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ICONS: David Hockney

One of British artist David Hockney’s early works, a painting of a well-known pool motif that has not been seen by the public for more than 40 years, is about to go on the auction block for an estimated $20 million.

Painted after his first trip to Los Angeles in 1965, the 86-year-old Hockney painted “California”, a painting of two nude figures in an outdoor pool, which has been in private collections since 1968. The painting, which was last seen by the public in 1979, is one of the featured lots in Christie’s “20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale” on 7 March. The work is estimated to fetch around £16 million ($20.37 million). “It is one of the earliest examples of Hockney’s pool paintings,” said Tessa Lord, senior specialist at Christie’s London.

Christie's Image
Christie’s Image

The work in question bears many overlaps with Hockney’s 1972 “Portrait of an Artist [Pool with Two Figures],” which sold for $90.3 million in 2018. This was a record high for the art market at the time, as no other work by a living artist had ever been sold for so much at auction. It is worth noting that the painting sold for just $20,000 the year it was painted.

Born in Yorkshire, north-east England, David Hockney first visited America’s west coast, sunny California, in 1964, at the age of twenty-seven. He was fascinated by the richness of the place, the modern buildings surrounded by palm-fringed gardens, the riot of colour, the landscape, the whole way of life. His love for Los Angeles was, of course, also fuelled by the freedom to live his homosexuality in contrast to the then still very conservative England. After returning to England, he immediately took to the canvas and worked on his trip to America. Two years later, in 1966, he moved permanently to Los Angeles, where he continued to work in his own studio. Central to his paintings of this period were the pools that would later become his trademark; the rippling, shimmering pools of water glistening in the sun and the figures in or near them.

One of the most striking images in the series is The Splash, which captures the moment when someone has just jumped into a swimming pool outside a villa, so that the “character” in the scene is no longer visible. The “protagonist” here is the water that has just engulfed him. Hockney painted this motif three times, with slight variations, in three different sizes: the largest, Bigger Splash (1967), measuring almost 2.5×2.5 metres, has been a key piece in the Tate Modern collection in London since 1981; the smallest, Little Splash (1966), is in a private collection and has never been shown in public; while the “middle”, also from 1966, measuring roughly 180×180 centimetres and simply titled The Splash, was acquired by a private collection in 2020.

And although the second most expensive Hockney painting is not included in the pool, Hockney’s paintings have been fetching increasingly large sums over the decades – a 1969 double portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott fetched $49.5 million at Christie’s London auction in March 2019; in 1992, it sold for “only” $1.1 million at Sotheby’s New York auction.