Contemporary Art

The Painting That Started It All: Discover David Hockney's First Swimming Pool

By Halina Loft
'Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool' , David Hockney's very first painting from his renowned corpus of pools, is a highlight of Sotheby's upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction . The auction will be held on 14 November at 7:00 PM EDT in New York; the public exhibition of works included in the sale begins on 1 November.
David Hockney, PICTURE OF A HOLLYWOOD SWIMMING POOL, 1964. Estimate $6,000,000 – 8,000,000.
“If there is one image that more than any other is conventionally associated with David Hockney’s art, surely it is the image of the swimming pool.”
(Christopher Knight, “Composite Views: Themes and Motifs in Hockney’s Art,” Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (and travelling), David Hockney: A Retrospective, 1988, p. 23)

David Hockney photographed by Cecil Beaton at Reddish House in 1965. Photo © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

I n late 1963, a 26-year-old artist named David Hockney stepped off a plane and onto the sun-baked Los Angeles tarmac. The trip was Hockney's first to Southern California, and it would prove to be monumental. Born and raised under the cloudy skies of West Yorkshire, England, Hockney was shocked by the region's persistent sunshine, bright color palette and relaxing lifestyle. As Hockney himself notes:

“Well California did affect me very strongly. When I first went there – I went at the end of 1963 – I went there with the intention of staying for six months to paint there, I didn’t know a soul there. Somehow I instinctively knew that I was going to like it. As I flew over San Bernardino and looking down and saw the swimming pools and the houses and everything and the sun, I was more thrilled than I’ve ever been arriving at any other city…”
David Hockney (Quoted in: Walker, John Albert. 'Cultural Offensive: America's Impact on British Art Since 1945'. United Kingdom, Pluto Press, 1998.)

The following year, when Hockney was back in England to celebrate the holiday season, he used his drawings and memories of Los Angeles to paint the seminal Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool. Executed in acrylic on canvas, the present work is the very first painting of a swimming pool – the motif that continues to define Hockney’s oeuvre.

In creating this work, Hockney chose to use acrylic paint instead of the oils he previously relied on in the early 1960s. This break in technique marked a pivotal point in the young artist's career, and was motivated by his desire to focus on the image itself, instead of thick layers of paint (a poignant break from the tactics championed by the preceding generation of artists). Framed with a border of virgin canvas around the image, Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool mimics the look and feel of a photograph – a snapshot of the perfect day in Hollywood, brought to life by what art critic Peter Plagens describes in the January 1976 edition of Artforum, “small structural miracles.”

David Hockney sitting by his pool in Los Angeles, circa 1993. Photo by Mary E. Nichols.

Undulating loops of blue and white paint reveal the pool's shimmering surface, while the stark angles of the gray deck creates a vertiginous drop, inviting the viewer to peer over the edge into the water beyond. Grounding the canvas is a leafy plant, another signature Hockney motif; the forest-green shading on the pot, as well as the dark-blue accents on the deck chair, add depth and light to the otherwise flat planes. The swirl of colors and mix of lines combine to present a remarkably inviting, transportive vision of a modern California oasis.

Over the ensuing decades, Hockney placed swimming pools in a number of his works, including A Bigger Splash (Tate Gallery, London), Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and California Copied from 1965 Painting in 1987 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). In 2018, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million, setting a new price record for a work by Hockney.

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