Painting by British artist Hockney expected to fetch $80M

NEW YORK — One of David Hockney’s famous “pool paintings” is coming to auction and is expected to sell in the $80 million range, easily breaking the record for a work by a living artist sold at auction.

The British artist’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” to be auctioned at Christie’s in November, is considered one of his premier works. Christie’s has estimated the work at about $80 million, but says it expects it to sell for more.

The previous record for a work by a living artist was set by Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog,” which sold for $58.4 million in 2013.

The 1972 painting by Hockney, now 81, is “the holy grail of his paintings, from both the historical and the market perspectives,” said Alex Rotter, co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. He noted that it reflects both the European and the American perspectives of an artist who came to live in California in the ’60s, and saw himself as living on both continents.

“It has all the elements that you would want in a Hockney painting,” Rotter said in an interview. “The California landscape, the beautiful trees and flowers and the sky, and then what we know him most for, which is the pool.” He noted that writers have referred to the swimming pool itself as being sort of a self-portrait of Hockney, though he never confirmed that, just saying he was fascinated to paint moving water.

The painting has been held by a private collector, and “we have been trying to get it for a very long time,” Rotter said.

A depiction of two men — one swimming the breaststroke underwater, the other standing by the pool looking down — the painting was originally inspired, according to background provided by Christie’s, by two photographs Hockney found juxtaposed on his studio floor, one of a swimmer in Hollywood in 1966, and another of a boy staring at something on the ground.

The standing figure is said to represent Peter Schlesinger, whom the artist met in 1966, when the younger man was a student in one of Hockney’s art classes at UCLA. For the next five years, according to Christie’s, he was both “the great love of Hockney’s life” and one of his favorite models.

The relationship ended in 1971. Hockney had already begun the painting and he abandoned it, starting again the following year.

The upcoming sale, Rotter said, “will definitely be a record for David Hockney at auction. And with Mr. Hockney one of the last of his generation still standing, and also painting, this painting will likely be the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction.”

But who will buy an $80 million painting?

“It will be someone who wants the best painting of an artist,” Rotter said, “and the best painting of an artist with historical relevance.”

He added: “Wherever it ends up, I can tell you it will be surrounded by other top works of the 20th century.”

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