Despite his image of a crotchety old traditionalist, David Hockney hasn’t been one to shy away from new technology. The artist, best known for his 1960s portraits painted of California intelligentsia, has been making drawings and paintings on an iPhone since 2009, and recently scaled up to an iPad, using a simple brush app and a finger or thumbnail to paint. Sent out to friends or displayed to humorous effect on a tiny easel, Hockney is taking an old medium and carrying it out with new media tools that have only become prevalent in the past few years. As proof of his iPad “achievements,” an exhibition of his recent digital drawings have gone on display at in an exhibition titled David Hockney: Fleurs Fraîches at — fittingly — the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris.
If it sounds surprising, given Hockney’s history of non-oil on canvas work, it’s not really. The artist spent much of his career pushing the outer boundaries of nontraditional media, including a body of collaged photo works as well as fax machine-created drawings that make use of the technology as a kind of printing process. The jump from canvas to screen isn’t really that far, with each new approach, Hockney re-creates and re-learns the traditional process of drawing.
“Anyone who likes drawing and mark-making,” says Hockney in a Telegraph profile, “will like to explore new media.” Later in the article Martin Gayford writes, “Drawings, like songs, Hockney believes, will always be with us: it is only the means of making and delivering them that will change.”
This is what makes Hockney’s new media digital explorations interesting to me. The fact that Hockney doesn’t take social media as his medium, gather “followers” or bother to create a sense of two-way participation becomes a novelty now. The artist personally passes his digital images on to small groups of friends, and the pictures have leaked out through the press. I don’t need to tag anything, or comment anywhere, or click any links. The digital paintings are just there to look at, and though they’re pretty kitsch-y and many iPhone works are borderline childish, they’re still fun, and they have an actual sense of humor and play. I put Jorge Colombo’s New Yorker covers in a similar vein: the iPhone paintings are novelty works that look nice, though their subject matter is often cliche.
Hockney’s new media art, like Colombo’s, is decidedly old media in approach, taking the iPhone or iPad’s screen as medium and working through the surface the same as one would a canvas. The artist isn’t creating “experiences” or some kind of artist-audience relational aesthetics collaboration, he’s simply using a new medium to broadcast his art. The conflation of the two, old media product with new media distribution, feels like a direct pipeline from the artist’s sketchbook to the viewer. Like if Henri Cartier-Bresson kept a daily photo blog, we see an artist in progress without waiting for a yearly gallery show — I should mention that contemporary photographers like Terry Richardson actually do keep a daily photo blog, though it is decidedly trashier than what I’d imagine Cartier-Bresson’s would’ve been like. The work is democratic in the viewing as well; instead of moving from JPG to physical painting, here, the JPG you see on the screen is the final work of art.
I like that the work doesn’t need to rely on some social sharing conceit to be a fun experience. It just exists to be looked at, and that’s a rarity in new media. With the advent of the iPad and high-quality, large, portable screens, old media has been gradually making the jump to new. We don’t need to just talk magazines, either. Japanese manga artists like Yoshitoshi Abe have been releasing entire books as iPad only, visual easter eggs that go directly from creator to viewer. New media venues provide a more informal experience with art that doesn’t need to be so dead serious as a white cube.
Sure, an iPhone is a non-traditional sketchbook. But essentially, a sketchbook it is, and work like Hockney’s is more innovative for its embrace of both the new medium of digital distribution and the old medium of drawing at the same time.
David Hockney: Fleurs Fraîches runs until January 30, 2011, at the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris.