A good spaceship for time travel

awesome old ladies in an awesome old car

“I’ll go on till I fall over.”
David Hockney

Two grannies in an ancient Mustang. I flew out to San Francisco this Thursday to be bombarded by the images made by David Hockney hanging at the de Young museum, but it’s this image, snapped on my iPhone, that sticks with me. Two ladies, advanced in years, cruising the future in a time machine from the past. (Someone asked director Paul Thomas Anderson why he shot The Master on 70mm film, and he said, “It just felt like a good spaceship for time travel.”)

Hockney has built his own spaceship for time travel out of his hands, his heart, and his eyeballs, and it’s fueled by his obsession with picture making. He’s up for any medium—watercolor, charcoal, high definition video, the Brushes app on the iPad—anything that helps him make pictures, and you can tell, regardless of the finished product, that you’re looking through those same eyeballs, moved by that same obsession.

You can’t help but be humbled in the de Young show—18,000 square feet of museum filled with the past decade or so of a 76-year-old’s output.

I’m 30. I can barely fathom working for another five years, let alone another 46 years.

The questions that have haunted me since I walked out of the museum: What is my obsession? What is my spaceship for time travel? What machine am I building now that will take me through the rest of my years?

[Read more…]


The Big Sort

Meg took these shots of me working on the book. At this stage, I have about 175 poems scanned and cleaned up. I’d like to have about 150. I was trying to organize them all on the computer in Adobe Bridge, but I wanted to be able to see them all, to touch them, to shuffle them, stack them, sort through them. I decided to print them all out on paper. Now I’m looking for themes and threads, stories and characters, trying to make this thing flow.

The Big Sort

It’s a lot like making a mixtape, or sequencing an album. The way the songs butt up against each other can totally color their meanings. One could craft a hundred different albums from the same batch of songs.

The Big Sort

The task now is looking. Trying to see a book in this stack of pages.

Dan Roam, in his book, The Back of the Napkin, says “there are four basic rules to apply every time we look at something new.”

dan roam back of the napkin

1. Collect everything we can to look at—the more the better (at least at first).

2. Have a place where we can lay out everything and really look at it, side by side.

3. Always define a basic coordinate system to give us a clear orientation and position.

4. Find ways to cut ruthlessly from everything our eyes bring in—we need to practice visual triage.

Lay it all out where you can look at it. As Edward Tufte says, “Whenever possible, show comparisons adjacent in spaces, not stacked in time.”

Looking leads to seeing which leads to meaning.

David Hockney came to his theory on optics and painting by pinning a photocopied timeline of paintings down one wall of his studio:

david hockney wall of painting

He looked and was able to see a story.

Let’s hope it works for me.


“The resonances of losing stereoscopy can be unexpectedly far-reaching, causing not only a problem in judging depth and distance, but a “flattening” of the whole visual world, a flattening that is both perceptual and emotional. People in this situation speak of feeling “disconnected,” of a difficulty in relating themselves not only spatially but emotionally to what they are seeing. The return of binocular vision, if this occurs, can thus give great pleasure and relief, as the world once again seems visually and emotionally rich.
—Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Reading through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, I was struck by the idea that it might be our deficiencies or our weaknesses that lead us to our talents.

Art Spiegelman has amblyopia, or lazy eye — he’s virtually blind in his left eye.

“[W]hich means that I don’t have binocular vision, and have difficulty seeing in three dimensions. This might have been part of what made me a cartoonist rather than a baseball player. I was rotten at sports, but I found that if I could draw good caricatures of the teachers I wouldn’t be doomed to be the butt of everybody’s scorn.”

Today I found a good scan of Spiegelman’s cartoon, “Eye Ball,” which originally ran in the New Yorker:

Art Spiegelman on his amblyopia: "Eye Ball" from THE NEW YORKER

(Why such an interest in vision? I should note that I have poor eyesight, mild red/green colorblindness, and a grandmother with cataracts and glaucoma. I’m terrified of going blind!)

Ever since I read David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, I’ve been very interested in binocular vision. Longtime readers might remember this sketchbook page from a post I did about the tyranny of linear perspective in comics:

Thinking about all this, I dug up an old New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks about stereoscopic vision (the article is called “Stereo Sue” — I’ll post the beginning in the comments below). Sacks talks about the discovery of stereoscopic vision, and then some alternatives for those who don’t have it:

There are, of course, many other ways of judging depth: occlusion of distant objects by closer objects, perspective (the fact that distant objects appear smaller), shading (which delineates the shape of objects), “aerial” perspective (the blurring and bluing of more distant objects by the intervening air), and, most important, motion parallax–the change of spatial relationships as we move our heads. All these cues, acting in tandem, can give a vivid sense of reality and space and depth. But the only way to actually perceive depth rather than judge it is with binocular stereoscopy.

And uh, well, I guess that’s all I’ve got on the subject at this point…


David Hockney argues that the use of optical lenses probably had something to do with the widespread the 15th century method of perspective:

…the [optical] projection yields up one-point perspective–and nothing else does. It’s difficult nowadays, in a world saturated with television and photographs and billboards and movies, to recall how radically new one-point perspective would have appeared to those first exposed to it. That’s not how the world presents itself and can’t help but present itself through a one-point projection, be it a pinhole or a lens or a curved mirror.”

We see with two eyes. It’s called “binocular vision.” Each eye receives a slightly different image, and the brain processes the two images into 3-D to generate the sensation of depth.

Western one-point perspective is an attempt to fabricate this sensation. It is an illusion. Hockney calls it “the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops.”

And when it comes to comics, some of my favorite artists choose to completely ignore it.

Here’s Scott McCloud from Making Comics:

Dig this funky Grosz. See a vanishing point?


What about this Ron Rege?


Death to tyrannical one-point linear perspective!



I came to David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, like many other beautiful books, by way of Edward Tufte. It’s a fantastic book with the basic thesis that from the early 1400’s on, painters and artists were employing the aid of optics (mirrors, glasses, lenses) to achieve a new stunning realism. If you want a great introduction/summary of the findings in the book, Lawrence Weschler’s article, “Through the Looking-Glass: Further adventures in opticality with David Hockney,” is available for free in full-text with color photos from The Believer online.

While I enjoy the mind-blowing content of his argument, what I enjoy most is Hockney’s way of looking. He came about his thesis by comparing color photocopies of 400 years of paintings and drawings side-by-side in a gigantic graphic collage timeline:

[Hockney] cleared the long two-story high wall of his hillside studio (the studio retains the general dimensions of the one-time tennis court over which it was built), installed a photocopier in the middle of the space, and, drawing on his brimming private horde of art books and monographs, effectively proceeded to photocopy the entire history of European art, shingling the images one atop the next–1300 to one side, 1750 to the far other, Northern Europe on top, Southern Europe below–a vast, teeming pageant of evolving imagery (and in some ways Hockney’s most ambitious photocollage yet).


It was from this gigantic collage that he was able to pinpoint a period at which painting seemed to change — somewhere around 1430, painting obtained an “optical” look.

Hockney argued that that look dominated European painting for centuries–just how far back he wasn’t yet sure–and that it only lost its hold on Western artists with the invention of the chemical process, in 1839, after which painters, now despairing of matching the chemical photograph for optical accuracy, finally fell away: awkwardness returned to Western painting for the first time as generation after generation of artists –impressionists, expressionists, cubists and so forth–endeavored to convey all the nuances of lived reality (time, emotion, multiple vantages, etc.) that a mere photograph couldn’t capture.

The wall, or art history from 1400-1900 becomes a three-part story: you have pre-optics (awkwardness), optics (the disappearance of awkwardness), and post-optics (the return of awkwardness).

“Awkwardness,” Hockney was saying, wheeling around, “the disappearance of awkwardness, the invention of chemical photography, and the return of awkwardness. The preoptical,” he wheeled once more, “the age of the optical, and then the post-optical, which is to say the modern. And look here.” He led me over to the corner where the two ends of the procession abutted. On the one wall he’d posited, as endpoint, Van Gogh’s portrait of Trabuc (1889); next to it, on the other, was a Byzantine mosaic icon of Christ from about 1150.


These two images together just blow my mind. It just makes so much sense. Here we are in a world where everything can be captured in perfect detail from a camera, and it takes the human hand to render it in some kind of form that actually seems closer to our experience. We don’t see life from one fixed-focus lens. We see it from two eyeballs, two ears, etc. And this is why, I think, we still love the human awkwardness of cartoons, or abstracted drawings: it can produce an experience that a photograph can’t.

Anyways, there’s a ton of other great stuff in Hockney’s book and Weschler’s article. Highly recommended.