Lot 31
  • 31

DAVID HOCKNEY | What About the Caves

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 GBP
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  • David Hockney
  • What About the Caves
  • signed, titled and dated 1991 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 92.1 by 122.3 cm. 36 1/4 by 48 1/4 in.


The Artist
L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, California (acquired from the above in 1998)
Private Collection, Beverly Hills
Acquired from the above by the present owner


Chicago, Richard Gray Gallery, David Hockney: Recent Pictures, January - February 1992, p. 19, no. 9, illustrated in colour
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Madrid, Fundación Juan March; and Barcelona, Palau de la Virreina, David Hockney, June 1992 - February 1993, p. 93, no. 68, illustrated in colour (Brussels); cover and p. 93, no. 68, illustrated in colour (Madrid)
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Paintings as Performance, May - June 1996
Manchester, Manchester City Art Galleries, David Hockney: You Make the Picture – Paintings and Prints 1982 - 1995, November 1996 - February 1997, n.p., no. 35, illustrated in colour
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Espace/Paysage, January - April 1999, p. 134, illustrated in colour
Bonn, Kunst und Austellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Exciting Times are Ahead, June - September 2001, p. 165, no. 59, illustrated in colour


Paul Melia and Ulrich Luckhardt, David Hockney: Paintings, Munich and New York 1994, p. 165, no. 97, illustrated
Marco Livingstone, David Hockney, London 2005, p. 256, no. 193, illustrated in colour
Nikos Stangos, Ed., David Hockney: That’s the Way I See It, London 1993, p. 223, no. 321, illustrated in colour
David Hockney and Hans Werner Holzwarth, Eds., David Hockney. A Bigger Book, London 2016, pp. 258-59, illustrated in colour


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the overall tonality is brighter and more vibrant in the original. Condition: Please refer to the department for a professional condition report.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A witty and engaging composition of whimsically abstracted forms and playfully interlocking perspectives, David Hockney’s What About the Caves is emblematic of the artist’s boundless curiosity and artistic scholarship. Emerging from a period of intense creativity and experimentation, this work at once references the artist’s past influences and his innovations yet to come. Painted in 1991, simultaneously with the set designs Hockney produced for Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House in London, What About the Caves theatrically demonstrates the transition from mimetic representation to abstraction that occupied this innovative master at the time. Hockney here presents a composition of vividly contrasting textures, patterns, shapes, and hues; in its display of technique and kaleidoscopic colour, it recalls the brilliant Californian settings for which he is best known, yet in its Cubist geometry and dreamlike eccentricity, it foreshadows the Surrealist abstraction that would come to characterise the next phase of his career. Indeed, in an exhibition of his paintings at Richard Gray Gallery in 1992, the artist singled out What About the Caves as the most rigorous and intricately composed of his recent work: “They were around the room… and I realized that What About the Caves? was the most complex” (David Hockney, That’s the Way I See it, London 1993, p. 221). Recently honoured with a retrospective exhibition that travelled from London to Paris to New York, Hockney is one of Britain’s greatest and most beloved artists. His work possesses an exuberance, painterly bravura, and innovative perspectival intelligence, that is beautifully crystallised in What About the Caves. This painting, like Hockney’s most important works, is steeped in art-historical reference. Here, the biomorphic shapes that dominate the composition, with their strange shadows and dreamlike quality, recall the metaphysical works of Giorgio de Chirico or the Surrealist landscapes of Yves Tanguy. Hockney’s vivid, saturated colours also evoke his Fauvist hero Henri Matisse, while his foreshortening of ground and compression of perspective clearly reveal his abiding interest in Cubism. Perhaps the most important feature of the present work, however, is its sheer painterliness, as Hockney’s mastery of stroke and texture come markedly to the fore. What About the Caves, in both its title and its execution, demonstrates the artist’s reassertion of the value of painting against a contemporary backdrop of installation art, performance, digitisation and new media. In reminding us of the very foundation of art – cave paintings – while also illustrating a variety of styles and influences from within its history, Hockney reaffirms his chosen medium as a valid and worthy artistic pursuit.

A visual precursor to his series of Very New Paintings, which were conceived and exhibited in 1992, What About the Caves shows Hockney returning to canvases with a greater freedom of invention in space and form. For a few years in the late 1980s and early '90s, Hockney had a fruitful period of creativity staging opera sets and expanding his painterly universe. The influence of that work is apparent in the present example, the flatness of the pictorial plane emulating that of a stage set, as the downstage figures appear to stretch backwards and join seamlessly with the upstage cliffs. These entwined fluid and lyrical forms explore spatial composition and the limits of realism and abstraction in a way that can be said to achieve Hockney’s goal of insinuating a multiplicity of perspectives in a single picture. Though Hockney has stated he is not a theoretician when it comes to art, he maintains a unique conceptual aspiration to fuse the languages of representation and abstraction into a more authentic depiction of reality. Combining a belief in the expressive potential of abstract painting with his practiced understanding of perception and illusionistic space, Hockney’s works from this period, including What About the Caves, are first and foremost astonishingly inventive responses to subjective experiences.

Of these 1990s pictures, Andrew Wilson writes: “…Hockney returned to Malibu and started on a series of paintings that fused all these spatial ideas together to create a language that, although formally abstract, was suggestive of landscape. Hockney believed that the forms of the painting – French curves, serpentine lines, swirls, tunnels, plans and cones – were a direct result of his being situated at Malibu, between the forces of mountains and ocean” (Andrew Wilson, ‘Experiences of Space’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain (and travelling), David Hockney, 2017, p. 147). These works represent the sum of Hockney’s experiences in the preceding years – from Malibu landscapes to London opera houses – and yet, through their inventive abstract compositions, move his oeuvre forward in a new direction. Fragmented, non-representational, and viewed through the prismatic lens of the historical canon, What About the Caves is a classic example of the experimentation and innovation that has characterised Hockney’s masterful career.