Hockney’s iPad: How Technology Illuminates the Way We See

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depth in a painting is a trick performed with nothing more than color, occlusion, and trigonometry.

Staring at the Hockney videos, I could feel my brain being jarred out of its automatic routines. When I stopped looking at the screen and turned back to the real world, it spoke to me in layers. Neurological processes that are usually hidden became briefly visible. I think that whether you’re an artist or not, you have to appreciate these small moments of perceptual self-consciousness.

Hockney’s videos have a similar effect. The most popular and crowded room at the DeYoung exhibition featured a three-by-three array of flat-screen displays on each of the four walls. They played a movie captured by nine separate cameras, documenting a four-minute drive down the same wooded East Yorkshire lane in spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Sure, the piece was about time—you had to stand there for 16 minutes to get the full experience. But it was also about space. The camera’s views didn’t quite line up, which made the movies feel like joiners, the Cubist photo collages Hockney was making in the 1980s. But more importantly—for my little theory, anyway—the videos changed slowly enough that they were akin to a painting, the only difference being that the cameras were moving gradually into the scene. Whatever tree branches or fence posts formed the distant background at Minute One didn’t stay there for long. By Minute Two they were in the middle distance, then at Minute Three they were in the foreground, and at Minute Four they passed entirely out of the frame. Meanwhile, a new set of background shapes had popped up to replace them. Layers again—just recorded a different way.

I hope this doesn’t make me sound like I’m stoned, but the amazing thing about being ambulatory is that there is an infinite supply of background. No matter how far you advance, you’ll never run out of it. (Unless you’re Truman Burbank, in which case your sailboat will, eventually, crash into the horizon.) If a painting or video that exists in two dimensions can remind you how wondrous it is to live in three, I think the creator has earned his keep for the day.

Hockney himself is obsessed with the problems of vision, technology, and dimensionality. He’s said to be suspicious of photography; “it’s all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops—for a split second. But that’s not how the world really is,” he says. Allegedly, he conceived the joiners in an attempt to overcome the camera’s limitations. At the same time, however, he thinks optical technology was key to the development of Western art. In his controversial 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, written with physicist Charles Falco, he argued that the invention of optical aids such as concave mirrors and the camera obscura helped to explain the true-to-life realism that showed up in European painting starting around 1420—and that the invention of chemical photography in the 1830s finally freed painters to return to more interpretive styles.

So it’s no surprise to see Hockney, even in his eighth decade, poking at issues of depth and space over and over in different media.

The DeYoung exhibit has ended, but there’s a wealth of video material about Hockney’s latest experiments on the Web, and Smithsonian Magazine published a terrific article back in September about the artist’s love affair with technology. The iPad paintings are the kind of publicity Apple couldn’t buy if it tried; it’s as if Ansel Adams had personally endorsed Kodak or Leica. But if it gets a new generation of museum-goers thinking about art and vision, I’m all for it.

The main image above shows the iPad drawing “Yosemite I, October 16th 2011”, © David Hockney, used by permission of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Here’s a video of a lecture on Hockney’s “timescapes,” presented by Lawrence Weschler (author of the Smithsonian article cited above) at the DeYoung Museum in October 2013.


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