David Hockney’s 1965 portrait “California” is among the most significant in his oeuvre, and hasn’t been seen by the public in over 40 years.
In a recent press release, Christie’s revealed the jewel of its upcoming “20th/20st Century London Evening Sale”: English artist David Hockney’s 1965 work, “California.” The public hasn’t seen the piece in more than 40 years since a collector acquired it for a private collection in 1968; as such, its auction is one that’s elicited great excitement among members of the art community. Christie’s has listed the portrait with an “estimate on request,” though it provided an estimate in the region of £16 million ($20 million).
Christie’s unveiled the painting on January 25, 2024 and the piece will be making rounds in exhibitions in Paris from February 3 to 8, 2024 and New York from February 15 to 19, 2024. “California” will then go on view at Christie’s global headquarters on London’s King Street from March 1 to 7.
A Significant Art Piece
Hockney is one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists, and an important part of the UK’s creative history. At the age of 86, he continues to make art and showcase his pieces through innovative exhibitions, even painting famous celebrities like Harry Styles. When one thinks of Hockney, summer images of America’s West Coast come to mind, particularly bright blue swimming pools set against vibrant backdrops and Hollywood architecture.
Hockney’s pools became a signature of sorts, transforming into instantly recognizable motifs that represent the artist and his work. What makes “California” quite unique is its position as one of Hockney’s first great swimming pool paintings. The artist himself has expressed how significant the piece is in assessing his life’s work. According to the Christie’s press release, the painting was so important that Hockney decided to create his own copy of it for a 1988 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after learning he wouldn’t be able to feature the original.
Portraits of Water
“California” depicts two figures floating atop a blue pool using inflatable loungers. Hockney painted other pools prior to this, but never with figures. The first example being the 1964 painting “California Art Collector,” and the second “Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool” (which he painted that same year). “California” came in 1965, followed closely by “Two Boys in a Pool, Hollywood,” both works featuring full figures interacting with Hockney’s watery motif.
It was in “California” where Hockney began employing the artistic achievements present in his later works, namely the “kaleidoscopic” and dynamic depiction of water and light. “California” was the more stylistic predecessor of Hockney’s naturalistic works, which came into play later in his career. One can see this through the stark lines and distinctive cells that make up the water’s surface in “California,” a completely different depiction compared to the more subtle visuals in Hockney’s 1972 work, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” which broke records when Christie’s sold it for $90.3 million in 2018.
One might wonder why Hockney held such an immense fascination with pools and life in sunny California. Katharine Arnold, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art in Europe at Christie’s, elucidates the matter in a statement, explaining: “After a childhood brought up in the north of England, and having studied in London, still reeling from the Second World War, California must have felt like Arcadia; a beautiful place to be free and enjoy being young. This sense of the artist’s optimism and jubilation is in the very fabric of Hockney’s California.”
Hockney’s pools are more than a product of his fascination with the transient and ever-changing properties of water: they’re also a representation of the new, exciting world that he found himself in during the 1960s.
A feature by Adam Heardman of MutualArt elaborates on this, calling audiences to understand the differences between pools in Hockney’s native UK and those in America, particularly California. Only the UK’s wealthiest could afford to have private pools; the rest of the population was more accustomed to public pools, where one exposes themselves to others (and in turn, people’s judgement). Homosexuality, a theme that Hockney has often incorporated into his body of works, was illegal in the UK until 1967.
In contrast, the private and glamorous pools of California gave Hockney the freedom to explore queer and erotic spaces in his art. As Heardman puts it: “The permissive atmosphere of ’60s California allowed him to explore sexuality and friendship, the whole weird soup of human relationships, through depictions of fluid surfaces.”
“For Hockney, pool-surfaces burn in the California sun,” Headman continues, “So does desire.”
Banner photo from the Christie’s website.