Art 16 November 2018 | 12:34

David Hockney is now the world’s most expensive living artist

16 November 2018 12:34

Another day, another attention-grabbing sale in the auction rooms. This time, it’s David Hockney in the headlines as, following the $90.3 million sale of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), he overtakes Jeff Koons to become the world’s most expensive living artist.

Not that the artist will be coining it in himself. Having initially sold the work for $18,000 back in 1972, Hockney saw it resold almost immediately for three times as much. Since then, the work has followed the trajectory of so much of today’s commercially anointed mega-art, becoming yet another commodity shuttling between the portfolios of the world’s wealthiest, and sometimes shadiest, individuals; at best an ostentatious status symbol, at worse something locked in a vault until the market is ready to append another column of figures to its value.

The art market is a peculiar beast and, as ever, it is hard to escape the eternal suspicion that it has only the most marginal relationship with art. While museums do occasionally secure great artworks for their collections by paying extraordinary prices, the top end of the market is otherwise dominated by the kind of ‘investors’ who can blithely drop a hundred million dollars on a thoroughly lousy Modigliani or a Warhol screenprint.

The market loves Warhol, no doubt seeing something of itself in an artist who so enthusiastically engineered the commodification of his art, sucking up to any dubious character he could find so long as their pockets were deep enough and egos big enough to play the game. Referring to Warhol’s giddy relationship with the Shah of Iran, the critic Robert Hughes suggested that ‘nothing pulls the art world into line faster that the sight of an imperial chequebook’, an assertion that evidently still holds, especially if we substitute ‘oligarch’s’ for ‘imperial’. Warhol leapt upon anything that stank of money, gilded it with a veneer of celebrity, and supercharged the trend that led us down a dismal path towards the dominion of Koons and Hirst. No wonder Donald Trump used to wander around approvingly quoting Warhol’s business maxims.

Leaving aside the question of whether it is appropriate that Russian businessmen, ex-Caucasian or Gulf state politicians, or billionaire American bankers should be able to whitewash their sometimes questionable reputations, or indeed their money, in the auction houses of New York and London, it is hard to take seriously a mechanism that rates American abstract painter, Barnett Newman, above Titian or Rubens. Best prices never mean best art.

Having said that, at least the latest record-busting sale has been achieved by an artist worthy of some glory. Hockney remains an artist of skill and vision, a man with an immense knowledge of and respect for art history, of unquestioned technical ability and restless invention. Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is one of the pioneering series of Los Angeles paintings he made during the late sixties and early seventies, following his escape from dreary Britain into the Californian promised land of sun, shadows, cool pools and hot boys.

These are defining works, both in terms of Hockney’s progression as a painter and in our understanding of LA, creating a shorthand vision of the city that has endured. By combining the swimming pool motif with his other characteristic trope, the double portrait, this painting is an unusual and, perhaps, doubly significant piece.

If Banksy’s flimsy Girl with Balloon shredder stunt can sell for a million, then perhaps we must concede that it’s fair enough to throw so much more at a Hockney painting. To convert the sale into the currency of another shady rich man’s fancy, you might just about get Philippe Coutinho for that, but only half of Neymar. Hockney will outlast both. We can only hope that the buyer will actually put him on a wall.