What’s Old Is New Again on iPad

There’s a brief article over at The Atlantic about “Fresh Flowers,” a current show of David Hockney’s recent iPad and iPhone paintings. Using the popular painting app Brushes, Hockney is creating a new painting every few days, then electronically transmitting them to the exhibition space in Paris where they’re displayed on screens. I find the paintings themselves very unremarkable (some are quite bad, even) but I do think they’re interesting for a few reasons.

First, they imply an endorsement of the touch devices like the iPad as a tool for making art by a big (huge) name artist whose fame was forged in the pre-digital world. That credential matters to some people, because it demonstrates, however weakly, that this new and unfamiliar device is not just a passing fad. Hockney’s motivation for creating these paintings was presumably that he found the iPad interesting and worthwhile; he certainly doesn’t need it as a gimmick to burnish his already sterling reputation. When a leading light of the art world shows interest in a medium so young, it speaks volumes. To some people.

More telling I think is the kind of work that the artist decided to create. You can argue over their artistic merits all you want, but what strikes me about Hockney’s iPad paintings is that they’re surprisingly unimaginative emulations of another medium. The iPad is a full-fledged computing device capable of doing many, many different things. But reproducing the quality, texture and aesthetics of analog paper, canvas and paint seems to be one of the least interesting of them all, at least to me. Someone like David Hockney, you’d expect, would be able to show us entirely new worlds through drawing on a device like the iPad. Instead the works in “Fresh Flowers” are faint echoes of a world we already know very well. They’re pretty, but they’re boring.


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All of which underscores the fact that, in this still very early stage of touch-based tablet computing, there is very much a tension over what the iPad is, whether it’s a digital breakthrough that will let us do new things, or whether it’s a digital reinvention of analog conventions.

It won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with my writings in the past on similar subjects that I very much believe that the iPad is something entirely new, and that it should be treated as such. But it’s worth noting that the current prevailing perception of the iPad seems to be that it is a digital reinvention of analog conventions. This is why we’re talking so much about iPad newspapers, magazines, books, and subscriptions — and why an exhibition of essentially analog paintings rendered through digital means draws interest at all from art lovers and writers.

I think this is a misconception, that it underserves the potential of the device to think of it so narrowly. At the same time I have to acknowledge that there’s a power to this particular understanding of the device. Perhaps emphasizing its familiarity is part of what will earn it mass adoption, setting the stage for more informed uses. If this is a transitional stage, then I hope it doesn’t last too long, because the iPad’s potential to remake things like art making is so painfully evident to me. Ultimately, the iPad is much more interesting than Hockney’s paintings, in my opinion, and artists who truly understand the medium will show us things we can barely even imagine right now.

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17 Comments

  1. The paintings are boring, for sure. But the idea is pretty great. I especially like the fact that he transmits the paintings to a gallery in Paris. Plus, an old-school artist like Hockney embracing the iPad is a refreshing shift.

    The best artist I know of working in Brushes is Jorge Columbo. He’s using an iPhone, which is pretty impressive for a lot of reasons. They’re great paintings, or “sketches” as he calls them, and much more interesting than any of Hockney’s iPad paintings.

  2. You make a really good point here. I have always been frustrated by my inability to effectively recreate the analog on the digital. You have revealed that I’m thinking about it all totally backwards. Here’s hoping a new perspective proves fruitful (or at least less frustrating).
    Thank you!

  3. While I essentially agree with your opinion Khoi, there’s also the fact that every new medium to the scene of our daily lives has had its share of transitional phases. TV on its earliest days was basically treated as radio or theater with a camera put on front. It took years, decades even, for TV to come up with a language and aesthetics entirely of its own. Many e-marketers and agencies in turn treated the Internet as a TV with a dangling mouse. It hasn’t been until recently with all the social networking phenomenon going on that there’s finally an Internet-native form of mass communication and marketing taking shape right now. I don’t expect the iPad (and all other tablet devices following) to be any different on this respect.

  4. Hmmmmmmm this is interesting. hockney is someone that’s historically embraced technology to create art in a unique way (see his montages of instant photographs (eg Pearblossom Highway #2 from the 80s) and the stuff he was doing with colour fax transmissions in the 90s. The latter of which is similar here (ie he was sending digital transmissions of panels to galleries that could be printed and assembled by the curator – but the art never actually “existed” in the real world.

    So whilst I have difficulty criticising what art he’s doing with the iPad, he’s actually kinda done it before anyway. Yes, you could argue that they’re digital approximations of something more familiar (acrylic on canvas) – but then so is the other commenters example of Jorge Columbo – but Hockney has always been about the medium, and for me it’s this part that’s important, not the quality of the art. So whilst you might think the paintings are boring, in my mind he’s actually duplicating himself digitally anyway. Which blows my mind because it seems that this is the whole point?

  5. For the most part, I agree, but I am a bit wary of the notion that a device can “remake art making”. To me that responsibility and capability rest with the artist, or the user as you might call him. Where I agree—I think, because you aren’t saying it outright—is with this disappointment in the way the device is marketed and embraced, as a “replacement” for old things (look, it turns and curls like paper), and thus a device that is understood not as something even more elemental than a tool in the artist’s studio, but as a list of “abilities”, or apps, as it were. Its a difference in ways of thinking, and a smart realization on the part of Apple and its marketing team that many people need to be told what to do. Artists though, who are not in that late-stage bad-bather-paintings phase of life that Hockney is, usually aren’t interested in the limits of single applications (Brushes), but tools (the iOS and its dead-simple devices at large), and how they, as individuals, will apply them, be they brushes or bulbs or iPads. Their interest would most certainly be piqued by a supply catalogue listing devices that are light, increasingly cheap touch-screens with multiple networking options and a downright mid-century-Hamilton-Beach-mixer level of ease-of-use. Because of a wealth of complexities (in terms of its making and its broadening capabilities), the iPad should be thought of as an element of art-making, rather than a series of self-contained mimicries of the past.

    I suspect the artists who use it most effectively will approach it as an infinitely expandable multiple, not a singular device.

  6. I still hold fast to my initial reaction to the iPad: it is a device optimized for consuming content… not producing it. People love to point to paintings like these as a way to say “See! It’s just as good for creation!”, but that’s kind of like me saying my inflatable mattress is great for floating me across Lake Washington. Is it capable of it? Sure. It is really optimized for it? No.

    I think we will continue to see new ways of creating interesting things on the iPad, but creation, in my opinion, will always be an extremely niche use.

  7. I’d like to add that I’m fascinated by arguments for and against any object’s use for consumption or creation. The entire conversation is a head-scratcher.

    Perhaps the iPad was designed for consumption, in that Apple considered consumption application the most during the process in which the iPad was designed. Perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. But to Mike D.’s point (above), judging the quality of an object by the quality of art made with, on, by, or for the object is just terribly broken thinking. Robert Rauschenberg, in terms of making art, knew what to do with a mattress. Does that make the mattress an object “optimized” for art making? No. It makes Robert Rauschenberg a great artist. The uses of any one thing are infinite, stop judging their ability to be used. They have been and will be, to great effect.

  8. Excellent post, Khoi. I’m in your camp on this subject. I also think we continue to limit ourselves with tech we’ve had for a decade or more, by trying to recreate the effects and affects of analog tools. My friend showed me this strange image he had taken with his iPhone one day. He wasn’t using Hipstamatic, or something similar, and he took this stretched out image that was completely intriguing. The reason seemed to be that he had stumbled on something that could only be done with the iPhone camera by itself (or similar digital cameras/lenses). To me it was infinitely more fascinating that anything spit out of an app that is made to look like something in analog.

  9. What he did on the iPad is boring, but his other work doesn’t stretch the possibilities of analog paper either. I think it would be more fair to criticize the artist than his use of the iPad.

    At the end of the day, a drawing is a drawing. It’s an image made of connected or scattered, thick or thin dots. Why is what he did an emulation of another medium rather than just the act of drawing on any medium?

    I’m not blown away by the result, but it’s still great that he got inspired to make something using an iPad.

  10. I think what’s most interesting about these drawings, to me, is the way they will age. “Brushes” will either not exist or create radically different looking images in 10 years. Cory Arcangel is doing some interesting stuff in that vein — large prints of default Photoshop gradients — banal until they age their way into a nostalgic future.
    I find the method of how Hockney is exhibiting the work gimmicky, but I find the images interesting because of their naivety. They are almost like signifiers of Art — “this is an artwork of a still life of a flower”. The drawings feel unimportant and unconsidered; a fitting level of fidelity for the impermanence of the medium.

  11. I’m excited by the new things the iPad will enable, art-making-wise. But while Hockney does seem to be emulating another medium, this is not a surprising, nor a disappointing, thing.

    What Hockney is making here is the art he wants to make. An artist using an iPad (or a real canvas, a camera, or, god forbid, found objects) to make their art will always make art that bares similarities in mood, subject, colour etc to what they always do. Hockney here is continuing his exploration or colour, light and things domestic, but is still grounded in his ‘thing’. The reason for using the iPad now that he can do his work faster, get more people to see his work sooner (a big factor in art-making) and it’s all more portable than the usual drawing kit.

    But as an extension of this Hockney believes that things like touch technology are DO enable new types of art-making, even though the end result may seem hackneyed (Hockney/hackneyed – joke!) Here’s Hockney talking about this in the UK’s Telegraph:

    “There are gains and losses with everything. You miss the resistance of paper a little, but you can get a marvellous flow. So much variety is possible. You can’t overwork this, because it’s not a real surface. In watercolour, for instance, about three layers are the maximum. Beyond that it starts to get muddy. Here you can put anything on anything. You can put a bright, bright blue on top of an intense yellow.”

  12. David Hockney’s iPhone and iPad works feel limited compared to his responses to earlier tech innovations. Have you seen the massive canvases that he faxed to Jonathan Silver at Saltaire, Bradford? They remind me more of Berg/Dentsu’s wonderful iPad light paintings than of Hockney’s own dabbling with Brushes.

  13. I’ve been a painter for over twenty years and I think these ipad drawings are as great as any drawings Hockney has produced. They look to me like they were created by a great artist simply having himself some fun.

  14. I had the opportunity to see the exhibit in person. You might find the artist’s perspective helpful—I took pictures of the exhibit pamphlet where he explains the context of this body of work. I find his playfulness and willingness to experiment with new media consistent with some of his earlier work.

  15. I couldn’t help but agree more. David Hockney is a well established artist, but these works seem to lack some compelling element. The idea is right on, but the execution seems novice. I was hoping to see something all together different from such an esteemed artist. There’s plenty of room for growth here, and Hockney has helped by scratching the surface.

  16. Haven’t seen Hockney’s work, but what is interesting (revolutionary?) about the Brushes technology is that it absolutely adds a new dimension to the viewer’s experience because it creates instant animations of the painting process. The painting is a two-dimensional object but also a trip through time. Readers/viewers can watch the artistic effort unfold–the layering, the erasing, the starts and stops–illuminating the thought process of the artist. Even more extraordinary is that Colombo’s are done on a tiny I-Phone, not an I-Pad. Beyond that, his painterly effects and translucent, blended colors are made with his fingers–no actual brushes involved.

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