Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Hockney's iPad Paintings

David Hockney's new show is alive. Every few days he creates a painting with his iPad's Brushes application, then emails it to identical devices on display at Paris's Pierre Berge-Yves St. Laurent Foundation, where his "Fresh Flowers" exhibition runs through January 30. As of this writing, there are over 300 pictures and counting.

Story continues after the gallery.

Throughout his career, Hockney has managed to constantly reinvent himself while retaining his artistic DNA. Famous for his crisp, languid depictions of poolside California, he has forayed into photomontage, fax art, art history, and, in the 80s, digital drawing on the computer program Quantel Paintbox. This latest, ever-evolving exhibition reflects his protean character. Twenty of the images on display are animated from start to finish, and on the foundation's website you can watch the deft finger-strokes accumulate into a fully-realized product, a dynamic still-life.

Like most of us, these paintings were conceived in bed. Two years ago, watching the dawn tread across the North Sea and toward his Bridlington home, Hockney realized he could quickly catch the moment on his iPod (he has since then upgraded to the iPad). As he tells Lawrence Weschler in The New York Review of Books, "in the old days, one never could [capture the light], because, of course, ordinarily it would be too dark to see the paints; or else, if you turned on a light so as to see them, you'd lose the subtle gathering tones of the coming sun."

Brushes frees the artist from the constraints of time and supplies. The iPad's backlight lets you paint at any time of day, the app's color wheel provides every pigment, and its very nature renders set-up and clean-up obsolete. How this device would have simplified life for Monet, who was so attuned to changes in sunlight that seven minutes was the limit for one of his Poplar series, and so attuned to the elements that he traveled with separate canvases for all types of wind and weather. For weeks he awoke at 3:30 a.m. and trundled off to the Seine, a canvas under each arm, to catch the transient, raking dawn. With an iPad he could have loafed until six before ambling to the river with a device no larger than his sketchpad.

Brushes would certainly have expedited his draftsmanship, but whether it would have improved his paintings is another question. Even Monet would be hard-pressed to achieve that soft, dappled look on an iPad, which lends itself more to razored precision. You can tailor your line any way you want -- by color, thickness, opacity, even by the correlation between the speed of your finger and the evanescence of the mark -- but there's only one way to draw, and that's with the line. In its shortcomings, the app reminds me of Facebook: just as the social networking site lets you explore limitless friendships in a limited way, so Brushes gives you an infinite palette to be used in finite ways.

The commercial art world seems to think the jury's still out about Hockney's iPad period, according to Charlie Scheips, the show's curator. Some have dismissed it as his latest dalliance. Yet for Scheips, the opinions of the art world miss the point of a show about the creative use of a new, intimate medium.

"Fresh Flowers" began with Hockney creating an image and zipping it off to a dozen friends. Though the paintings look like fluorescent Matisses, in spirit they're descended from Mail Art, the absurdist movement pioneered by Ray Johnson and his New York School of Correspondence in the 1960s. That band of artsy pranksters made works out of anything -- rubber stamps, postmarks, signatures, photocopies -- as long as it fit on a postcard they could send to the world.

Their philosophy rebelled against the haughty hierarchy of galleries, but in 1970 Ray Johnson organized an exhibition at The Whitney. Hockney's current exhibition presents a similar paradox: this everyman's app art, which inherently can't be auctioned off, is on display in the former studio of Yves St. Laurent, the home of Haute Couture and the height of exclusivity.

While his digital exhibition challenges the norms of commercial art, Hockney still has to make money. There are no originals to sell for ungodly sums. You could print the images, but on regular paper, without their luminous screen, they look wan and watery. The best option for selling them, Scheips suggests, might be an app catalogue, which would let us browse Hockney's entire iOeuvre. That way, each new image would come to us--with no gallery or curator required -- as the latest course in a moveable feast.

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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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