The Argument: David Hockney’s iPad paintings show that a cool device can’t rescue bad art

The Argument: David Hockney’s iPad paintings show that a cool device can’t rescue bad art

David Hockney’s Fresh Flowers

David Hockney’s Fresh Flowers exhibition has been touring Europe in advance of its only Canadian stop, at the ROM’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, and garnering a lot of hype along the lines of “74-year-old visionary explores cool new medium!” The show consists of hundreds of flower-themed still lifes done exclusively on iPads and iPhones. (Hockney added his own spin, saying that working with the Apple devices allows him to paint without the “mess”—which sounds as though he’s promoting a cleaning product.)

This could be seen as familiar territory for the British pop art pioneer. In the ’80s, his use of office-quality photocopies, fax machines and Polaroids put him at the forefront of art about the tension between original works and reproductions. The kind of heavy collage pieces he created by manipulating original work is now a regular sight in modern art galleries. (Today, the subject of reproduction couldn’t be more relevant to the copy-and-paste practices of young artists, though Hockney’s influence is cited far less often than you’d expect.)

In embracing the iPad as an art-making device, Hockney is showing again that he is an early adopter of new technology, but this time the results aren’t likely to influence anyone. Get beyond the techno-cool of this exhibition and you are left with images that represent some of his worst art. Nowhere is the depth of artistic vision that informs his paintings of California pools, his homoerotic domestic drawings or his charcoal portraits. Far from displaying any sort of conceptual rigour, many of Hockney’s flower images look like they could be on Crate and Barrel napkins. Were these pretty pictures made on generic tablets by an unknown artist, no one would care. Not even the hottest of new technologies can compensate for art that simply isn’t very good.

The show is undeniably ambitious in its staging. Two hundred digital images, created primarily using the paintbrushes and pens of an app called Brushes, are displayed on iPads and iPod touches, all of which are mounted on the gallery walls. There are also 20 time-lapse animations documenting the creation of the flower paintings, two films of the artist working, eight large-scale animated projections of the iPad drawings and a triptych slide show with an additional 169 images.

It’s not hard to see the show’s appeal for a museum. Hockney is a recognized master, guaranteed to bring in the crowds. Given that the entire exhibition is emailable, the ROM certainly won’t break its budget on insurance or shipping. The MoMA’s current de Kooning retrospective is said to include $4 billion worth of art, making it one of the most expensive exhibitions launched in the museum’s history. The ROM won’t say what it’s costing to mount the Hockney exhibition, but whatever it brings in will be almost pure profit.

While the show is brilliant in commercial terms, Fresh Flowers is weakest where you’d expect it to be strongest: in glorifying the possibilities inherent in a marriage of fine art and high tech.

Charlie Scheips, who curated the exhibition, suggests that these still lifes are an extension of the kind of thing Hockney has always done. I’m not sold on the idea that there is any deep conceit behind the new work. And the mere act of creating legitimate art using the iPad is no longer a novelty, especially after all the fuss made over Jorge Colombo’s digitally “fingerpainted” New Yorker covers.

The real hook for the show is the allure of Apple’s latest products. But by hyping that aspect so heavily, Fresh Flowers turns Hockney into a kind of pitchman. (Though it’s fun to imagine him squaring off against John Hodgman in a new round of “I’m a Mac” commercials.)

The people behind the show appear sensitive to the issue of product placement. Scheips has specifically said he envisioned an installation “that won’t look like an Apple store,” and Ali Tayar, the exhibition’s New York–based designer, describes his use of oak-lined fibreboard—a humble mounting material—as a way to “play down the Apple high-tech aesthetic, while simultaneously focusing the viewer’s attention on David’s work.”

Of course, if they really wanted to play down the Apple aesthetic, they could have chosen not to present the images on their products at all. Perhaps there’s some essential quality to the iPad’s backlit screen that the artist wished to retain, but the decision to use the device for display feels a little like choosing to exhibit the easel as well as the painting.

Ironically, if Tayar’s design succeeded in drawing the focus away from the devices and toward the work itself, it would be all the more obvious that the images don’t hold up. It’s clear from a glance that Hockney made these pictures, but the particulars of his style are mostly lost in the use of this relatively crude app, which can only ape the act of painting.

Compare these flower images with the digital landscapes of the California artist Petra Cortright, with their manipulated blobs of virtual paint and their bizarre, impossible colouring. The pleasure of using a new medium is in exploring what makes it special. Digital drawing tools can’t replicate a handmade mark, a reality that artists like Cortright embrace.

There are notable exceptions in the Hockney exhibition: one rendering of a delicate blue and pink bouquet recalls some of the brilliant floral work of Vincent van Gogh, albeit without the punch; a vase of flowers at dawn displays the same economy of brushwork and understanding of light that underpins the best paintings by New York figurative artist Alex Katz.

And yet Hockney is a much better painter than Katz, a fact that would be self-evident if this exhibition were more about Hockney’s unique talents and less about fancy gadgets.

David Hockney’s Fresh Flowers: Drawings on the iPhone and iPad
to Jan. 1, 2012
Royal Ontario Museum