Why is this interesting? - The E Pluribus Unum Edition

On David Hockney, vision, and the fracturing of space and time

Emanuel Derman (ED) wrote the excellent Being Foreign and Japan editions. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to Columbia University in New York to study for a PhD in physics. Since then he’s lived mostly in Manhattan. His memoir is My Life As A Quant. - Colin (CJN)

Emanuel here.
One of my favorite artworks is a 1986 collage by David Hockney called  Pearblossom Hwy. A photo or print cannot do justice to the original, which is approximately 64” x 46”. I have a miniature version on my iPhone and sometimes use it as wallpaper.

The picture Pearblossom Hwy consists of a tatty barely two-lane road perpendicular to the actual Pearblossom Hwy somewhere in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. (Pearblossom Highway itself cannot be seen in the picture.) The side of the road is littered with car-tossed cans and bottles. There are man-made warning STOP AHEAD and STOP signs as the road approaches the intersection with the highway. The desert landscape looks extraterrestrial. The combination of detritus on the side and the lunar Joshua Tree landscape brings to mind the space junk now circling the earth. And yet there’s something human about the scene. “Originally it was meant to illustrate a story for Vanity Fair about Humbert Humbert looking for Lolita,” Nabokov explained somewhere. 

According to the internet, this is how dull the exact same spot looked in 2010:

The collage is painstakingly constructed out of about 800 overlapping rectangular photos, each one capturing just a tiny several-inches-long part of the scene, all put together to form a panorama of the road at some time during the day (more about the time later).

Why is this interesting?

The landscape in the collage looks almost continuous, but it’s distorted. It violates the rules of perspective. Some objects are too large, others too small. What’s too large are the items of familiar human significance—the farthest STOP sign, the letters painted on the road, the distant ‘Pearblossom Hwy’ street sign. Psychological perspective dominates linear perspective.

The collage technique mimics the way the mind (psychology) and the eye (physiology) work together. When you look at a scene, your eye cannot finely encompass the whole area at once. Though the entire image is focused on the back of the eye, most of the retina is capable of only low resolution; only the minute fovea has the power to resolve the detail. Necessarily, therefore, the eye darts about the collage, its lens pausing to focus between saccades, the fovea taking in each photo-size part. Your mind then patches everything together and you “see” the whole picture.

Hockney’s piece is doing to the desert road what your eye then recursively does to his collage. You reconstruct the patchwork of his art from many tiny sequential glimpses of it, just as the collage itself reconstructs the desert scene from many separate photos. But it’s arguably even more abstruse. There’s not only a fracturing of space, but also of time. Those photos have been snapped over several days—there’s nothing simultaneous about the view. No one ever saw anything like that. Similarly, there’s nothing simultaneous about the mind’s picture composed between saccades. 

I recently watched Secret Knowledge, a video in which Hockney surmised that 15th Century Dutch artists had used concave mirrors to create their stunningly detailed small paintings. At the end, he claims that his treatment of Pearblossom Hwy is similar to that of the 1420 Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, which similarly employs psychological rather than perspective sizing. Both pictures create a unity made out of small entangled bits of time and space—E pluribus unum. It reminds me of Schopenhauer on aesthetics: “Art ... plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world's course, and has it isolated before it.” (ED)

YouTube Video of the Day:

Amazing story of the SR-71 showing up the competition. “Major Brian Shul relays the true story of a ground speed check with Los Angeles Center, while piloting the SR-71 Blackbird over Southern California.” [via The Prepared

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Emanuel (ED)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).