After only nine minutes of bidding for a 1972 painting by David Hockney at Christie's in New York, it sold for a whopping $90.3 million – the most ever bid for the work of a living artist. The sale of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), eclipsed the previous high in 1913 of $58.4 million for Jeff Kon's Balloon Dog. A pooch and a pool are not the usual subjects of high-valued art. What accounts for this history-making news?

Painting top-rated

New York Times art writers Scott Reburn and Robin Pogrebin attribute Hockney's success to “the “dearth of masterworks for sale.” But that runs counter to how Betsy Bickar of the Art Advisory for Citi Private Bank sees the pool painting.

The Art Newspaper quotes her saying, “The market obviously has not lost its appetite for a masterpiece.” Does Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) fit such billing? Apparently, it comes close, given what Maria Celis, Christie's vice-president of contemporary art told Art Daily: “This is the one opportunity to buy the best painting from the artist. This is it!”

Love story

So what makes this Portrait of an Artist “best”? The New York Times writers call it “a different kind of trophy...painted by an openly gay artist about the emotional life of gay men.” Art Daily even makes a point of identifying the man in the pool as “Hockney's former lover and muse, Peter Schlesinger, who was one of his students at the University of California.

In the swim

But hold on. There's no evidence of a gay relationship in the painting. All you see is a male figure in sports coat and slacks – California style - watching another male figure swimming under the glistering water of a sun-drenched mountain-top pool. One may wonder, then, why Hockney's sexual orientation was ever factored into the assessment of his work.

Unless the art world now uses biographical information to evaluate an artwork, such information seems irrelevant to its worth.

Another thing. Hockney's work has not always been taken seriously. As Art Daily rightly points out, critics have long faulted it for colors too bright and figure painting too realistic, and even quotes the artist downplaying his art by calling himself “a peripheral artist.”

Defining Terms

So what changed?

After all, Hockney's colors are still bright and his figures still realistic. What makes a near half-century-old pool painting masterful now and not before. ? And don't say it's the pubic's latter-day acceptance of homosexuality. This painting no more depicts a same-sex act than does Michelangelo's “David,” even though the sculptor was also gay.

Maybe one way to understand what makes art great is to check out art critic Charlotte Willard's brave 1964 BookWhat is a Masterpiece?” She defines great art as an invention, a revelation, and the fruit of the past with seeds of the future. If that's true, Hockney's painting doesn't cut it.