David Hockney and the Quantel Paintbox

David Hockney, 'Little Stanley, My Dog (T.V. paint box Poster)', 1985. One of Hockney’s first works to be produced on the Quantel Paintbox, the work hangs today in the living room of film producer Michael Deakin who demonstrated the functions of the Paintbox to Hockney in 1985 (image author’s own)

With David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, much is being made of the artist’s decision to exhibit copies of works made on his iPad and iPhone. Many journalists and critics have focused on this development given that it’s an unusual choice of medium and because it’s likely to polarize opinion; you either think it’s an ingenious use of modern technology or an affront to the traditional arts.

But what many seem to forget or simply do not realise, is that Hockney has been a stalwart supporter of new technology throughout his career. His iPhone and iPad paintings are not his first digital works. Back in 1985, the film producer Michael Deakin, who had worked with the artist at Editions Alecto, demonstrated the functions of the Quantel Paintbox to Hockney. The result was Little Stanley, My Dog (above) which hangs proudly in Deakin’s living room today.

The Quantel Paintbox: The first paintboxes had a 80 MB disk drive, enough to store 80 TV pictures. The updated model above had a disk drive with 160 MB (image courtesy of Quantel)

The Quantel Paintbox revolutionised television media, allowing for images and graphics to be produced immediately onto the screen. It was the precursor to all the graphic news reports and title sequences which we take for granted today. Users could paint directly onto the screen with the use of a stylus and tablet. As Deakin explains, ‘Nobody had ever seen anything like it and every TV station had to have one. You could mix colours on a palette and use different thicknesses of brush, just like conventional painting.  Nowadays everybody can do all the same things on a Mac. Before then it was lettraset and glue’. Images made on the Paintbox could be printed, but like a reproduction in a book they would lack the quality and colour of the image as it appeared upon a lit television monitor.

Hockney was immediately taken with the rapidity and luminosity of this new digital medium, describing it as akin to ‘liquid stained glass’. A few months later, the artist participated in the BBC/Griffin co-production, Painting With Light. Directed by Robert Lockyer, the series consisted of six episodes in which artists (the other participants being Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin, Sir Sidney Nolan, Larry Rivers and Jennifer Bartlett) would use the technology to produce a work by the end of the show. What was particularly brilliant about the series was that it was predominately shot from behind and in-front of the artists so that their working processes and reactions could be captured on film from beginning to end. The bulk of each episode consists of accompanying commentary from the artist. It is almost impossible to conceive that any arts programming would follow this example today given the prevailing orthodoxy for flashy cuts and edits. The brilliance of Painting With Light was its simplicity, that it encouraged viewers to really look at the works being made.

Screenshots from Painting With Light, BBC Television, 1985 (© BBC Television)

The series was inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 film, Le Mystère Picasso in which the artist painted onto a giant translucent canvas with a camera behind it. Picasso’s work appeared to evolve upon the screen. For Painting With Light, Quantel provided a technician, Martin Holbrook, a fine artist and graphic designer, who demonstrated the Paintbox’s functions to each of the artists, such was the novelty of the technology. ‘Hockney was the most sparked by the whole thing. He took to it like a proverbial duck to water, as he has to similar technologies subsequently’.Throughout the episode, Hockney’s mood brightens as he masters more of the Paintboxes functions and it’s a joy to behold. The BBC should certainly rebroadcast the series, or at the least make it available online. Painting With Light is a brilliant illustration of the intersection between art and technology as well as a fascinating cultural artifact. At a time when Hockney has never been more popular, I can’t believe that the series is not already available.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts until 9 April 2012

Special thanks to Michael Deakin and Roger Thornton at Quantel.

Quantel’s blogpost on the history of the Paintbox: http://blog.quantel.eu/2011/03/the-quantel-paintbox-a-pioneering-computer-graphics-workstation/

Lauren Niland, David Hockney: The art of technology, The Guardian, From the Archives Blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2012/jan/19/david-hockney-art-technology

Why ‘Curator’ has become a dirty word

'Freeze' opening party, August 1988. The compounded myth of the show influenced a new generation of curators. Left to right: Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume (Image: 'Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection', Norman Rosenthal et al, Thames & Hudson, 1998).

A friend of mine admitted that he avoids using the title ‘Curator’ and felt ambivalent about its use, despite the fact that he frequently organizes exhibitions and works alongside artists. He is not alone in feeling this way. ‘Curator’ has become a dirty word and this is because its definition is being misappropriated. It is being hijacked by self-serving, publicity savvy upstarts who are spectacularly failing to promote the arts. This essay will broadly sketch the reasons for this and why the art-loving public needs to be far more interrogative of what constitutes good and bad curating.

I recently read Shaun Belcher’s post ‘Why I despise the New Curators’ (link below article) and felt inspired to write my own thoughts on what the label ‘curator’ stands for. Belcher disparages curators as ‘middle management’. Harshly put, but in part true. Curating involves a number of organizational tasks; engaging with artists, negotiating loans, budgeting, insurance evaluations, installation etc. If you work outside of an institutional or commercial context it will also involve fundraising and securing a venue.

These are all worthy and necessary skills. The difficultly arises due to the cultural cache and perceived desirability of the label ‘curator’. Curating is now conceived of as a creative role, akin to that of a theatre director or choreographer, whereas before the term conjured up an image of a purely academic individual whose role was to maintain and manage a museum’s collection. The term curator derives from the Latin word cura meaning ‘care’. Curators are no longer only expected to handle the objects entrusted to their care, but to devise ‘strategies’ with which to engage their audiences. We have become far more conscious of how art is displayed, not simply aesthetically but ideologically. Questions arise such ‘what do these works say when hung together in this way? Why have these works been selected and others omitted? Why does the catalogue put so much emphasis on x or y?’ Being an effective curator requires more than just technical skill. It demands rigorous intellectual purpose and expression.

The desirability of the role was most likely nurtured by the economic boom and celebrification of contemporary art during the 1990s, though it is probably more accurate to state that these developments can be traced to the 1980s, most palpably within the New York art scene (one thinks of Andy Warhol’s parties, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat mingling with actors and pop stars). Wealth and celebrity doesn’t necessarily account for the recent influx of curators, but it is reasonable to conclude that the increased visibility of contemporary art has drawn more people into professional arts careers. There are now a vast number of training courses available. In London alone there are curating MAs at institutions including The Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins (branded as ‘Exhibition Studies’), and The Courtauld Institute of Art. Aside from museum curators, we now have independent curators and even free lance curators.

During the 90s, the success of a new wave of British artists validated the creative aspect of the curatorial role. Damien Hirst achieved enormous success for both himself and his fellow colleagues at Freeze, the show he curated in July 1988 in an abandoned gym in London Docklands. Dealers who visited the exhibition signed on a number of its participants. Jay Jopling subsequently represented Hirst whilst Karsten Schubert went on to promote a number of the show’s participants, including Ian Davenport, Mat Collishaw and Angus Fairhurst.

'Freeze', Installation shot, works by Simon Patterson (left), Abigail Lane (centre) and Lala Meredith-Vulja, August 1988, PLA Building, Surrey Docks, London (Image: 'Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection', Norman Rosenthal et al, Thames & Hudson, 1998)

The exhibition’s derelict and remote setting may have given the impression of a truly outsider art, free of the mechanics of bureaucracy and commerce, but the opposite was true. Hirst and his colleagues were actively courting support. As art historian Julian Stallabrass observed, the show’s audience was ‘a highly homogenous one – an invited elite-to-be’. The myth of Freeze cemented the identifying characteristics of the yBa’s (Young British Artists); a cool (but inherently false) detachment from the mainstream, the use of irony, irreverence and moral ambiguity as well as the repetition of content. In curating their own shows, the confrontational and controversial qualities of the artists’ works extended into their presentation, bleeding into a certain style of exhibitions.

Artist Martin Maloney, curator of shows such as Die Young Stay Pretty (ICA, 1998) and Die Yuppie Scum (Karsten Schubert, 1996) exemplified this trend. The cheap aesthetic required for the production of Freeze had by this point become painfully self-conscious, much like Maloney’s crude, childish and banal paintings.

Martin Maloney, 'Die Yuppie Scum', exhibition invitation, 1996 (Image: Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London)

Maloney’s introduction to the Die Yuppie Scum catalogue is fun but essentially insubstantial:

“Die Yuppie Scum gathers together 12 new contemporary artists to explore the conflict between the pastoral and the gothic. On show are works which glorify the dumb and the glum, throwaway pleasures and mindless fun. Watch the designer lifestyles of a previous era melt down under threatened menance [sic]”.

Part of the show’s appeal lay in being staged at a commercial gallery. The declarative rhetoric of statements such as ‘Die Yuppie Scum’ was intended to ring out with hollow irony. As Stallabrass observed, the tactic of putting on ‘alternative’, cheap shows was far from novel and not without art-historical antecedents. But such was the perceived success of this cheap aesthetic that by the end of the 90s a tendency for self-professed curators to mimic it was well established. The preference was for brash, loud, irreverent titles and artworks chiefly characterized by a self-aware irony. The fact that successful artists such as Hirst and Maloney were curating served to endorse the profession. Unfortunately, part of the yBa legacy was undoubtedly expressed by the glut of cheap, exclusive and vaporous exhibitions popping up around East London and beyond throughout the 00s.

At this point a crucial distinction must be made, for our understanding of the role of a curator is clearly context sensitive. Are curators highly qualified experts on particular artists, groups and trends or are they self-starters putting on a show for forty people in a derelict basement?  Could they be both? If we imagine a large-scale museum show that conveys certain themes, arguments and contributes to art historical scholarship – then we are satisfied because the input of the curator is clearly manifest in the final product. The decisive issue is the level of creative agency involved. Museum shows involving a catalogue, lectures, wall texts, labels and event programmes provide the easiest context with which to legitimize curating because the effort involved is readily apparent. Likewise, exhibitions outside of an institutional context ought to demonstrate a similar level of creative agency, engagement and ingenuity. Crucially, any exhibition should be broadly accessible and coherent regardless of the specific audience it is intended for. I’m not being elitist in my comparison. My observation is that it is increasingly difficult to identify a ‘proper’ curator outside of an institutional context. There is nothing illegitimate about independent curators, regardless of their knowledge or experience, so long as they embody some of the qualities outlined above. The problem with many exhibitions, as Belcher states, is their composition of a ‘mish-mash of baloney, philosophical wank and bullshit erudition’. These all too familiar exhibitions ape professionalism, eschew basic coherency and fawn over half digested postmodern theory. This is a hangover from what was originally a bit of fun on the part of artists such as Hirst and Maloney, which has been continually rehashed and imitated.

Of course it is unfair to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of curators. The rise of ‘Artbollocks’ as Brian Ashbee famously coined it in Art Review, goes hand in hand with the rise of the PR and marketing industries that at best attract and welcome new audiences to art, or at worst reinforce an aura of exclusivity. ‘Curator’ has been hijacked as a marker of professionalism. The label is now so frequently used that it is risks becoming redundant. Numerous CVs are embellished with the title even if the individual simply helped hang a few canvases at a show. Commercial galleries are also muddying the waters by aspiring to function like museums. Increasingly, their shows are promoted as ‘curated by’, even when the effort or extent of the project is barely perceptible.

Since artists began to validate curating as a creative process, we have seen the rise of the super curator, figures that appear to share a level of fame previously enjoyed by a few select artists. Hans-Ulrich Obrist is a good example.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (Image: www.fadwebsite.com)

Currently, Obrist is Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London. He is also one of the few curators that the general public may have heard of. His publications (which are numerous) generally consist of interviews with artists. His name features as prominently on the covers of his ‘Conversation Series’ as the artist whom he is interviewing. This seems at odds with Obrist’s recent curatorial assertion in an interview that ‘the more I can disappear, the less my signature is there, the better it is’ (link below).

'Koons: Conversation Series 22' & 'Ono: Conversation Series 17', Hans Ulrich Obrist, Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2009 (Image: www.amazon.com)

He also frequently coins his own artistic terms and definitions, though whether these gain academic traction remains to be seen (the latest being ‘Posthastism’). Regardless of Obrist’s skill as a curator, has he inadvertently set an example to a number of tirelessly self-promoting curators? Paradoxically, Obrist is probably better known for his publications than for his exhibitions. Writing is no doubt an extension of the curator’s project, but as Obrist’s fame demonstrates, there is a danger of one’s name obscuring the work for which it stands for (such is the character of modern day celebrity). This tension arises because of the transient nature of exhibitions. So much emphasis is placed on accompanying catalogues and publications precisely because they will serve as a surviving record of the curator’s project. Catalogues can also illuminate certain curatorial processes that are not readily apparent in the final exhibition. We can make judgements about the selection of works and how they are displayed, but our appreciation may be far greater if we understood the difficulty in acquiring certain works, the background politics and the rules governing certain curatorial decisions. As exhibition visitors we, quite rightly, proritise the art over the curation. But now that the status of the curator is competing with that of the artist, we need to re-examine the curatorial role.

There is a collective failure to critique the work of curators. Instead the label seems to function on a purely descriptive level. We do not often conceive of curators as either good or bad. This applies particularly to the New Curators who can then get away with justifying just about any theoretical piffle to a bemused audience. Keen to play down the managerial aspect of their professions and emphasize their creative role, many curators are driven to absurd levels of self-aggrandizement. The result of this need is a crude and skewed logic: anything that sounds vaguely intelligent must be, and anything that is expressed eloquently must be simple, and thus unintelligent. ‘Curator’ has become a dirty word because it is being used to legitimize the good, the bad and the ugly. It is a worthy and important profession frequently hijacked by those unworthy of it. Coherence, eloquence, substance and presentation need to extolled as the chief ambitions of any curator. Exhibitions can even be fun and irreverent when paired with imagination. Curators are increasingly plying for your attention. Give it to them, but pay them the ultimate compliment by critiquing their work.


Shaun Belcher, Contemporary Art Criticism, ‘Why I despise the New Curators’


Brian Ashbee, Art Bollocks (originally published in Art Review April 1999)


Coline Milliard, ARTINFO, Hans Ulrich Obrist on His New Art Movement, “Posthastism”


Gerhard Richter’s ‘September’

Gerhard Richter, 'September', 2005, oil on canvas, 55 x 72 cm, (Image: http://www.gerhard-richter.com)

Gerhard Richter’s September is serene and troubling in equal measure. Serene in that it depicts a timeless and abstract image from the World Trade Centre attacks, and troubling because the painting is devoid of any political, ideological or emotional content. This could be considered as either a reverential approach or nihilistic and unsettling. September had never been exhibited in the UK before and as 2011 marked the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the painting featured heavily throughout the Tate’s publicity material for the Gerhard Richter: Panorama retrospective. The December – January 2012 Tate Guide featured an interview conducted by Nick Serota in which the artist revealed his working process:

‘The picture I used for this painting was very beautiful, with flames in red and orange and yellow, and wonderful. And this was a problem. Of course I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. And I made it banal. It doesn’t tell much. It shows more the impossibility to say something about this disaster’. (pg. 15)

A lengthier interview published in the exhibition catalogue suggests that Richter never intended to render the moment United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.

Richter: ‘I was very struck by the images in the papers, I didn’t think you could paint that moment and certainly not in the way some people did, taking the inane view that this most awful act was some kind of amazing Happening and celebrating it as a megawork of art’

Serota: ‘So you tried to find a way of dealing with the subject without making it spectacular’.

Richter: ‘Yes, concentrating on its incomprehensible cruelty, and its awful fascination’. (pp.25-26)

It is likely that Richter began by rendering the scene exactly as it appeared in his source material, realizing that the painting conveyed nothing more than a photograph of the event, or that he believed the gradual destruction of his original rendition was an essential part of his working process. I’m inclined to believe that it was the latter. After all, what purpose would a realistic rendition of the photograph serve? How would its impact differentiate from a photograph other than being a skillful exercise in photorealism? In abstracting his painting, diffusing the paint surface and violently cutting through layers of paint with a knife, the viewer is prompted to rationalize the nebulous rendition, projecting upon the canvas their own interpretations of the event.

September looks like a retinal image of the disaster, as if you were watching your television, closed your eyes and found the image seared into your cortex. Like a memory, the image is neither sharp nor precise but exists as an elemental form. This is an image about imagery – how technology documented but was also employed to carry out an act of twenty-first century terrorism; the use of jet planes as weapons, worldwide live footage streaming on the internet and on televisions, helicopter shots, mobile phone calls to loved ones. The act of painting emphasizes that for most of us 9/11 was experienced at a level of remove.

September was displayed rather innocuously at the Tate, tucked in beside the entrance of the penultimate room. The work deliberately eschews monumentality. The canvas is relatively small, its abstracted forms not immediately announced. Richter correctly anticipated that a monumental approach would in itself be inane. As with his Baader Meinhof paintings, the most loaded of source material is carefully selected before being rendered in a seemingly dispassionate way. Many regard his attitude as nihilistic, but I don’t believe this to be true. If anything, the exhibition affirmed that painting can address traumatic events, encouraging us to question how we receive images whilst contemplating their hold over us.

The major retrospective Gerhard Richter: Panorama has now ended its run at the Tate Modern but is soon to open at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.