After the Tate in London, and prior to the MoMA in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is celebrating the artist’s 80th birthday. Landscapes, portraits and drawings show the incredible vitality of this British painter, the author of a dense, colourful, polymorphous body of work that is more sought after than ever – as figures show.
A thin silhouette in front of a monumental work, David Hockney poses before The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, a 2011 painting that the Briton recently donated to the Centre Pompidou. It’s Tuesday 27 September, and the 80-year-old artist, donning a cap as always, has a green cardigan and a raspberry-coloured tie… The painter has a knack for matching colours. He’s smiling of course. He also makes jokes, it’s almost a habit for him. Hockney, we all know, is good-natured. This donation marks the retrospective that the Beaubourg in Paris is devoting to the artist until 23 October. No less than the most spectacular retrospective, in the painter’s opinion, for visitors can see, the artist confided in July 2017 to Éric Dahan for the magazine Vanity Fair, “one hundred and sixty works including my biggest painting, currently conserved in Australia – Bigger Trees Near Warter ou Peinture sur le motif pour le nouvel âge post-photographique –, as well as small paintings from my youth that I painted in Bradford sixty years ago.” This donation also enriches a French collection that has left little room for the pop artist. But can we reduce, to this adjective alone, the work of this Briton who can be considered the spiritual son born of the Picasso-Matisse union, this master illustrator and genius of colours, this artist who championed hyperrealism at a period when abstract expressionism was the only path to salvation in painting? “Abstraction dominated everything and people were adamant that it was the only way to paint, that it was no longer possible to paint any other way. This was what I also thought at the time,” he admitted in 1976.
From Bradford to Los Angeles
Everything started very early for David Hockney. A precocious artist, he entered Bradford School of Art in Yorkshire in 1953. Six years later, he enrolled in the London Royal College of Art, where he met Ron B. Kitaj, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield. In 1962, he was awarded a gold medal by the prestigious institution. At the age of 25, the boy from Bradford became an artist. He liked men and said so. His painting was autobiographical: his life, his family, his lovers came into his work. Hockney abandoned the abstraction he started out in, and turned figuration into his prime obsession. At the start of the 1960s, Hockney discovered the West Coast of the United States: Los Angeles, the Californian sun and picture-perfect swimming pools. The Yorkshire landscapes of his childhood gave way to stretches of water, whose mirroring effects he explored in his work. His painting turned solar – an example is A Bigger Splash, one of his most famous works. Painted in 1967, it shows a diving board in the foreground, the blue water of a swimming pool, and at the back, a building with modernist lines. No figures appear; only the splashing at the centre suggests a human presence. Fleeting, ephemeral… The artist enjoys capturing the transient. He nonetheless took some time to paint these splashes, and the paradox amused him. “The irony is that it took me two weeks to paint a two-second dive,” recalls the painter. He continues his recollections about the work: “When A Bigger Splash was first displayed, it cost barely 850 pounds. Film director Tony Richardson bought it but he gave it up after, saying that he didn’t like Hollywood. He declared, later, that it was the stupidest thing he ever did.” And the figures back up this view: in 2006, Sotheby’s sold a 1966 version of the work, The Splash, for an impressive £2.6 million!
A tireless worker – “he works till he drops!” his friend historian Henry Geldzahler would say –, Hockney produces art in big quantities: paintings of course (with a preference for faster acrylics over oil), drawings, but above all engravings and photographs. Hockney is one of these artists who dabble in everything, who enjoy varying techniques and exploiting all possibilities. He goes as far as producing sumptuous landscapes with the help of his iPad. Very early on, he developed a passion for photography, a medium that he uses to work on perspective, to imagine new modes of representation, a question that remains at the core of his preoccupations. In 2001, he published Savoirs secrets. Les techniques perdues des maîtres anciens, published by Editions du Seuil. The work, which endeavours to show that as of the Middle Ages, painters used optical devices, caused a splash. The pictorial representation of space is well and truly at the heart of the painter’s research, whether traditional, as in his big double portraits from the 1970s such as Le Parc des Sources, Vichy (1970), or innovative, as in A Bigger Canyon (1998). Hockney embarked on his emblematic work on the Grand Canyon in the early 1980s: he took a series of photographs of the site, which he assembled, in order to offer, not one, but several viewpoints of the landscape. The painting, measuring nearly eight metres long, extends The Pearblossom Highway 11-18th April 1986, held by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in which research into Cubist multiple viewpoints is detectable as well as research into the treatment of movement by the masters of Chinese painting. The two works were incidentally shown at the Centre Pompidou during the exhibition “David Hockney, Espace/Paysage” in 1999, eighteen years before the birthday retrospective.
An Anglo-Saxon market
The two Paris events – to which we can also add the 2010 exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, “Fleurs fraîches, dessins sur iPhone et iPad” – are not representative of the artist’s worldwide market. For David Hockney is a deeply Anglo-Saxon artist: his visibility and his market are fully concentrated in his birth country and his adopted land – Britain and the United States, for the artist lives and works in Los Angeles. In this way, his exhibitions, evenly spread between galleries and museums, are mainly held in the United States (50.58 %), ahead of Britain (19.07 %) and Germany (11.67 %). It is incidentally in the first two countries that the artist’s market is focused: a dense market representing a turnover of €183.8 million. The United States has placed 3,234 (40.59 %) lots on sale to raise €101.81 million (55.38 %), the United Kingdom, 3,084 lots (38.71 %) for a turnover of €76.9 million (41.84 %) – in other words 97 % between the pair of them! The most expensive work, Woldgate Woods, 24, 25 and 26 October 2006 (182.9 × 365.7 cm), sold at $10,200,000, on 17 November 2016 at Sotheby’s New York. In that year, Hockney’s turnover and average price for a work skyrocketed: over €30 million for the former and nearly €100,000 for the latter. However, the median price of Hockney’s works has remained stable over time, oscillating between $2,000 and 6,000 since the start of the 1990s. Hockney, it is known, is prolific. His work is vast, but his paintings – his most expensive pieces – represent, in terms of number, only 2.94 % of works placed on the market (7,967 lots), behind drawings (10.46 %) and above all engravings (80.14 %). The National Gallery of Australia has incidentally chosen to focus on this latter aspect of the artist’s work through a rich collection of engravings: “David Hockney Prints”, showing as of 17 November this year. The artist began producing prints very early on, in 1954, and his reflections on the representation of space are also expressed by this medium – as shown by Steps with Shadow F (Paper Pool 2) from 1978. This work sold for £520,000 on 19 January 2017 at Phillips London. However, in terms of value, prints represent only €33.2 million (18.04 % of the turnover), compared with €124 million (67.45 %) for paintings and €23.2 million (12.59 %) for drawings. Meanwhile, photographs correspond to only 1.75 % of the turnover (€3.2 million), the most expensive being Imogen + Hermiane, Pembroke Studios, London, 30th July 1982, which sold for $160,000 on 21 June 2010 at Sotheby’s New York. Taking into account all techniques, most of Hockney’s work on the market dates from the 1960s to the 1980s – which reflects what Hockney collectors, on the lookout for his most emblematic pieces, are after. Apart from the records for works created in 1978, 1988 and 2006, his most expensive pieces date from the 1960s – the ones depicting Hockney’s idea of the American dream, with swimming pools and modernist buildings in Los Angeles, like Beverly Hills Housewife from 1966-1967. This painting, showing the wealthy Betty Freeman, remained in the philanthropist’s collection until her death in 2009. That year, it sold for $7.9 million in New York (Christie’s). Its panoramic format invites the viewer into the canvas, and we become its actors and voyeurs. The style is smooth, impeccable, luminous, detached, almost asepticised, but entirely characteristic of the famous California Dreaming series – often (too often, it might be said) considered as Hockney’s best work.
“David Hockney. Rétrospective”. Until 23 October, Centre Pompidou, Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris 75004. www.centrepompidou.fr