A watershed moment for David Hockney: Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969)
David Hockney’s double portrait of Geldzahler, a curator at The Met, and his partner, painter Christopher Scott, helped to secure his reputation. This masterpiece from the Barney A. Ebsworth Collection realised more than £37 million
In 1968, the 30-year-old painter
David Hockney began a series of seven monumental canvases,
each 7 ft by 10 ft. These paintings would consume him for the
next seven years and come to define his career.
The series, which began with paintings of the English writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the American artist Don Bachardy, and the American collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman, has come to be
known as Hockney’s ‘Double Portraits’. Each depicting a pair
of sitters (mostly absent from one another’s attention),
they are set in domestic locations and painted in the bold,
Pop Art palette that Hockney adopted after his arrival in
California in the early Sixties.
Inspired by this newfound discourse, Hockney was already planning
a third double portrait by October, depicting his friend, the influential curator Henry Geldzahler, and his partner Christopher
Hockney had met Geldzahler in New York at
Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ in 1963, the year after he graduated from the Royal College of Art. Geldzahler at the time was
a young and successful curator at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, and a figure at the centre of New York’s contemporary art
scene. Warhol once remarked that Geldzahler ‘gave me all of my ideas’, and made a 90-minute film of him smoking a cigar. The curator was also portrayed by Frank Stella, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel, George Segal, Marisol and Claes Oldenburg.
‘We shared a love of music, opera in particular... we became friends very quickly’ — David Hockney
‘Henry and I got on along instantly,’ Hockney would later recall
of the Pop Art evangelist. ‘We shared a love of music, opera
in particular... and there was painting of course, and we
became friends very quickly.’ The pair also bonded over their
shared birthday — 9 July — and a love of Cuban cigars, as
Hockney would explain in 2016. Over the course of their long friendship they visited England, Italy,
Spain and France together.
The two remained close throughout Geldzahler’s 18-year tenure
at The Met and his stint as New York’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Geldzahler died
of cancer in 1994 at the age of 59.
‘Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott is not only an extraordinary example from the artist’s most celebrated series, it is also a poignant representation of one of the 20th century’s greatest curators,’ says Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie’s Americas. ‘Hockney captured Geldzahler at a particularly decisive moment when the curator was organising his most revolutionary exhibition. New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 received such fanfare that it would soon become universally known as “Henry’s Show”.’
The 50th anniversary of that survey, which would ultimately alter the course of both Geldzahler’s career and art history as we now know it, will be marked in 2019. ‘It makes the sale of this painting extremely timely,’ adds Porter.
Back in December of 1968, Hockney arrived at Geldzahler’s New York
apartment on 7th Avenue armed with his trusted Polaroid camera
and sketchpad. At the time Geldzahler was working on the landmark show, which would lead to him being described in New York magazine as ‘the most powerful and controversial art curator alive’.
Hockney started snapping pictures and
making drawings of the couple and their apartment. Geldzahler recalled that, after working tirelessly for four days, Hockney fell apart with the
By the end of the month Hockney had returned to his London
studio on Powis Terrace in Notting Hill, where he ‘started
the picture straight away’, sketching the image's elements
out on to the huge canvas which he propped against an interior
He began by drawing the outline of the Art Deco pink sofa
from Geldzahler’s apartment, which the curator had rejected for The Met but purchased privately. Behind this he taped
out a square window frame next to which he stuck a Polaroid
of New York’s skyline, taken from the window of Scott’s study.
Over the following days, surrounded by cigarettes and coffee,
unfinished canvases and a copy of G.P. Telemann’s Overture in D Major, Hockney filled
in skyscrapers, then the faces and torsos of Geldzahler and
Hockney likened his depiction of Scott to an angel, which led the American curator
Kynaston McShine to compare the picture to Italian quattrocento
Annunciation triptychs, in which one figure may have a sense
of permanence, while another feels transitory.
By the beginning of February 1969 Hockney had taped 25 radiating
lines from a point two inches above Geldzahler’s head in
the very middle of the canvas to the bottom of the stretcher.
The effect, based on Renaissance principles pioneered by
Piero della Francesca, established a precise one-point linear
perspective that foreshortened the objects nearest to the
viewer with great precision. ‘It looked like an incredible
radiant glow from a halo around Henry’s head,’ Hockney said.
Using these guide lines he planted the figures firmly in the
scene by painting their shoes, and repainted the carpet from
red to brown, then four shades of blue, before settling on
After the tape was removed he added a glass table and a vase
of larger-than-life tulips to the image’s foreground, before
finally painting the reflected vacant space between sitter
and onlooker into Geldzahler’s spectacles — a nod to the
painted mirrors of the Dutch Golden Age artist
Jan van Eyck.
The finished work was promptly shipped to New York before being unveiled at André Emmerich Gallery, whereupon New York Magazine heralded
it as ‘truly amazing’ and ‘totally hypnotising’. The plain-spoken
Geldzahler would himself go on to say that the work was Hockney’s
watershed moment, a point when the artist decided to become ‘the
best artist he could be’.
The painting was bought from the show by Harry N. Abrams, a New York
art-book publisher who returned the picture to London so
that it could be included in Pop Art Redefined,
one of the earliest shows at the newly established Hayward
Gallery. It then remained with Abrams’ family until 1992,
and was loaned for other shows including David Hockney: Tableaux et Dessins at
the Louvre in 1974, and David Hockney: A Retrospective at
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1988-89.
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In 1997 Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott was acquired by Barney A. Ebsworth, the Seattle-based travel
industry tycoon and collector.
Ebsworth hung it in his home alongside other Modernist
masterpieces such as
Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929) and
Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape (1954-55),
which sold for $91,875,000 and $68,937,500 respectively
in the sale of his collection at Christie’s in November 2018.
Ebsworth continued to loan the work to exhibitions. In 2000 it was part of
Twentieth Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, held
at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and at
the Seattle Art Museum. Then in 2017 it was lent for the
David Hockney, organised collaboratively by
Tate Britain, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York.
At the latter, it was hung at Geldzahler’s former place of work and in the same room as Hockney’s
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),
a double portrait from the same series painted three years
later. On 15 November 2018 that work was sold at
Christie’s for $90,312,500, setting a world-record price for a work of art by a living artist.