David Hockney (b. 1937), Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), painted in 1972. 84 x 120 in (213.5 x 305 cm). Sold for $90,312,500 on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork ©

‘My highlight of 2018’ — Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney

Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen recounts his feelings about a painting he describes as Hockney’s finest, and the pride he felt when it became the most expensive work ever sold at auction by a living artist

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is one of David Hockney’s most celebrated and recognisable pictures, and the culmination of his two most iconic motifs — the swimming pool and the complexity of human relationships.

This monumental canvas from 1972 was the subject of Jack Hazan’s film A Bigger Splash  and has appeared in numerous retrospectives, including Tate Britain’s major 2017 show, which toured to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Met in New York. In Britain the exhibition attracted almost half a million people, a record for the museum.

Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen, who was the auctioneer in New York when the painting sold for $90,312,500, making it the most expensive work ever by a living artist, was not surprised that the Tate Britain show was so popular, or that the painting, which he considers to be Hockney’s finest, set a new record at auction.

‘David Hockney is an artist who is dear to the hearts of many in Britain,’ he says. ‘And yet when we toured the work to the West Coast of America, so many people told me that this was a defining painting for them. For an an English artist to have struck such a chord with the American public is really quite unique.’

David Hockney (b. 1937), Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), painted in 1972. 84 x 120  in (213.5 x 305  cm). Sold for $90,312,500 on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork © David Hockney

David Hockney (b. 1937), Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), painted in 1972. 84 x 120 in (213.5 x 305 cm). Sold for $90,312,500 on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © David Hockney

He describes Hockney’s 1970s works as amongst the most compositionally complex in his oeuvre, and draws particular attention to ‘the form of the swimmer under the water, the movement of the water in the pool, and the sense that the standing figure is looking down into the water but not really looking at the figure who is about to touch the wall of the pool.’ 

There is also a psychological depth to the painting that echoes the very best of Edward Hopper: ‘What does that touching distance mean? And where is the relationship between the two figures — or is there none? There is poetry there, but we don’t really know what the artistic intention of the painting is.’

Pylkkänen explains there is a different feeling to selling a work of such value by a living artist, and recalls ‘fascinating conversations’ with Lucian Freud about paintings of his that he was due to sell or had sold previously. ‘With Freud, the feeling of ownership was quite extraordinary. There was a real sense of him holding an intimate relationship with something he had created and wanting to know what its future was going to be.’ Pylkkänen says he has not yet spoken with Hockney, but would welcome the opportunity to do so.

‘You develop relationships with the owner, with the painting and the marketplace, and when all of these things coalesce it can create a great moment in the saleroom’ — Jussi Pylkkänen

In recent years, Christie’s lead auctioneer has presided over the record-breaking sales of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud, Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. It was in the story of Alberto Giacometti’s Pointing Man, which achieved an artist world record of $141,285,00 in May 2015, that he found the most striking similarities with the Hockney.

‘Giacometti worked from dusk until dawn in order to have Pointing Man  ready for his show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948. He talked of the intensity and focus of his work in similar terms to those Hockney used to describe the two-week period in which he painted Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). Works of genius require that deep focus and burst of creative energy.’

Christie’s Global President had known of the painting for many years and confesses that he had always wanted to sell it. ‘You don’t forget where great pictures are,’ he says. ‘You develop relationships with the owner, with the painting and the marketplace, and when all of these things coalesce — and you know that the post-war market is strong, the owner might have an appetite to let it go, and the painting truly is best in class — it can create a great moment in the saleroom.

‘You only have one lifetime as a collector,’ Pylkkänen concludes. ‘When a collector who is interested in the best post-war art sees a great work by one of the top artists come to auction, they know they are probably never going to get that chance again. The opportunity has to be grasped with both hands.’