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Why David Hockney Has a Love-Hate Relationship With Technology

A new retrospective highlights the artist’s two, seemingly opposite passions

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David Hockney is often given to proclaiming, "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 what it's like to live in the world." At which point he's likely to unfurl the example of a 5-year-old who when told to draw a picture of his house will probably include the front porch, the backyard, the doghouse in the backyard, the driveway off to one side, the trees off to the other, the window overlooking the far back corner—everything he knows is there, all on one plane of viewing—until Teacher comes along and says, No, he's done it wrong, that you couldn't possibly see all that from one place, thereby enforcing an entirely arbitrary one-point perspective. "And yet the kid had it right in the first place," Hockney will insist. "He was showing you everything that made up his home, just like you'd asked."

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Hockney is that kid—still is, at age 76, seemingly having lost none of the prodigious verve that characterized him when he first exploded onto the London art scene as a boy wonder back in the early '60s. And central to that persistent youthfulness has been an uncanny openness to technological innovation, the eager willingness to delve into any and all manner of new gadgetry—fax machines, color photocopiers, car stereo CD systems, LED stage lighting grids, iPhones, iPads, HD videocameras—often long before anyone else even sees their artistic potential as part of what is, to hear him tell it, an ages-old human pursuit, going all the way back to Paleolithic cave painters: the simple urge to render a convincing figurative approximation of the world.

The two aspects of Hockney's passion—the adamantly hand-rendered and the wildly technologically amplified—will both be on vivid display at a major retrospective of his work since the beginning of the new century, opening in late October (through January 20, 2014) at the de Young Museum in San Francisco: a survey, that is, of pretty much everything he's been up to since the Great Wall.

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The Great Wall In 1999, while visiting an Ingres retrospective at the National Gallery in London and closely examining several of the great French master's extraordinarily accomplished early pencil drawings of English aristocrats (from around 1815), Hockney became convinced that he'd seen that sort of seemingly effortless, confidently assured line before, but where?—Oh wait, that was it, in Andy Warhol's drawings of common household utensils, of all places! Now, Warhol's assurance arose from the fact that he was tracing off slide-projected photographs, but how could Ingres have been doing it? In the first of a dazzling series of leapfrogging insights, Hockney came to believe that Ingres must have been using a then-only-recently invented camera lucida, a tiny prism held horizontally steady at the end of a stick more or less at eye level above the flat sketching surface, looking down through which the artist could see the, as it were, periscoped image of the subject sitting in front of him, seemingly overlaid atop the empty sketching surface below. The artist could then block in the location of key features (the pupils of the eyes, say, and the corners of the lips and nostrils, the lie of the ears and the line of the hair, the flow of the enveloping garments), greatly facilitating the drafting process.

In the months that followed, Hockney started noticing evidence of the same "look" in the work of artists long before Ingres, past Vermeer, and all the way back to Caravaggio. Indeed, Hockney now became convinced that Caravaggio must have been employing some similar sort of optical aid, in his case more likely some kind of pinhole in a wall, perhaps amplified by a simple focusing lens, which is to say a primitive camera obscura.

At the studio above his Hollywood Hills home, Hockney cleared the long far wall (which runs the length of the tennis court over which the studio had been built and stands two stories high) and began covering it with photocopied color images from the history of Western art, drawing on his formidable personal library of such books, shingling the copies all across the wall in chronological order—1350 to one side, 1900 to the other, Northern Europe above and Southern Europe below. Surveying the resultant Great Wall, as he and his assistants now took to calling it, Hockney set to wondering, Where and when had that optical look made its first appearance? With the suspects arrayed before him like that, the answer soon became obvious: roughly five years to either side of 1425, first apparently in Bruges with Van Eyck and his followers, and then hard on in Florence with Brunelleschi and his, it was as if Europe had simply put on its spectacles. All at once, a type of depiction that had previously seemed halting and awkward suddenly became vivid and exact—and in the same, particular way.

But how, Hockney now wondered, could Van Eyck possibly have accomplished such a remarkable leap, since there was no evidence that lenses had yet come into existence? The next breakthrough came when Charles Falco, a visiting physicist from the University of Arizona who specializes in quantum optics, informed Hockney of something known to any first-year physics student, though apparently unknown to almost every art historian: the fact that concave mirrors (the flip sides, that is, of the convex mirrors that suddenly start appearing all over the place in Flemish paintings around 1430) are capable of projecting images of outside reality onto a darkened flat surface, images that can be traced, in exactly the same way as with a focusing lens. Reviewing the images arrayed along the Great Wall, the two striding side by side, like intent generals inspecting their troops, Falco suddenly singled out one in particular—the Lorenzo Lotto Husband and Wife of 1543, which features a Persian carpet table covering in the foreground that seems to go in and out of focus at particular intervals. Subjecting the image to further analysis, Falco was presently able to construct a mathematical proof showing that Lotto would have had to have used some sort of optical device.

Hockney's and Falco's discoveries and speculations were decidedly controversial. Conventional art historians seemed to take particular umbrage. Where, they demanded, was the hard evidence, the testimonies or manuals or letters or sketches? As it happened, Hockney's studio assistants David Graves and Richard Schmidt were able to dig up a good deal of such contemporary evidence, which Hockney included in 2001 as appendices in a sumptuously illustrated, carefully argued volume laying out the whole theory, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

More generally, people seemed offended that Hockney was suggesting that the old masters had somehow cheated. Hockney countered that he wasn't suggesting anything of the sort—that he was speaking of a time, at least at the outset, when the gap between the arts and sciences had yet to open, when artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo and others were omnivorously curious and omni-directionally engaged, and they would have been captivated by the optical effects afforded by such nascent technologies and immediately started putting them to good use. Nor was Hockney suggesting, as some of his more literal-minded critics took to caricaturing his position, that every artist had traced every line of every painting. To the extent that such projections were used, it was to lock in certain proportions and contours, after which the artist could return to more conventional types of direct observational painting, though certain effects (accurate reflections on glass and metal, the sheen of silk) couldn't have been achieved without them. In the case of reflected armor, for example, the projected reflection would stay still even while the painter's head bobbed and wove, which would not have been possible otherwise; just look at the stylized awkwardness in the treatment of such reflections in paintings before 1430. Still, the techniques were hardly easy, and some artists were obviously much better at them than others. "These are the sort of aids," Hockney commented at one point, "that if you aren't already a sophisticated artist won't be of much help; but if you are, they could be of remarkable assistance."

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