Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon/Maclean’s
Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon/Maclean’s

Imagine Rembrandt with an iPad

David Hockney never expected his digital drawings to end up as a major exhibition.

According to David Hockney, if the 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt were living today, he’d be using an iPad. Hockney should know. Not only is the British-born painter, printmaker and photographer recognized as a virtuoso himself, he’s an authority on Old Master techniques and the first major art-world figure to have a show featuring iPhone- and iPad-made pictures, Fresh Flowers, which opens Oct. 8 at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. “In Rembrandt’s drawings you can see that he worked very fast. That’s what the iPad permits,” explains Hockney from his studio in Bridlington, a seaside resort in Yorkshire. “Without ever having to get up for a pencil, you can draw from the first moment of inspiration.”

At 74, neither Hockney’s age nor his struggle with deafness has diminished his interest in innovation. He is as famous for his Fauvist landscapes and vibrant images of California swimming pools (in 1964 he fell in love with L.A., where he still has a residence) as his career-long embrace of new methods for making pictures.

In the seventies, Hockney arranged Polaroids as well as 35-mm prints to create photo-collages of a single subject. In 1989, he sent his exhibition art to the São Paulo Biennial via fax. As Charlie Scheips, curator of Fresh Flowers, explains, for decades Hockney’s work “has questioned the role of media and reproduction in art.”

Still, the last thing Hockney expected when he made his first drawing on an iPhone in 2008 was that it would end up in a museum exhibition. It was “a novelty,” he says. Hockney first used his phone to make pictures of flowers, then sunrises he saw from his bedroom window at Bridlington.

Soon Hockney began sending out his iPhone images to friends, among them Scheips, who pitched Fresh Flowers to the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, where it premiered last fall. Scheips and Hockney named the show after the artist’s love for sending out virtual bouquets.

Among the exhibition’s most notable features is that its art appears in the dark. To keep viewers’ experiences of Hockney’s work true to how it looked when created, all of the images in Fresh Flowers are presented on screens. Not a best online casino single picture is printed out or signed. Fresh Flowers also stands out because the exhibition has been a work in progress. Last spring, just months before the show’s Paris opening, the iPad was launched. Hockney immediately bought one. Using the Brushes application he taught himself to create digital drawings that were far more sophisticated than anything he could make on his phone. “We realized that we were going to have to introduce the iPad into the exhibition,” says Scheips.

Once the Paris show began, Hockney continued to make pictures for it, adding more than 20 new drawings while it was on. The Toronto run of Fresh Flowers will feature more recent and even more advanced works. Only when The New Yorker asked Hockney to create iPhone/iPad art for its covers, including its inaugural tablet issue last October, did he feel his output as an iArtist was “very, very good.” As he explains, “Skill is practice.” Today, Hockney uses the device so often (creating works in anywhere from a few minutes to three or four a day) that now his Savile Row-tailored suits are made with an extra-large breast pocket to hold it.

Hockney admits there are things that still need to be figured out. He hasn’t yet offered an iPhone- or iPad-made work for sale—something that’s caused ambivalence over his digital images in the international art press. “You can’t put a value on the work,” explains Scheips. “They are subversive because you might print them, or you might delete them. But no one can say what they’re worth.” As well, there have been cynics, who call iPad images “computer art,” a misnomer, according to Scheips. “People don’t call drawing ‘pencil art.’ And just because you do work with crayons doesn’t mean that Crayola owns your work.”

Hockney has a different comment. No more than a paintbrush could teach Rembrandt how to paint, the iPad, he says, “can’t teach you how to draw.”