David Hockney, the British (and sometimes California) artist known for his movie "A Bigger Splash" and his madcap opera sets as well as his whimsical drawings, paintings and photographs, is one of the most popular living artists.
Tonight, the proof came in the form of a record auction price for his work: $275,000, for one of his California landscapes. It was more than three times his previous top price, $82,750, set in 1979.
"California Seascape" (1968), an 84-by-120 inch canvas depicting the entrance to the Newport Beach harbor through a plate-glass window, was one of four Hockney pictures offered in a sale of 83 pieces of contemporary art at Sotheby's in the first of the fall's evening sales.
The top price was commanded by a wall relief by Frank Stella, "Anderstorp" (1981), which fetched $319,000. Less than three years ago, according to Leo Castelli, the artist's dealer, such works were sold for $90,000.
Record prices were set for several artists, including A.R. Penck, for "Was System Wired" (1982), which was bought for $47,500 by financier Marshall Cogan. Penck is one of the group of young German, Italian and American artists who have moved with record speed into the contest for top prices. Records were also established for the more mature pop artist Claes Oldenburg, with "Typewriter Eraser," a seven-foot pop art sculpture fetching $181,500. A realistic and life-size sculpture of a tacky tourist by George Segal, "Florida Shopper" (1973), brought a record $88,000 and, as could be expected, some laughter from the audience.
Hockney's "Two Men in a Shower" (1963) brought $144,000; his "Outpost Drive Hollywood" (1980) garnered the same amount. But the main disappointment for many was "Play Within a Play," the more important, if not more difficult, Hockney painting -- the one that first brought him, at age 26, wide recognition. It brought $250,000, a respectable price but not the earth-shattering bid that had been expected here.
Inspired by a 17th-century painting of tapestries by Domenichino of a picture within a picture, and included in the artist's movie, the painting captures Hockney's London dealer, John Kasmin, with his hands raised in horror. "It seemed appropriate to trap him in this small space between art and life," the artist has said of his positioning of Kasmin.
"The picture should have brought a half-million dollars," Kasmin exclaimed after the sale. "It's not that the picture is of me, though I will tell you something funny. A man came up to me and said, 'I am going to buy that picture. I don't know who the artist is, but I have always wanted a picture of John Kasmin."
About 1,000 people crammed into the salesroom, including contingents from London and California and bidders from such places as Brazil, Saudi Arabia and, for the first time in recent memory, China.
The main excitement of the evening came midway through the sale when a battle broke out between two potential buyers, each making bids over a telephone hookup. As the crowd listened, some seemingly in disbelief, the bids on a Roy Lichtenstein painting, "Crying Girl" (1964), climbed from the generally accepted pre-auction estimate of $45,000-$65,000 to $181,000.
"It was just good old-fashioned auction fever," said Sotheby's Lucy Havelock-Allan. "And I was happy to see it."