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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iPaint As I say, despite his critique of the optical look created by early technologies, a striking openness to new technologies has long been a feature of Hockney's career. There was a time when the people at Canon photocopiers used to ply him with experimental cartridges, long before they went to market, just to see what he'd come up with. (He came up with a suite of "handmade prints.") Likewise fax machines in the time of their impending ubiquity, and the long-distance, widely broadcast collages he managed to wrest out of those. For that matter, he was one of the first people I knew who had tape and then CD players installed in his cars—the better to choreograph elaborately pre-scored drives through the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains, soaring and swooping hours-long affairs, alternating between composers, that almost invariably culminated as one came hurtling over the last pass heading back toward the coast, Wagner at full throttle, with a transcendent vantage of the setting sun just as it went slipping into the sea.

Now it was the turn of the iPhone, whose dazzling potential as a color drawing device, by way of its Brushes application, Hockney was one of the first artists fully to exploit. He'd spend hours noodling around on its touchscreen, and further hours away from the phone itself, just thinking about how he might achieve certain effects: the effect of white porcelain, for example, or cut glass or polished brass; the effect of cut flowers or bonsai or cacti; the effect of the morning sun rising slowly over the sea. This last challenge proved especially engrossing for Hockney. An inveterate chronicler of California sunsets, he'd long wanted to introduce sunrises into his repertory, but had never been able to do so, since it was always too dark to make out the paints and colored pencils, and when he turned on an indoor light to see them, he'd drown out the dawn. But since with the iPhone light itself was the very medium, this was no longer a problem; he could chronicle the most subtle transitions starting out from the pitchest dark. Suddenly his friends all around the world began receiving two, three, or four such drawings a day on their iPhones—each of the incoming dispatches, incidentally, "originals," since there were no other versions that were digitally more complete. "People from the village," he told me one day, "come up and tease me, 'We hear you've started drawing on your telephone.' And I tell them, 'Well, no, actually, it's just that occasionally I speak on my sketch pad.'" And indeed, the iPhone was proving a much more compact and convenient version of the sorts of sketchbooks he always used to carry around in his jacket pockets, and a less messy one at that (notwithstanding which, each time he slid the phone back into his pocket, he'd rub his thumb and forefinger up against his trousers, by force of habit, wiping off all that digital smudge).

From the iPhone he graduated to the iPad; and from interiors of cut-flower bouquets or the morning view out his window over the dawn-spreading sea, he moved on to more elaborate plein-air studies of the Bridlington environs of the kind he'd already been painting on canvas. In particular, there was an extended suite, comprising 51 separate digital drawings titled The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven). Later that fall, back in California for a visit, he launched a perhaps even more evocative iPad investigation of Yosemite Valley—wider vistas in a narrower frame.

At the same time he and his team began exploring the limits of technological capability when it came to transferring digital drawings onto paper—the crisper the image and greater the surface, the better. The resulting wall-size prints held up exceptionally well and soon became an integral feature of the exhibitions surveying this Yorkshire period of Hockney's lifework.


More Real Than Real Around 2010, Hockney set off on yet another cutting-edge technological investigation. This time (with the assistance of his studio aides Jean-Pierre Goncalves and Jonathan Wilkinson) he deployed an array of multiple small video cameras, nine in a three-by-three camera grid, mounted on the front hood of his Land Rover. He projected the results across an array, initially of 9 and finally of 18 plasma screens, spread along the long wall of his studio. He had contemplated versions of this experiment as far back as the Polaroid collages of the early '80s, and in many ways, the current project read like activated versions of those Polaroid grids. But the technology hadn't yet quite been there at the time: The gigabytes required to operate and synchronize 18 simultaneous screens had been prohibitive; and for shooting, one had to wait for the camera size to become sufficiently compact. So it wasn't really till 2010 that Hockney was able to attempt a full deployment of the envisioned medium. Once he did, he was almost completely drawn in. Goodbye, once again, to painting, at any rate for the time being.

The results were nothing short of ravishing—the slow procession down a summer-drowsy country lane, the utterly engrossing spectacle of the great green overhanging trees as they approached and passed by, their bowing branches bobbing and weaving across nine screens. And a few months later, the slow procession, at exactly the same pace past exactly the same trees, now stripped bare, their naked black branches cast against the gleaming blue sky of a snowdrift morn, projected across a neighboring nine-screen grid. Eighteen screens altogether: one season per eye. Or remounting the camera grids laterally, to the side of the car, the teeming throng of spring-fresh liveliness positively glorying by the side of the road (nothing more than an overgrown gully you'd likely never have even bothered to look at otherwise). The clarity, the vividness—all that detail amid all that profusion; the splendor of it all. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," to quote William Blake, a fellow pantheist in Hockney's register, "every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite." For in fact, it wasn't so much that you were seeing things you never had before; rather you were seeing in a way you never had. "Eighteen screens," as Hockney now explained to me, "which means at least 18 different vanishing points, and all of them moving." One-point perspective cleanly obliterated.

Indeed, obliterated to such a degree that it was almost troubling. Myself, I'd come to agree with the digital apostate Jaron Lanier in his blanket dismissal of certain vaulting digital ambitions with the contention that "what makes something real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion." No representation, in other words, could ever aspire to be as complete, as completely real, as reality. And yet these 18-screen projections almost felt more real than the landscapes they were representing, the things in them pried loose from the tired dailiness of their overexposure and, as if polished, rendered newly worthy of notice.

"The thing is," Hockney replied when I tried this notion out on him, "most people most of the time are pretty blind. They move through the world scanning so as to make sure they don't bump into anything, but not really looking. Driving can get to be like that: You're only aware tangentially, negatively, making sure there are no untoward things happening. Minutes can go by and suddenly you realize that you almost haven't even been conscious of the passing scene. Whereas looking, by contrast, is a very positive act; you've got to set out to do it." We gazed for a few moments at the 18-screen array, the heavenly gully streaming by. "Now, conventional cinema is dogged by the same problem as conventional photography—that vise of one-point perspective—but even more so in that your gaze is being further directed by the filmmaker: Look at this, and now this, and now this. Not only that, but the editing is so fast, you are not given time to see anything. We went to The Hobbit the other day, incredibly lush landscapes, you'd think it would have been deeply fulfilling. But in fact, the editing was so fast, you didn't get a chance really to experience any of it. And the problem with 3-D is that, of necessity, you are outside of it. It comes at you; you can't go into it. You aren't given the chance to slow down and look around. Not like here"—the gully streaming—"not like this."


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