The Chimerist

Posts tagged Art

Sometimes, when people ask me how useful my iPad is (meaning: compared to a laptop), I’m at a bit of a loss. How do you measure the utility of taking a ten-minute break to dip into Fotopedia’s spread on the Alhambra or to glance at the Guardian’s photo of the day? Hours of reading and writing can leave even the most bookish person starved for images and color. The iPad is a relaxation and consumption device for me (the laptop = work), but it provides a refreshment of eye, mind and spirit that surely do me more good than a whole suite of productivity software. I use it to look at art.

Apps for looking at art abound. One of the best-known is Art Authority, a big barn of images, ranging from classical to modern works, fronted by a modest facade. What Art Authority lacks in sophistication, however, it makes up for in volume: the developers have pulled tens of thousands of images — including many high-resolution ones, for you retina screen users — from all over the web and served them up in a format designed to look like a museum.

Some users have complained that all of this stuff — from the images themselves to the Wikipedia pages that pop up when you touch the information button — is already available for free online. Art Authority is basically a big database of that material, which you can search using a limited range of fields: artist, title, location and “subject,” if, say, you really want to find paintings of horses. There’s no presiding curatorial sensibility, no narrative, no analysis. The developers have also produced a companion art-history book available for free in the iBook store. That consists of some very basic information about the various schools of Western visual art, but as with the large chronological categories in the app (Renaissance, Baroque, etc.), the framework is strictly for beginners. This app isn’t going to replace your Janson. Then again, you can find pictures in here that Janson didn’t have room to include.

And you can set Art Authority on shuffle, prop your iPad up and gaze at a seemingly endless stream of gorgeous images, quite a few of them in high resolution. You can pinch zoom to get a closer look, or try an interesting (if somewhat mysterious) tool that picks out “similar images” from the trove. At five bucks, the app’s seamless presentation is well worth the cost, although it would be great if — in addition to being able to save a list of favorite images — users themselves could add tags to aid future searchers. Technically, for example, it’s correct that the Pre-Raphaelites belong to the Romantic era, as does the Hudson School of landscape painters, but otherwise these two groups don’t have much in common. Yet you can’t currently search the database for either school. 

You’d think, then, that I’d appreciate the more strictly curated artCircles app, which serves up images hand-selected by “the artists, musicians, designers and innovators of our time.” (I had heard of none of them.) You can look at all the images picked by a single curator while listening to an audio narration explaining his or her choices. There are also circles organized by dominant color or theme. The images include paintings, photographs, illustrations, even some vintage advertising.

Unfortunately, the wince-inducing narrations in artCircles are a reminder of just how hard it is not to sound self-indulgently dopey when talking about art. The selections in the app should have felt fresh and eclectic, full of new discoveries, yet there was something overly familiar about it — Klimt, Warhol, Dali, etc. — that made the experience strangely redolent of a dorm room. That’s probably because this free app is produced by the company art.com, which sells exactly the sort of posters you and your roommate and your best friend taped over your desks during freshman year. The app is actually a catalog designed to sell prints.

The Gagosian app is forthrightly a catalog, but one that’s so intricate and inventive that even a viewer who’s mostly indifferent to contemporary art (my favorite painter is Tintoretto, to give you a sense) can end up being charmed by it. Gagosian is a name to conjure with in the current art world, and even I recognize a few of the names (Damien Hirst, Richard Serra) in the three issues produced so far. While I liked playing around with Hirst’s colored-dots animation, the real fun lay in meandering through the works of artists who were entirely new to me, like Mike Kelley, who, alas, died earlier this year. 

The Kelley “exhibit” presented by the app featured video, stills, quotes from critics, narration by the artist (which also confirmed that most people sound dopey when talking about art, including artists), and information and images concerning how his wacky, brainy installations were made. It helped that the project, “Exploded Fortress of Solitude,” offered a cockeyed version of Superman’s mountain sanctuary you could walk through. There’s also video in which bewigged men chain a groggy bride to a stone wall. I don’t know what it all means (despite Kelley’s efforts to explain it), but it sure was fun.

Even though I try to hit the major art museums in cities I visit, I’d probably never make it to exhibits at the various glittering Gagosian galleries scattered throughout the world. Not my scene. But the Gagosian app has earned a permanent spot on my tablet. Each issue has two or three things that purely delight me, presented in some sly way that invites exploration and play. How useful is that? Very.

—Laura Miller


The Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy app collects the artist’s incredibly intricate anatomical drawings and theories amid eleven chapters of explanatory text. Viewed in landscape mode, it’s elegant and satisfying, providing real insight into the ways his studies (and, later, his dissections) of the human body affected his painting, and establishing him as a groundbreaking scientist. 

He went out of his way to capture muscles at rest. In one study the model even had his arms supported by sticks so as to put no strain on the shoulder muscles. Leonardo reasoned that, while it is important to know how to draw the muscles in tension, it is just as important to know how to draw them when relaxed: “You should not make all the muscles of your figures conspicuous; even if they are shown in the correct place they should not be made too evident, unless the limbs to which they belong are engaged in the exertion of great force or labour. The limgs that are not under strain should have no such display of musculature. If you do otherwise you will have produced a sack of nuts rather than a human figure.”

For Leonardo it was a combination of slack and tense muscles that implied movement — if every single muscle was tensed, the body was locked in position.

"Had he published the treatise on anatomy that he’d planned," says Alasdair Sooke, “Leonardo would be considered one of the great scientists of the Renaissance — if not all time. But because he never managed to do so, his anatomical drawings essentially disappeared from view for hundreds of years — which meant that they had little impact on scientists of a later age.”

At Download the Universe, Carl Zimmer calls the app ”simply the best ebook about science that I have ever encountered.”

Maud Newton


Fascinating, beautiful, and vaguely menacing, and all the more so when viewed from above in full-screen handheld isolation, this 3D hologram of a building and the trees and streets around it was featured at Zebra Imaging’s Studio-X presentation last week and doesn’t require special glasses. Says Voltage, “The architectural applications are obvious. The artistic possibilities are intriguing. [But] the military is also extremely interested…. DARPA has already poured $25 million into Zebra’s research.”

Maud Newton


Scott Snibbe first created Tripolar, a drawing app that “animates the tangled, abstract, ever-changing forms a pendulum makes as it swings” over magnets, for the Whitney’s CODeDOC internet exhibition in 2002. The idea was to explore “the relationship between a software artist’s code and the resulting work of art” but also to ”suggest the connection between mental states and chatic phenomena: if even a simple physicial system is so unpredictable and sensitive to initial conditions, what about our minds?” 

The drawings are stark and often gorgeous at first, a series of abstract black English roses, but if you let the pendulum swing too long you’ll end up with a knotted mass of virtual string. This continuum between beauty and disaster also suggests — and to some degree mirrors — the tension between spontaneity and control in other, more traditional forms of art.

Should the novelist endlessly tinker with adjectives, or will the book be stronger, as Borges suggests Twain’s was, if he leaves the mistakes but maintains a strong voice? Does she find the story as she goes, or does she need to know the plot in advance? 

When is an work of art finished? The artist must know. Or decide.

(For more straightforward pendulum fun, try Newton’s Cradle. And Rhizome has a brief history of the Whitney Artport.)

Maud Newton


This app exists primarily to promote a book by the same title. Both contain the precise yet allusive pen and ink drawings (some with text) of Paul Madonna, who has contributed a weekly column of such drawings to the San Francisco Chronicle for many years. The book is very beautiful and has many more images, but the app might be my preferred way to experience Madonna’s work. (I don’t have a coffee table, so in my apartment, coffee table books tend to get tucked away somewhere and forgotten.) 

Madonna’s drawings depict places in cities — usually, but not always, San Francisco. They aren’t important or famous spots, just everyday intersections, a block of Victorian row houses, even the occasional vacant lot. But urbanites know that something significant has happened in almost every inch of a city, even if its significance is known only to those individuals who experienced it. Every cityscape is a little bit haunted, but most city-dwellers are hustling along too quickly to feel it.

San Francisco is different. The disorienting hills and chardonnay light make it a dreamy place. It’s full of quiet pockets where all sense of urgency evaporates. Those are the places that Madonna draws, with an obsessive attention that makes them ravishing.

In the app, animations have been used to enhance certain images. There are also easter eggs that, when tapped, lead either to a web page or to another cache of images. These are most subtle, slow effects, the very opposite of the gimmicky interactivity in a lot of enhanced ebooks. At their most dynamic, they zoom into a part of an image until it dissolves into the texture of the paper or suggests an untapped depth. The potency of Madonna’s work has a lot to do with its stillness. No people appear in his drawings. The places in these images are suspended in time, and the animations work to slow you down until you’re able to absorb this quality. It’s one of the loveliest apps on my iPad, and it was free.

Laura Miller


Beautiful Tarot is an app I delete periodically, by turns out of superstition and rationality, and then restore out of curiosity. I’m told I broke the rules and thus cursed myself by buying my own deck, if indeed this iPad edition even counts as a deck, but that’s okay because I was taught as a child that using the Tarot at all invites demon possession and curses you and your family for seven generations, so I’ll take my chances.

My desire to know the future — however metaphorically, however falsely — trumps both reason and anxiety. And this app is gorgeous to look at, much prettier under glass. It’s also fun to play with.

For cards you can use the full Rider-Waite deck, or the major arcana of the Tarot de Marseilles (above) or the Le Gringonneur. As “paths to understanding” go, you have the option of the Celtic Cross and several others.

Once you’ve chosen, the app shuffles for you and (key for a relative Tarot novice like me) shows you where to put each card and what it will signify (“The Present,” “The Querent,” “What Will Come”) when you flip it over. As you lay the cards out, you can rifle through the deck to select exactly the one you want. 

Interpretation-wise, this is not the complex and nuanced tarot of  YeatsEliot, or Kafka; the descriptions, “adapted from Wikipedia and the public-domain work A Pictorial Key to the Tarot," are awkward and often opaquely archaic.  

I suppose for $2.99 in the Apple Store it’s not fair to expect the poetry and insights ofAlexander Chee (aka Rebellitor) or Elizabeth Bachner. One cool thing about the tablet era, though, is that all a good writer with a passion for and knowledge of the Tarot needs is a willing developer. Cryptogram, Beautiful Tarot’s creator, has the skills; maybe they could get together, rope in a designer or take inspiration from the Kimono pattern people, and make a whole new deck…

Anyway, I can dream.

Maud Newton


It looks like a jumbled mess of puppetry here, but the Maurizio Cattelan retrospective at the Guggenheim was cumulatively astonishing. JFK lay in his casket amid precariously perched old sleeping dogs, suicides with dirty feet, a sad taxidermied donkey, a KKK-sheet-wearing elephant, an XXXL grocery cart, and a gigantic, terrifying cat skeleton… So much dangled from the ceiling, you couldn’t begin to take it in until you walked down the spiral and considered everything individually. 

The paper catalog was a remarkably bare-bones production, offering only a diagram, the title of each work, a brief summary of the materials used, and the year of creation. And because it went to the printer before the arrangement of the show was finalized, it was really just about worthless. But the objects were so striking, and so unsettling — suggesting, as Linda Yablonsky has written, a “mass suicide by hanging" — I didn’t mind much. 

My stepdaughter and I took the elevator to the top and made our way down the ramp. Every ten steps or so we found ourselves backtracking to take a closer look at something we’d moved past too hastily. Max, my husband, was of a different mind, sharing Peter Schjeldahl’s skepticism, and at least as interested in the empty gallery bays as in the exhibition itself. But this was my favorite Guggenheim show, even more strange, original, and affecting than Ann Hamilton’s Human Carriage, and far surpassing, for instance, the 50th anniversary Frank Lloyd Wright show and my first exposure, twelve or thirteen years ago now, to the museum’s vast collection of Mirós and Kandinskys. When we reached the bottom of the spiral, I wished we had time to walk back up again.

At home later I downloaded the iPad app (for $3.99; perhaps the short shrift given the paper catalog wasn’t entirely unintentional).  Of the many fine museum apps out there, it’s one of the best I’ve found — not just a great supplement, but the only possible substitute, now that the show has closed, for being there.

Hosted, fittingly, by an amused and admiring John Waters, it provides an overview of Cattelan’s work and discusses the logistics of installing it. Users can view the entire exhibition from several different (slightly choppy to navigate) angles. Selecting any individual work leads you to a photograph and description of it in its original context. (That’s the cat skeleton above.)

Cattelan announced his retirement from art as the retrospective opened. The app features one of the projects he’ll be focusing on instead: his new magazine, Toilet Paper. 

Inside it there are, as John Waters says, “no words, just impeccably stylish pictures of murder, suicide, cross-dressing nuns shooting up, and girls who get off by licking doorknobs.” Looking at the magazines, I began to understand Peter Schjeldahl’s indictment a little better, but I still enjoyed them.

Maud Newton