Contemporary Art

David Hockney's Californian Dream

By Sotheby's

A vibrant David Hockney Swimming Pool painting will take centre stage in the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London on 7 March. Ahead of the sale, we look back at the subject that kept the artist captivated throughout the 1960s, inspiring some of his most famous works. 


Think of David Hockney and think of the swimming pool. Perhaps his most iconic motif, the great symbol of California’s outdoor pleasures – and an extremely exotic and sumptuous prospect for a young man from Bradford – the swimming pool plays the central role in Hockney’s output from 1963 to 1967.

Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica (1965) presents a version of the pool that is quintessentially Hockney but also an unusual abstraction of the motif. Here, the swimming pool evolves from a symbol of comfort and affluence to a formal device that allows him to play with texture, light and movement. The work combines Hockney’s fascination with finding ways to paint exactly what he sees with his singular ability to absorb and resolve the disparate aesthetic and technical concerns of Minimalism, Modernist Abstraction, and Pop art in a style that is entirely his own.

British painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer David Hockney, at Rising Glen, circa 1978. (Photo by Michael Childers/Corbis via Getty Images) Michael Childers/Corbis via Getty Images


Executed in 1965, Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica forms an integral part of what was to be a watershed moment in Hockney’s career. In December of that year the artist travelled back to England for the first time since he left for America, for his second one-man exhibition at John Kasmin’s celebrated and eponymous gallery in London. The exhibition was entitled Pictures with Frames and Still Life Pictures and included ten paintings he made in 1965. The show was a resounding success. A sell-out; critics were unanimous in their praise: "Most of David Hockney’s latest paintings… are the outcome of a trip to California. They are certainly among his best so far." (John Russell, The Times, 9 December 1965)

While it is hard to conceive that the boy from conservative Bradford in the North of England had indeed become Californian, the critics’ praise of this new body of work certainly gave credence to his desire to capture the atmosphere and essence of this bucolic land, exclaiming “My God, this place needs a Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am.” (David Hockney quoted in The Listener, 22 May 1975). Like his artistic forebear who captured Rome in all its glory, Hockney embarked on capturing California with the same vigour.


Hockney had been enthralled with Los Angeles since he first arrived there at the beginning of 1964. In California, he found the quintessence of a fantasy that he had formed wherein athletic young men, swimming pools, palm trees and perpetual sunshine sensually coexisted without inhibition. Indeed, Hockney’s interest in water and swimming pools allowed him to extend the European tradition of the depiction of classical beauties bathing, set harmoniously within a utopian landscape; a long standing theme within the history of Western art that has captivated Renaissance and Modern masters alike, from Titian and Rembrandt to Cézanne and Matisse.

The combination of boldness of design, grandeur of size and intensely vivid colour, of the explosive movement and variegation of water makes Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica one of Hockney’s most arresting and technically advanced images. This work not only summates the vision of the Californian idyll that so captivated the artist, it eloquently encapsulates the advancement of formal and technical concerns that would establish Hockney’s reputation as the leading artist of his generation. As he simply recalled: "Swimming pools I’ve always liked as things. I like swimming in blue swimming pools in sunny Hollywood. But water is done in quite different ways. Sometimes I did it very formally, other times it’s done more naturalistically... the way the light would dance on the water. And really the paintings about water are about movement aren’t they?" (David Hockney in conversation with Martin Glazebrook). 


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