemporaries. Centuries from now they will be recognized as lasting contributions to the genres of portraiture and landscape.
Not all of his work is equally noteworthy. His high-keyed jubilant space-warped pictures of landscapes in California and his native Yorkshire can seem decorative and naive, like mass-market posters of idealized villages. And his watercolors of dreary English countryside bring to mind the work of a practiced Sunday painter. A critic for the London Telegraph, Alistair Sooke, found them “much too polite and unthinkingly happy,” and added, “if they offer a vision of arcadia, it is a mindless one.” But many of Hockney’s vistas have a painterly touch and dazzling palette that owe a debt to Matisse and Bonnard. And some portray the lackluster woods of Yorkshire in impressive immersive compositions of unprecedented scale. The more enterprising works of the past two decades already are appreciated as examples of Hockney’s innovative late style.
Exploring Technology and Perception
In addition to painting, Hockney has made remarkable photographic and filmic works, as well. His Polaroid collages translate Cubism into photographic representation, and he has extended his exploration of the subjective dimension of perception in multi-screen video excursions along country lanes. And he has been an early adopter of digital software that he uses to make drawings on iPads, and more recently to devise spatially inventive computer-manipulated photographic images that he prints as large as his paintings.
Hockney believes technology has played a more significant role in art history than has been acknowledged. In a provocative book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, published in 2001, he advanced the theory that his predecessors used optical devices to achieve their astounding realism. He hitched his theory to the fact that convex mirrors, lenses and the camera obscura can project images that artists can use as pictorial guides. He maintains that Van Eyck could not have produced his paradigm-shifting effects of shading and reflection without access to lens-based devices. He says that Holbein, Caravaggio, Vermeer and Ingres also made use of lenses, and that their techniques were never known because, like magicians, they guarded their craft with secrecy. Art historians have been skeptical, claiming that academic training enabled the Old Masters to draw as well as they did, but researchers acknowledge that optical devices may have been more widely used than previously understood.
Art historical theorizing notwithstanding, Hockney will be remembered as a painter. A few years ago he completed portraits of more than 80 friends in a series exhibited last summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In September, a flower-patterned stained-glass window – his first work in the medium – was unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s north transept, a commission in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. With the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam set to present “Hockney – Van Gogh” from March 1 to May 26, 2019, the octogenarian continues to build his legacy.
Jason Edward Kaufman //