Commissioned to design a stained-glass window for Westminster Abbey, David Hockney, heralded as “one of the greatest artists of the Queen’s reign” has become, quite literally, enshrined in British culture. The celebrated 81-year-old artist, renowned for being a leading figure of the 1960s Pop art movement, has once again become a subject of international recognition following an announcement from Christie’s New York that his 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is set to be auctioned next month in the region of £61 million pounds. A record-breaking figure, which could result in the painting becoming most valuable artwork produced by a living artist to be sold at auction.

“It is a rare coincidence – when the best painting of an artist is actually available”

The painting, currently featured in a touring exhibition, will be presented as part of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15th November alongside works by Rothko and Bacon. This collection of artworks by former contemporaries forces us recognise the sheer height of Hockney’s success. With a career spanning over six decades, Hockney remains culturally relevant as he continues to unveil chef d’oeuvres, most notably his latest body of work 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2016: an exploration of portraiture with his subjects being all friends and family, positioned in the same chair and in front of a turquoise blue background, forcing Hockney to draw out the nuances of character. The collection, while invested in individuality and capturing the lives of those around him, is also clearly conscious of the artist’s own mortality. Inevitably, the value of an artist’s work increases after their death, when the number of artworks reaches a finite total – but what exactly is causing the premature price hike of his paintings?

an imagined rapport and understanding of the artist does not give way to obscene price

For an artist as self-explorative as Hockney, perhaps this increase in public interest is caused by the fact he is framing his longevity, curating his sense of life and mortality. Last year, Tate Britain’s retrospective David Hockney attracted almost half a million people, becoming the gallery’s most visited exhibition and reaching further spectators when touring the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Met in New York. When speaking of the exhibition, which coincided with his 80th birthday, Hockney acknowledges the opportunity to construct a collection to present his life and work, “I realise it is the last time (a retrospective) will be done in my lifetime”. Unsurprisingly, within the year following the exhibition, an auction at Sotheby’s saw the artist’s record price broken twice when Piscine de Medianoche was auctioned at £8.7m before Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica was sold for £21.1m.

The augmented value in his artworks is a result of scarcity of available for purchase, according to Alex Rotter co-chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s commenting on the auction of Portrait of An Artist (Pool with two figures) “It is a rare coincidence – when the best painting of an artist is actually available”. What is it that renders this piece to perceivably be worth £61 million?

…he is framing his longevity, curating his sense of life and mortality

The feature of the swimming pool, a setting which would define the paintings he produced in the 1960s and 1970s when relocating to Los Angeles, would almost become shorthand for Hockney. The collection of paintings during this period present the diversity and difficulty of representing water: resulting in the pink circles for the movement of water in Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool contrasted with the tinged yellow acrylic mosaic swimming pool in Portrait of an Artist. It is apparent that what is attractive about his paintings is the clarity of expression, that borders on transparency. Perhaps it is this perceived transparency and access to the artist that increases the value in the painting and desire for commodification. In Portrait of an Artist there is a marriage of styles between the Californian poolside and the rural green, suggestive of his affinity for countryside settings – a visual which corresponds to his own dual identity of being “brought up in Hollywood and Bradford”. The ambiance of liberty evoked in the scenic milieu corresponds to the sexual freedom exhibited with a clear gaze on the male body by an observer illustrated to be akin to the artist’s known former lover and fellow painter, Peter Schlesinger. We invest in the presentation of insight into their relationship, with Peter presented to be emotionally distant. Not only is there a sense of gravity, there are also suggestions of a same-sex relationship within the painting, particularly given the biographical nature of Hockney’s artwork and the potency Domestic Scene, Los Angeles 1963. However, an imagined rapport and understanding of the artist does not give way to obscene price. Clare McAndrew of consultancy Art Economics commented on the previous record-breaking Hockney auction “think of the other artists who could be supported by that money”, which is all the more poignant given that Hockney himself was originally an underprivileged art scholar.

It is apparent that what is attractive about his paintings is the clarity of expression, that borders on transparency

Is the painting of such material excellence that it deserves to be auctioned at such a price? Dr Chris Stephens, director of The Holbourne Museum does not believe it to be so, stating that Hockney was not “terribly highly skilled” as a painter. Rather, Stephen suggests that the interest of his work lies the accessibility of his work and his continued popularity acknowledging that Hockney has been “incredibly popular from very early on”.

Whilst there can be volatility in the dealing of art, there has not been such a great shift financially to prompt the surge in auction as according to the most recent Art Basel and UBS report, between 2000 and 2017 the growth of art market was broadly in tandem with that of the global economy.

It seems that this increase in auctioning price, albeit absurd, is the result of the artist curating himself in an era where there is unprecedented “access” to the artist. With the fragments of documentation and interviews in which Hockney discusses his process and personal life – such as his assemblage and transposition of photographs of Peter Schlesinger – we construct a connection to the artist. So, we buy into this sense of intimacy and legacy of a cultural icon.

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