At Christie’s New York on Thursday night, a historic world of record was made: during the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), painted by David Hockney in 1972, was awarded to an anonymous buyer for US$90,312,500 (£70,475,810). A work by a living artist had never reached such amounts before. The previous record was held for five years by Jeff Koons with his Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold again at Christie’s for US$58,405,000 (£45,576,633) in 2013. This work remains the most expensive sculpture by a living artist.

The painting, as the experts have repeatedly pointed out, is the quintessence of Hockney's work because it contains all the elements that characterise the art of the English-American painter. The pool ("Making water transparency is a complicated challenge that I find always electrifying"), the California sun (of which the artist fell in love with, so much so that be abandoned the grey of his native England to move permanently to the Golden State), and male physicality (Hockey painted his partners well before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, promulgated in 1967). The man by the pool is Peter Schlesinger, whose relationship with the artist had ended a few months prior to the production of the painting, while the swimming figure may perhaps represent Schlesinger’s new lover.

David Hockney, ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), acrylic on canvas, 1972. Photo: Christie’s David Hockney, ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), acrylic on canvas, 1972. Photo: Christie’s

The work, both pop and figurative, was born from the combination of two photographs and had a long and tormented genesis: after the initial idea, Hockney had abandoned it and then retraced his steps and finished it in April the following year in just two weeks. This was just in time to send it to the United States and exhibit it at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York, where it was purchased for US$18,000 (£14,000). "So I thought it was a lot of money but in the space of six months it was sold for 50,000 dollars", the artist recalled with a touch of bitterness.

Hockney is among the most popular living artists and appreciated both by critics and the general public, thanks to the accessibility of his art and his continuous curiosity, which led him to experiment with different styles and techniques. At the age of 81 he maintains the same spirit, so much so that he started painting on an iPad for a few years. In an interview with the Repubblica, the artist stated, "Art must understand technology, make it its own. Technology has always changed the meaning of images and images are power. If art does without images, it loses every possibility, every power. I started painting with the iPhone first. Then, in 2010, I immediately took the iPad in California. Nobody had one in England. To make a painting with the Brushes application I need an hour. With the iPad you do not need anything else: you have all the colours always with you. The result is different from that of ‘true’ painting. But one thing does not exclude the other."

To complete the painting, Hockney worked 18 hours a day for two weeks. Image: Still of the film ‘A Bigger Splash’. Photo: Jack Hazan / Buzzy Enterprises Ltd. Image via Christie's, © David Hockney To complete the painting, Hockney worked 18 hours a day for two weeks. Image: Still of the film ‘A Bigger Splash’. Photo: Jack Hazan / Buzzy Enterprises Ltd. Image via Christie's, © David Hockney

Hockney's masterpiece was the protagonist of a sale comprising many other top works: Mark Rothko's Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), sold for US$35,712,500 (£27,868,427), Francis Bacon's Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, which collected US$21,687,500 (£16,923,949), and Discography Two (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which achieved US$20.9 million (£16.3 mil).

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