Updated at 8:09 p.m. on November 15, 2018
On a snowy evening in New York City, David Hockney’s 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) sold at auction for a jaw-dropping $90.3 million, shattering the previous world record for a work sold at auction by a living artist—Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog, which went for $58.4 million back in 2013. It also far exceeded the estimated sale price of $80 million, which itself would have been a record. What do these kinds of prices say about the state of the art world, and of the world in general?
The Hockney painting is an unquestionable and probably timeless masterpiece (perhaps unlike the previous record holder). One can make an argument that it is one of the two or three most crucial canvases of the ever-youthful, now-81-year-old British master’s career. As the people at Christie’s (the ones who put forth the $80 million figure) are delighted to point out, the work marks the only time Hockney combined two of his most popular subjects: a swimming pool and a double portrait.
Swimming pools had transfixed Hockney since he first arrived (from cold, gray northern England) in sunny Los Angeles in 1964. The young artist began seeing, as if for the first time, the artistic potential in things that everyone else in the southland had been taking for granted. The way the turquoise water moved and gleamed and eddied was manifestly beautiful, but it was also, for Hockney, something altogether more fascinating. What really interested him was the way light scattered across the surface of the water, a wide, two-dimensional skin that could nevertheless be seen through—not unlike a painted image splayed across the canvas itself.