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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
David Hockney is America's finest living realist painter. Some would argue that Wayne Thiebaud or perhaps Richard Estes deserves that title, but as far as variety of subject matter, diversity of mediums and the sheer wit and intelligence of his imagery, Hockney has them all beat.
On the world stage, only Lucian Freud can be considered as a possible rival. Freud is a great painter, but his subject matter is limited to portraits. Freud produces far less work than Hockney, and his prices are correspondingly higher. However, if someone offered me a choice between one of Hockney's greatest paintings -- say, the famous painting of Peter Schlesinger standing by the edge of a swimming pool -- or a masterwork by Freud, it would be awfully hard to turn down the Hockney.
What, exactly, is Hockney's appeal? Many books have been written on the artist and most reveal a writer completely enamored of his or her subject. Whether making paintings or making a fashion statement, Hockney has always been special. He's one of those charismatic individuals who comes along once every generation and transcends his field. People gossip about where Hockney eats, shops and vacations as much as they discuss his art.
Many art world insiders complain that Hockney may have once been great, but that he has squandered his talent over the years. A look at some of his weakest bodies of work reveals that to be the case. But even with Hockney's worst paintings, such as the pathetic portraits of his sleeping dachshund, Stanley, he still manages to provoke.
During the late 1990s, Hockney began to regain his form. He spent some time in his native Britain and returned with some first-rate realist landscapes of the English countryside. He followed up these pictures with a group of fantastic paintings of the Grand Canyon. By general consensus, these were the best paintings by Hockney since his classic mid-1960s to early-1970s period. It was widely reported that the largest painting of the series was sold to the Australian National Gallery for $3 million.
Despite his comeback, Hockney's current market is difficult to analyze because so few unique works come on the auction block. It's hard to remember the last time a major painting came up for sale. Last season, auction observers had to settle for the appearance of one of his vaunted Paper Pools -- a series of monotypes from 1978, composed of colorful squirts of pressed paper pulp. A six-panel Paper Pool came up in May 2000 at Sotheby's with an estimate of $500,000-$600,000. Given the scarcity of anything of quality and scale by Hockney, it was hardly surprising that the work exceeded estimate and brought $665,750.
The 1998 Art Market Guide sang the praises of Hockney's colored pencil drawings, declaring them to be the Matisse drawings of the future. Nothing has changed my opinion since then. The best of these drawings (roughly 1967-1978) are difficult to find, but well worth the effort. Naturally, the heaviest demand exists for those with the easiest subject matter: pools, gardens, still lifes and portraits of Hockney's close friend, Celia.
When one of these works does come on the market, the results can be spectacular. In June 1999, at Christie's Los Angeles, the cover lot featured a pool image titled Eight Sunchairs by a Pool. It was given a pre-sale estimate of $40,000-$60,000, and sold for a winning bid of $145,500.
However, that doesn't mean that one has to be prepared to spend six figures to acquire a colored pencil drawing. Plenty of good drawings exist in the $35,000-$75,000 range. You just have to work hard to find them. What makes the drawings so important is that they show Hockney at his most spontaneous and least self-conscious. Like most artists (with the exception of Jasper Johns), Hockney approaches drawing with a much looser touch than his paintings. The results are drawings that are self-assured but relaxed -- littered with "mistakes" and incidents -- that he would paint out if they were on canvas. The drawings have an honest feeling that exposes the thought process of the artist.
A big part of Hockney's market is his prints. At his best, Hockney is a master printmaker. At his worst, he's dreadful. The most desirable prints appear to be the lithographs done at Tyler Graphics in 1985, which were inspired by a resort in Mexico called the Hotel Acatlan. All of the prints from this series are bold, colorful and extremely decorative, in a positive sense. Most of these prints hover in the $25,000-$50,000 price range. However, there are also a few Hockney prints that are every bit as good for under $5,000. I am referring to the lithograph Pool Made of Paper and Blue Ink for Book, printed in an edition of 1,000, that can be bought for around $4,500.
Despite being acknowledged as a master at the age of 30, and now with a career that has now spanned almost 40 years, Hockney is only 63 years old. Chances are good that he will remain a vital presence on the art scene for quite some time. Hockney continues to be an innovator, as evidenced by his recent works that used a sighting device called a "camera Lucida" -- a tool used by some Renaissance masters 500 years ago to compose their paintings. It's this constant searching and willingness to take risks that makes Hockney such a force. Younger artists, who keep looking for shock value to stand out from the pack, rather than depth and clarity of thought, would do well to look to Hockney for inspiration.
A final consideration is that, as of this writing, David Hockney remains unaffiliated with a New York gallery. Even though his long-time previous dealer, Andre Emmerich, has been closed for a few years, Hockney has been in no apparent rush to commit to a new dealer. As you can imagine, he's one of the few living artists who can write his own ticket. In fact, even though Jasper Johns has also remained independent since the death of Leo Castelli, Hockney may be the greater prize. The reason is that Johns produces so little work -- and then keeps half of his paintings. Given Hockney's fame and desirability, it will be interesting to watch who he anoints as Emmerich's successor.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.