British artist David Hockney was propelled to unprecedented heights on Thursday night after one of his most recognisable works sold for $90.3m, setting a new record for a living artist.
The sale of “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” drew almost 10 minutes of bids in front of a standing-room only crowd at Christie’s Rockefeller Center salesroom in New York, with the majority of the buzz generated by the bank of Christie’s employees working the phones.
The painting, finished in 1972, is one of the most iconic of the artist’s vast oeuvre. One of a sequence of “double portraits” that Mr Hockney began painting in 1968, the 1972 canvas shows two men at a sun-drenched swimming pool in a lush, mountainous landscape. One is standing beside the pool and appears to be watching the other, who is swimming under water, the shimmering, refracted image of his body expertly conjured up by Mr Hockney.
It was not immediately clear who the buyer of the painting was, which was executed by Christie’s via the phone. The $90.3m figure included fees to be paid to the auction house for its services.
Bidding started at $18m and within 40 seconds had reached $40m. The volleys between two Christie’s employees on the phones — Katharine Arnold, the international director of postwar and contemporary art, and Marc Porter, chairman of the Americas at the auction house — slowed after the painting reached $70m. It inched up to $80m in $1m and then $500,000 increments until the bidder speaking to Mr Porter prevailed at $80m.
The sale handily eclipsed the previous record held by a living artist, which was set by the American Jeff Koons when his “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4m at Christie’s in 2013. Mr Hockney told Reuters ahead of the auction that he was ignoring the attention the sale was generating.
“I have the vanity of an artist, I want my work to be seen, but I don’t have to be seen,” he said.
The painting had been lent for exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last year it featured on the cover of Tate Britain’s Hockney retrospective, marking the artist’s 80th year.
The electricity surrounding “Portrait of an Artist” had built ahead of the sale on Thursday as art collectors and dealers waited to see a new high water mark set after Christie’s put an estimate of roughly $80m on the painting.
The picture is being sold by Joe Lewis, the UK investor, art collector and owner of Tottenham Hotspur football club. Mr Lewis bought the Hockney in 1995 from Hollywood producer David Geffen for an undisclosed sum and it was offered at Christie’s without either a guarantee or a reserve — a rarity for a work estimated to sell at that price. It was seen by art dealers as a sign of confidence in its marketability.
Mr Hockney’s auction record was itself smashed in May when his painting “Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica” (1990), a 10-foot wide multicoloured evocation of California’s landscape, was sold for $28.5m at Sotheby’s in New York.
To create the image of the standing man, the Bradford-born artist used earlier photographs of Peter Schlesinger, his former lover, posing in Kensington Gardens, combining them with photos he had taken of a swimmer and standing man at a pool in the south of France.
The work was executed at a time of feverish creativity for Mr Hockney, fuelled by the breakdown of his relationship with Mr Schlesinger. Having destroyed an earlier version of the work, Mr Hockney decided to return to it just four weeks ahead of a New York solo show; he worked on it for 18 hours a day over two weeks, completing the canvas the night before it was shipped to the US. The complex process of creation was captured in A Bigger Splash, a notable 1974 documentary film by Jack Hazan.
“It was very traumatic for me,” Mr Hockney said of the period of creativity. “I’d never been through anything like that. I was miserable, very, very unhappy.”
The record for Mr Hockney was set early in an auction that was expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, with paintings by Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat expected to sell for more than $10m each.
While the twice yearly New York art auction season started on a somewhat underwhelming note, with a Christie’s sale of impressionist work falling short of expectations, a fervour built as the major auction houses shifted to contemporary paintings.
Sotheby’s counted more than $360m of sales on Wednesday evening, with new records set for Dana Schutz, Henry Taylor, Jacob Lawrence and Jack Whitten. More than 95 per cent of the pieces on auction that night sold, led by Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild” from 1987, which sold for more than $32m including fees.