David Hockney On Perspective

I’ve been reading more Lawrence Weschler lately, this time his engaging study of the painter David Hockney, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (University of California Press, 2009). I first encountered Hockney’s work in the mid-1990s at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit was a show of Hockney’s English countryside landscapes. They seemed simple on their surface, but there was something going on in them with regards to perspective: the works seemed to capture multiple viewpoints at once, drawing you in. To make a musical analogy, they were visually polyphonic. I bought a poster and had it framed.

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Anyway, what makes Weschler’s book engaging is its story of Hockney’s seemingly boundless obsession with perspective in visual art. One fulcrum for this obsession is his interest in how and why European art underwent a profound shift in perspective, precision, and realism around the 1420s. Hockney thinks the reason is due to the use of optical projection devices. Hockney, who even wrote a book about his (controversial) theory, Secret Knowledge (2001), expresses his curiosity about the matter in the form of a question: “How come awkwardness seems to disappear completely from Western European art for three hundred years and then just as quickly reappear? It all just happens by itself? That would be the loopy theory” (133).

Weschler traces how Hockney arrived at his interest and along this journey are several series of works that I found interesting. One early series consisted of photo collages built out of dozens of Polaroids. Hockney took photos of his subject matter–his living room, a swimming pool, a California highway, the Grand Canyon–from a multitude of viewpoints. Then he organized the photos in a way that requires the viewer to slow down and move through the pictorial space, one segment after another–back and forth, up and down–always scanning over time. Here are two:

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One interesting thing about these collages: each photo is a self-contained viewpoint. Another thing: the effect is at once unrealistic in that you notice the artifice of Hockney’s technique and also hyper realistic in that you find yourself noticing that this is actually how we see the world: in and as a series of glances, instants, and angles that enter our field of perception for a flash before we turn our attention elsewhere. The effect is pure art: simple, yet it gets you thinking.

As I read and looked at the pictures I thought about how all this might pertain to musical practice. (I also wrote about perspective in music here.). Music, of course, is different from visual art in that it requires time to unfold. You can’t listen to a symphony in a second–you have to wait it out and keep paying attention, moment by moment. But the fact that some musics–intensely polyrhythmic musics or polyphonic musics, for instance–make deep perceptual demands on us insofar as they pack a lot of information into each moment reminded me of how Hockney’s works seem to chase after ways to model themselves on how we apply our senses over time.

Incidentally, when Hockney spoke of the “awkwardness” in art reappearing after three hundred years, he was referring to Cubism. Picasso, Hockney told Weschler, wasn’t trying to “deconstruct” his subject matter. Rather, he was trying to faithfully convey a sense of how we behold the world around us. “The monocular claim to univalent objective reality is falling away once and for all,” he says, “and we are being thrust back on ourselves, forced to take responsibility for the way we make and shape our realities, with eye and hand and heart” (143).

On Presence And Perception

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“When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention.”
– Robert Irwin

At the heart of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name Of the Thing One Sees (1982/2009), Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist Robert Irwin, are two intertwined and reoccurring ideas: presence and perception. Irwin (1928-), an American conceptual/installation artist, began his art career in the 1950s with paintings of lines and dots, then, in the 1960s, moved to painting round aluminum discs. By the 1970s he had gone beyond what he felt were the arbitrary edges of canvas and art object to take on the museum spaces themselves as the subject matter of his installation art. Since the 1980s, Irwin has worked on permanent outdoor installations intended to enhance their environments. In the process, his work has become ever less material, and increasingly concerned with getting us to experience a perceptual state in which we notice ourselves noticing.

As Weschler meticulously documents his subject’s evolution through copious interviews, what happened was that Irwin, a self-taught artist, came to realize that art is not about the art thing as much as the experience such things (or spaces) can engender. “It’s about presence, phenomenological presence” (61) he says. Irwin came by his realization organically, early in his career. While working on paintings, he became frustrated by the tendency of his images to signify and the impossibility of a “neutral gesture” (60). Was there a way to escape this? A way to “maximize the energy or the physicality of the situation and minimize the identity or idea or imagery of the situation”? (90) What Irwin wanted was presence without representation, “a reduction of imagery to get at physicality, a reduction of metaphor to get at presence” (200). Presence as affect, as materiality, as spirit, as feeling, as structure.

Remarkably, Irwin came to his insight about the importance of presence by spending massive amounts of time just staring at his works in progress. In looking for extended periods he began noticing differently: “paying attention to my own sensibility and taking stock of it and deciding that too many things in there simply didn’t make sense” (67). Tweaking his work, removing material instead of adding it, Irwin developed a stance in relation to his work that could enlist boredom as “a very good tool” (73). In paying attention, he “just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right situation would presently announce itself” (74).

Eventually, the right situation would entail jettisoning the conventional equipment of art making and taking on, literally, less material projects. Irwin tells Weschler that some of the inspiration for this shift towards installation art came from drives he took into the California desert. Here and there, Irwin would sense (“intuition is about sensing facts before they materialize” [143]) something powerful and stop the car to go investigate on foot. He realized that it would be pointless to artistically “mark” such spaces with his own designs, yet was nevertheless inspired by how a naturally occurring space could have such powerful affect. Ultimately, for Irwin presence and perception are a set of relations that constitute the real subject matter of art. “We’re not really aware of what takes place otherwise, the so-called incidentals, the information that takes place between things,” he says, “the kind of things that happen around, the multiple interactive relations” (148).

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Reading as I often do with musical things in mind, I found Seeing Is Forgetting one of the more energizing books I’ve come across in a while. To start, it got me thinking about the idea that music is not in the musical object (e.g. score, performance, sounds) but in our perception of it. (True, musics have social lives too, but that’s another matter.) In other words, we pursue music in pursuit of various kinds of presences that give rise to various perceptual shifts. Second, the book also got me thinking through a sonic analog of its title, which might read: Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of What One Hears. In other words, Irwin reminds us to focus on the what rather than the what does it mean aspect of creating. Lastly, Irwin’s work–not to mention Weschler’s elucidation of it–is a reminder of the vitality of the arts as a kind of intuitive, presence- and perception-oriented inquiry that is open-ended and without goals. As Irwin tantalizingly sums up the equation that implicates us all: “we are the question, and what we are is what we have to contribute” (120).