When English painter David Hockney first flew into Los Angeles in the early 1960s, he was struck by the aerial view of bright blue swimming pools scattered across the city.
“In England, a swimming pool would have been seen as a sign of luxury, because the climate is not very good for outdoor pools,” he told Eleanor Wachtel in 2011. “But in Southern California, it’s not—they’re simply everywhere because you can enjoy them year-round.”
California’s swimming pools went on to become one of Hockney’s signature motifs and the subject of his most sought-after works. Now, Christie’s is offering up one of the earliest examples of the artist’s dalliance with pools—a vibrant and large-scale painting created shortly after he first visited Los Angeles in 1964.
Titled California, the 1965 painting hasn’t been seen in public for more than 40 years and has an estimate in the region of £16 million ($20 million). It has remained in a European private collection since 1968, when the current owners acquired the work from Kasmin Gallery.
“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,” said Joseph Braka, a junior specialist in post-war and contemporary art for Christie’s in London, in a statement. “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.”
Hockney was evidently a big fan of the painting. When the work was unavailable to include in a 1988 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he created a copy, now in the museum’s permanent collection, to use for the show.
An early example of Hockney’s iconic pool paintings
Many of the techniques defining Hockney’s later works are explored in the 1965 painting, according to Christie’s. Its kaleidoscopic depiction of water, for example, was reproduced in Hockney’s 1967 A Bigger Splash and 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). Meanwhile, the painting’s depiction of nude figures is an early example of subjects seen in works like the 1966 Sunbather and Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool.
“After a childhood brought up in the north of England, and having studied in London, still reeling from the Second World War, California must have felt like Arcadia; a beautiful place to be free and enjoy being young,” said Katherine Arnold, head of post-war and contemporary art in Europe for Christie’s, in a statement.
California will hit the block on March 7 as a highlight of Christie’s 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale. It will be exhibited across Paris and New York in February before going on view at Christie’s London headquarters ahead of the auction.
Hockney’s paintings, particularly those of swimming pools, have soared in value in recent years. His current auction record was established in 2018, when Christie’s auctioned Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) for $90 million. The work was sold by British billionaire and art collector Joe Lewis, who acquired it in 1995 from producer David Geffen.
Geffen also previously owned The Splash, another example of Hockney’s pool series that in 2020 fetched $31.1 million at Sotheby’s. And in July of last year, Phillips auction house announced plans to add an annual Hockney auction to its calendar in response to rising demand for the artist’s work.