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David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist and the priciest works by living artists ever sold at auction

David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) fetched $90 million US, a new record, after it wents under the hammer in New York. Here is a look at the other living artists on the list of top-sellers at auction.

Recent record-setters include high-profile artists Koons, Richter and Kusama

A visitor photographs David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) at Christie's Hong Kong in September. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

He's one of the best-known artists alive today, regularly turning out painterly iPad creations. A retrospective of his work drew throngs to the Tate Britain, the Pompidou Centre and The Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. 

Art insiders are unanimous about the evocative allure of his iconic swimming pool paintings from the 1960s and '70s, while his work overall has been rocketing up in price at international auctions.

So, perhaps it's not surprising that David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) — perhaps the most recognized piece of his swimming pool series — fetched $90 million US when it went under the hammer at Christie's New York.

The painting was believed to be owned by British financier Joe Lewis, who purchased it from entertainment mogul David Geffen back in the late '80s.

The large-scale 1972 canvas is one of the British artist's dual-figure portraits, in this case set at an inviting backyard pool against a landscape of verdant hills.

The striking painting has a heck of a backstory.

In 1971, inspired by two unrelated photos that had fallen together in his studio, Hockney began a new work that cast his former lover and favourite muse, California artist Peter Schlesinger, as a young man looking down at a swimming figure. But, along with grappling with the breakdown of his relationship with Schlesinger, Hockney realized after months of work that he wasn't happy with the composition: the angle of the pool was all wrong. He'd have to start over with just weeks to go before the painting was due at a significant art exhibit.

Hockney moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s. (Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images)

Working 18 hours days for a solid two weeks before the show, Hockney has recalled he "literally finished the painting the night before it had to be sent off to the exhibition." That difficult period was captured in the provocative docudrama A Bigger Splash

And yet, despite the recent global buzz over Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), the octogenarian artist remains cool amid the hype.  

"I ignore it," Hockney declared to Reuters Wednesday evening, as he received an artistic lifetime achievement honour from Norway's Queen Sonja in London.

"I have the vanity of an artist. I want my work to be seen, but I don't have to be seen."

Here is a look at the pieces Hockney's painting has surpassed on the list of the most expensive works of art by living artists ever sold at auction: 

Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994-2000 

Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) is seen on display at Christie's in New York ahead of its sale in November 2013. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Provocative American artist Jeff Koons previously held the record with Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold for $58.4 million US at a Christie's New York auction in November 2013.

The massive, stainless steel piece is one of Koons's eye-catching, pop culture sculptures offering a hyper-realistic depiction of everyday objects in exaggerated scale.

Abstraktes Bild (1986)

The Gerhard Richter painting Abstraktes Bild is previewed at Sotheby's in London in 2015. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Germany's Gerhard Richter is another artist whose oil paintings are much coveted on the international scene. The brilliantly coloured work Abstraktes bild (1986), one of the artist's so-called squeegee paintings, sold for a whopping $46.3 million US at a Sotheby's London sale in February 2015.

This came about two years after an earlier Richter work, the 1968 oil painting Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan), sold for $37.1 million US. Richter has reacted with "horror" to these astronomical prices. 

"We artists get next to nothing from such an auction. Except for a small morsel, all the profit goes to the seller," he said in an interview with German daily Die Zeit. He said he tends to shut his studio door "on most of the discussion about the market and prices."

"I'm good at suppressing it."

The Grand Snowing Mountains, 2013

Chinese artist Cui Ruzhuo created the multi-panelled ink painting The Grand Snowing Mountains in 2013. (Poly Auction (Hong Kong) Limited)

Chinese painter Cui Ruzhuo is becoming an artist to watch at auction for his modern take on ancient Chinese ink paintings.

His multi-panelled 2013 artwork The Grand Snowing Mountains sold for $39.6 million US at Poly Auction Hong Kong in April 2016.


Living female artists are also starting to see a rise in interest in their work at auction.

Several names have dominated in recent years, though their works sold for dramatically lower final prices than those of their top-selling male peers. 

Propped

A woman examines Jenny Saville's painting, Propped, on display in London last month. (Samir Hussein/Getty Images for Sotheby's)

Counted among the U.K.'s once-controversial collective Young British Artists, Jenny Saville captured the title of top-selling living female artist at auction last month, when her 1992 painting, Propped, sold for $12.4 million US at Sotheby's London.

Like much of Saville's oeuvre, the seated, nude, self-portrait challenges societal perceptions of beauty and body image. It was among the provocative, headline-grabbing artworks featured by famed collector Charles Saatchi in his notorious 1997 Royal Academy of Art exhibition, Sensation, alongside Damien Hirst's pickled shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living; Tracey Emin's tent installation, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995; and Marcus Harvey's painting of convicted child killer Myra Hindley.

Two years earlier, Saville's Shift — a large-scale painting depicting a wave of female nudes pressed together that was also included in Saatchi's Sensation exhibit — sold for $9 million US at Sotheby's London.

Bluewald (1989)

Cady Noland's Bluewald was previously the highest-selling artwork by a living female artist at auction. (Christie's Images Ltd. 2018)

The work of American conceptual sculptor Cady Noland is highly sought-after at auction — despite her shunning of the formal art market and the media for years, and in several cases, disavowing her own artworks years after their creation. 

Her dark, political work has explored American identity, infatuation with celebrity, violence and death. Several of her Lee Harvey Oswald pieces have drawn significant attention, including Bluewald (1989), which sold for $9.8 million US at Christie's New York in May 2015. 

White No. 28 (1960)

Yayoi Kusama's 1960 oil-on-canvas painting White No. 28 was also a previous record-holder, fetching $7.1 million US in 2014. (Christie's Images Ltd. 2018)

Decades after she first made a splash, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has become one of the world's hottest artists, perhaps due to the appealing and seemingly made-for-Instagram quality of her polka dot creations and immersive infinity mirror rooms. 

Kusama's White No. 28 (1960)  tripled the high end of its presale estimate back in November 2014, when it sold for $7.1 million US at Christie's New York — perhaps setting the scene for the boffo reception of the major retrospective of her work currently touring North America.