In a fevered marketplace, the middle painting in the ‘Splash’ series by the British artist David Hockney sold in auction at Sotheby’s of London for £23.1m in February 2020. Painted in 1966, ‘The splash’ depicts the spray created in the seconds after a dive into a perfect turquoise pool at his California home.
David has had a lifelong fascination with water, a transparent medium well replicated on his artist’s palette which reflected, refracted, distorted and magnified, often all at the same time.
I saw the same pool glinting in the relentless Californian sun as I arrived on the west coast in 1978, about a decade after David. I did not know him then – it was only a few years later, after we had met in London, that he invited me to stay at his LA home, recently purchased from the actor Anthony Perkins.
I had started a series of interviews with David on the broad subject of ‘ways of seeing’, having been bowled over by his experimental Polaroid ‘joiners’ which I had seen at John Kasmin Gallery in London. The conversations eventually gestated into Hockney on Photography (Jonathan Cape, 1988). Together with its companion volume, Hockney on Art (Little, Brown, 2000), these books chart my working relationship and friendship with David from around 1982-1999.
Staying with him many times in the Hollywood Hills, I got to know his famous pool well. I used it almost every day and occasionally acted as an unpaid ‘pool man’. topping it up via a tap with a hose by the side of those familiar Hockney-painted tiles. One day I popped the hose into the pool and nodded off, waking to the sound of water cascading down the mountainside. By now it looked like an infinity pool, with water right up to the brim. I couldn’t leave it like that, a clear giveaway. So, I jumped into the pool, just as in David’s paintings, flapping around the shallow end like a chicken on cocaine, creating mini tidal waves which finally reduced the volume of water in the pool to a boringly average level.
The series I photographed, which recently sold quite substantially via the Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, had been planned for some time. I wanted to get David into his pool and shoot pictures which described the distortion rendered by water to the human figure when recorded by a camera.
I chose black and white film, rejecting colour as I did not want to try and emulate David’s pool images, where turquoise is always the dominant colour (his favourite, by the way). It was like trying to coax an unwilling tarantula into a matchbox, albeit a large water-filled one. Many attempts failed, then finally, one late afternoon when the sun was all but gone, he appeared in his bathing suit.
I hurriedly stripped off and got in as well, and within no more than ten minutes I had recorded the full series pretty much just as I had imagined. Although David is very aware of cameras – what they are doing and seeing – and in a sense tacitly co-operated with my aspiration, he never commented on the event or asked to see the results. They were taken in 1990 and were not printed as a complete set for 30 years.
However, in professional as well as aesthetic terms, that was the most intense and photographically creative ten minutes of my artistic life.