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EPA-EFE/Alba Vigaray

David Hockney’s auction record: a triumph of nostalgia over spectacle

When David Hockney’s 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) fetched US$90.3m (£70.2m) at auction by Christie’s in New York recently, the art world was quick to celebrate. But this new global record for a living artist reveals more about today’s art world than about Hockney himself.

For most collectors and art market experts, Hockney’s success did not come as a surprise. The pre-auction estimate for the painting was at US$80m, while Hockney’s own market data from 2017 (which you can find by subscribing to the Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report 2018) indicated the feasibility of achieving such a record.

Yet, there were more factors at play. The sale took place one year on from the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for US$450m. The most expensive artwork on record was sold at the same auction house, causing worldwide amazement around its attribution to Leonardo and the identity of its buyer, who turned out to be a Saudi prince.

Two days after the Hockney sale an article by the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz asked: “Is David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist worth US$90m?” Gompertz himself gave the painting a five-star rating – which appeared to answer his own question. But what did Gompertz’s stars actually, assess? Was it the artistic merit of the painting, or was it its price? Was this, perhaps, a “value-for-money” verdict?

Or, if we think in more general terms: how can we safely position artistic value against monetary value in today’s art market? The straightforward answer is that we can’t.

In contrast to the modern era, during which Hockney’s painting was incubated and created, the relationships between collectors, private galleries, public museums, artists and media have become extremely intricate. Within a domineering and spectacularised art market, any judgements on cultural value are increasingly difficult, as cultural power and money intersect in unprecedented ways. The timing of Hockney’s auction and the largely sensationalist way it has been covered by international media exemplify this new reality.

Techniques, emotions and technologies

So, what makes the sale of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) able to raise such complex questions? The painting has been rightly described as one of Hockney’s masterpieces. On a visual level, it brings together two well-known features of the painter’s earlier work: his signature depictions of swimming pools, and his two-person paintings.

Portrait of the artist: David Hockney at the exhibition of his new works EPA/Andy Rain

Hockney consistently used the two-person configuration in order to reflect on notions of intimacy and distance. In the case of Portrait, this aim relates to a very personal crisis: Hockney’s break up with his boyfriend, the artist Peter Schlesinger, who was the “model” for the man staring at the swimmer.

One of the most interesting aspects of the painting’s creation, however, is that it was born out of “remixing” two separate images found at the artist’s studio: a photograph of a man swimming and another photograph of a boy looking downwards. In effect, this means that Hockney produced a merge on canvas that, in today’s world, would had probably been executed on screen – most likely, by using a piece of software such as Photoshop.

If we look at the painting from this perspective, then there is a remarkable connection with Hockney’s more recent works. Since the 1980s, Hockney has been inspired by – and has used widely – new imaging technologies: video, digital photography, and mobile devices such as iPads. And although these works stand far from the merit of his earlier practice, there is one characteristic that makes them particularly relevant to today’s media-saturated, “immaterial” culture: the frequent privileging of landscapes and spaces over people.

Spectacles without spectators

The Christie’s auction reveals that this shift should not be ignored or “undervalued”. It is an “evolution of taste” that could, perhaps, explain not only the price fetched by Hockney’s painting, but also the impressive shattering of the previous record for an artwork by a living artist – Balloon Dog (Orange) by Jeff Koons which sold of $58.4m in 2013.

Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) which sold for $58.4m in 2013. Christie's

In contrast to Koons’ postmodernist spectacle and its celebration of superficiality, Hockney’s work celebrates the deeper nature of the human psyche with discrete generosity. It embraces not only its two subjects (the two men of the painting), but also its spectators as the onlookers of a very private moment. This is a moment that could last forever, as we are drawn into it in a way that is similar to a never ending zoom-in. Yet, the meditative elements of Portrait could had never been captured with such clarity by even the most state-of-the-art camera, or piece of software.

This does not signify merely a hankering after an older style of painting, but rather a longing for an era when time had a different pace – both culturally and for our inner lives. Today, as our everyday routines are largely driven by the spectacular speed of our networked selves, people can be left behind more easily than ever. We can easily forget the action that is pausing, looking at ourselves and the people who are surrounding us. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the absence of the human figure characterises the (recent) work of many of the artists who were featured alongside Hockney in the list of the top-selling artists for 2017.

In that sense, the auction record set by Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is a triumph of modernism – not only in art market or art historical terms, but also in much deeper cultural terms.

In Hockney’s modern world, intimacy and distance exist side by side, but they can still talk to each other. They can still take the time to do so. In today’s world – and in Hockney’s later, media-based works – this dialogue often feels impossible to take place. It is, perhaps, an irony that such media are often called “time-based”.

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