An early David Hockney painting depicting a California swimming pool—one of the artist’s most iconic and celebrated motifs—could sell for more than $20 million when it goes to auction at Christie’s in London in March. The sale marks the first time in over 40 years that the work, titled California, will be displayed in public.
“As one of David Hockney’s first of a series of now fabled pool paintings, California stands as one of the most important pictures of the artist’s career,” says Joseph Braka, a junior specialist in postwar and contemporary art for Christie’s in London, in a statement. “Executed on a grand scale, with dynamic line and vibrant color, the painting vividly conveys the wide-eyed exhilaration of a young Englishman plunged into a social revolution sweeping the West Coast of America.”
The British artist, now 86, painted California in 1965, not long after traveling to Los Angeles for the first time. He was famously taken by the glamorous, sunny city. “I thought, ‘This is the place to be—in the land of swimming pools,’” he told ARTnews’ Katherine McMahon in 2015.
California depicts two nude pool dwellers lounging lazily on floats in patterned blue waters, with a crisp green lawn visible on the periphery.
“Through a body of tangled lines and cells, emblematic of his early style before his move towards naturalism, Hockney masterfully captures the elusive and ever-changing properties of water and light,” adds Braka.
The work set the stage for some of Hockney’s most renowned poolside pieces, including Sunbather (1966), A Bigger Splash (1967) and Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). Per the auction house, Hockney considered California so essential to his body of work that when he wasn’t able to include the painting in his 1988 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he created another copy of it.
California is expected to be the big ticket item in Christie’s “20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale” on March 7. However, the high estimate is somewhat modest compared to the price of Hockney’s most expensive works. In 2018, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) went for an impressive $90.3 million, setting a record for the most expensive piece ever sold at auction by a living artist. (Jeff Koons’ Rabbit beat the record in 2019, fetching $91.1 million.)
Before the sale, California will embark on a touring exhibition, making stops in Paris and New York in February. It will also go on view once more when it returns to London.
“[The painting has] a sense of optimism in its bright, fresh colors, so different [from] his work in the 1950s,” Katharine Arnold, Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art in Europe, tells the Financial Times’ Melanie Gerlis. “The freedom of the 1960s and the liberation of living how you want to comes through. That was what the American dream brought—as well as having a swimming pool in your garden.”
In Christie’s statement, Arnold adds: “This sense of the artist’s optimism and jubilation is in the very fabric of Hockney’s California.”