A visitor takes a photograph of 'Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures), at the Tate Britain in London. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Is This $90 Million David Hockney The World’s Most Expensive Instagram-Bait?

‘​Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ is the highest-selling work by a living artist, but is it possible its buyer is out here doing it for the ’gram?

by Emma Specter
Nov 16 2018, 5:03pm

A visitor takes a photograph of 'Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures), at the Tate Britain in London. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ sold for $90.3 million at Christie's last night after a mere nine minutes of bidding, officially deflating Jeff Koons’s dog balloons, sold at Christie’s in 2013 for $58.4 million, to make Hockney the highest-selling living artist in the world.

What is it about the 1972 artwork, though, that commands such a high asking price? Hockney has a living legacy as one of the defining pop artists of the 1960s, and has had an obvious influence on a generation of figurative artists. He was also the subject of three major retrospectives in the past year, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Tate Britain, and the Centre Pompidou.

But what about his inherent Instagrammability?

Like much of Hockney's work, the composition of ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ is simply rendered and pleasing to the eye; dominated by cool blue and verdant green, the painting is as Instagram-friendly as your most recent jaunt to the Soho House rooftop pool. The painting depicts American artist and model Peter Schlesinger—a favorite subject and onetime lover of Hockney’s—watching an underwear-clad figure struggle underwater with seemingly no interest, hinting at a form of glamorous, essentially Southern Californian alienation that often seems to thrum beneath those obnoxious selfies at the pink Paul Smith wall in West Hollywood.

The #davidhockney hashtag on Instagram overflows with people standing in the foreground of ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ watching the Schlesinger figure watch the swimmer in what feels like an unintentionally meta piece of site-specific performance art. Indeed, the most popular color shades on Instagram—bright blue, teal, soothing pastel-pink—are the same as the painting’s color palette. Over the past year, an Instagram from one of the Hockney retrospectives has become a certain mark of cultural connoisseurship, which no doubt helped drive the buzz around the sale.

Not content to merely pose with ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),’ though, influential Hockney fans from Ian Berry to Helen Whittaker have posted selifes with the 81-year-old British artist himself. Does part of Hockney's $90-million-dollar appeal come from the fact that, like Agnes Varda or Iris Apfel, he commands a certain amount of chic-octogenarian Insta clout? (Those glasses were, after all, born to be Instagrammed.) His signature style even compelled one woman to Instagram her quest to dress up as Hockney every day of October, or “HOCKtober.”

Of course, the Hockney in question has a storied past that goes beyond its current Insta-friendly status; its seller on Thursday was British billionaire Joe Lewis, who acquired it in 1983 from none other than David Geffen (who, it should be mentioned, logged onto Instagram in September to post a truly epic time-travel thirst trap from 2000.) Who knows, maybe Hockney’s next painting will sell to Lil Miquela.

David Hockney