A Public Conference sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities Saturday and Sunday, December 1 & 2, 2001 Tishman Auditorium; NYU Law School 40 Washington Square South

This two-day conference will present a public discussion of a startling new theory being advanced by world-renowned artist David Hockney, working in collaboration with University of Arizona physicist Charles Falco, to the effect that, as far back as the 1420s, Master Painters in the High Tradition were deploying optical devices to render lifelike images of people and their surroundings. The conference will bring together Hockney, Falco, and their principal supporters and skeptics among art and science historians, critics, scientists and painters for the first full public airing of their views.

Most art historians believe the majority of European painters since the Italian Renaissance deployed elaborate systems of mathematical perspective to achieve their effects. Over the past several years, however, Hockney and Falco have been arguing that, on the contrary, most artists in the High Tradition, going all the way back to Bruges in the 1420s, were deploying a variety of optical devices (ranging from concave mirrors through lenses and cameras obscura and lucida). In effect they suggest that painters (from Van Eyck through Caravaggio, Lotto, Velazquez, Vermeer, Chardin, Ingres, etc.) were using precursors of photographic cameras for centuries before the invention of chemical fixatives in 1839; and that it was only with the spread of such chemical fixatives that European painters, suddenly disenchanted with the “optical look,” began to undertake the critique of photography implicit in impressionism, expressionism and cubism and the rest of the modernist tradition.

Needless to say, these claims (up untill now mainly advanced in peer-reviewed scientific journals) are highly controversial: if true, they would have far-reaching ramifications upon our understanding of art. Public awareness of this new interpretation will become even more widespread with the publication this fall of Hockney’s exposition of his thesis, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Viking, November 2001).

Four weeks following that publication, the New York Institute for the Humanities will be convening its two-day conference. Hockney and Falco will kick off the conference on Saturday morning December 1st with the American premiere screening of Hockney’s recent BBC documentary on the theory.

Over the next two days, five panels, featuring over 25 contributors—including Richard Wolheim, Susan Sontag, Svetlana Alpers, Martin Kemp, Michael Fried, Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, John Walsh, Linda Nochlin and Rosalind Krauss—will evaluate various aspects of the theory. There will also be a display area in the neighboring Greenberg Lounge in which Hockney and others will be demonstrating several of the alleged optical techniques.

The conference, sponsored in part by the Sloan and Norton Family Foundations, will be open to the public and free; attendance in the 400-seat hall will be on a first-come/first-in basis; for overflow crowds, the proceedings will be being piped live into the neighboring Greenberg Lounge. Accredited press representative can obtain passes for the entire conference or portions thereof by contacting John Beckman at the New York University Press Office at 998-6848.

The Conference will have a website—artandoptics.com—which should launch by the first week in November. In the meantime, questions may be addressed to Erika Kawalek at the Institute: 212-998-2101.

Press Contact

John Beckman
John Beckman
(212) 998-6848