Renewal by refocusing — how David Hockney did it

July 12, 2008

Hockney's 1967 "A Bigger Splash"

Conceptual innovator David Hockney won fame as an artist at age 26, then achieved new success in his 60s by plunging into art history. As such, he’s a prime example of a conceptual innovator achieving renewal through a change of focus.

For economist David Galenson, Hockney is “a wonderful example of a young genius conceptual artist,” who had his first show at age 27 and produced his most valued work at age 30.

“Throughout his career, Hockney has made a series of abrupt changes of style, often associated with a change of materials or medium.”

Hockney’s works that are most frequently included in retrospective exhibitions are his splashy paintings from his late 20s, just after he moved to LA. He made a shift in his 40s, into photo collages (below). The ones he did in his late 40s are No. 2 in frequency in retrospectives.

“David Hockney obviously challenged himself, first moving into photography and now into art history. Many people were pissed off, but he didn’t care,” Galenson says.

In his 60s, Hockney developed the radical idea that several masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, including Raphael and Giorgione, painted with the help of newly invented optical lenses and mirrors. Hockney’s theory led to a book that challenged the art history establishment.

Hockneys Pearblossom Highway photo collage, 1986

Hockney's "Pearblossom Highway" photo collage, 1986


Monet painting from age 79 is worth $80m? That’s typical.

July 12, 2008
“Le Bassin aux Nymphéas,” sold for $80.4 million

“Le Bassin aux Nymphéas,” sold for $80.4 million

Congratulations to experimental innovator Claude Monet for last month’s $80.4 million sale of the painting “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” which he completed at age 79 in 1919.

That was the highest auction price ever paid for a Monet, topping May’s $41.5 million for “Le Pont du Chemin de Fer a Argenteuil.” That painting dates from 1874, when the painter was 33.

The $80 million sale of the water lily painting — the second-most expensive painting sold at a European auction — moves Monet closer to the typical pattern for experimental innovators, who usually achieve their greatest successes later in life after repeated, incrementally varied work on the same subject.

As the most prominent artist in the group that founded Impressionism, Monet earned his reputation with works from his late 20s and early 30s. At least until the latest sale, the masterpieces from around age 30 made that period the most highly valued by art buyers, as well as the decade most frequently represented in art history books.

Later in life, he became an old master. He was age 54 when he repeatedly painted Rouen Cathedral in 1984, the most frequently represented year for Monet paintings in art books.

His renowned studies of water lilies date from his late 50s to his death at age 94.

Like most successful experimental innovators, Monet’s popularity doesn’t depend on any one particular work that stands out from the rest.

Monet is No. 5 on the list of French painters whose works appear most frequently in art histories, but he has no individual painting in the Top 10.

For more on experimental and conceptual innovators, see other posts in this blog and the Arts of Innovation Web site.

J. Craig Venter, again a ‘most influential’ conceptual innovator

June 7, 2008

J. Craig VenterA quick writeup by Robin Cook on a conceptual guy making repeated breakthroughs in different fields, and in the process landing twice on the Time100 list of the world’s most influential people. Cook writes in part:

There have always been two kinds of innovators: those who have an incandescent idea that changes the world and those who keep having them. Increasingly, J. Craig Venter, 61, is establishing himself as a member of that second group.

Already admired as the scientist who conceived of the high-speed, “shotgun” approach to DNA sequencing, he was honored last year with a place on the TIME 100 list for his studies involving biodiversity in the oceans. This year he’s back for the startling achievement of having built the first synthetic genome.

Watson’s great-granddaughter on the truth of Bell’s invention

June 6, 2008

Don’t believe the dramatic story that “that the telephone was born when Alexander Graham Bell spilled battery acid on himself and called out to Thomas Watson for help,” says Susan Cheever, Watson’s great-granddaughter. Writing to The New Yorker, she says:

March 10, 1876, the day Watson heard Bell through the wire, was a day completely without drama. There is no mention of the battery-acid accident in Bell’s log of the day. “The first recorded message was commonplace,” Watson complained in letters. “There was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.” It wasn’t until fifty years later, in 1926, when Watson sat down to write his lovely memoir, “Exploring Life,” that the battery-acid story was born. …

I come from a family of inspired storytellers, and Watson, who was my great-grandfather, was one of the best.

Gladwell: ‘Who says big ideas are rare?’

June 6, 2008

CartoonGood reading: Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on “In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare?”


In order to get one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, in other words, we thought we needed the solitary genius. But if Alexander Graham Bell had fallen into the Grand River and drowned that day back in Brantford, the world would still have had the telephone, the only difference being that the telephone company would have been nicknamed Ma Gray, not Ma Bell.

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common.

Evolutionary design crossbreeds two innovation styles

January 26, 2008

Here’s an intriguing mix of conceptual and experimental innovation: evolutionary design.

The concept is to use a computerized trial-and-error method that mimicks the evolutionary process and eventually produces successful innovations. Because computers are so much faster than in the past, this method has now been used for designing cars, aircraft, USB memory sticks, yachts, optical fibers, ear implants, a cancer-detecting device, and a Wi-Fi antenna.

An article in The Economist (online in October, in print in December 2007) describes the process:

Evolutionary design uses a computer program called an evolutionary algorithm, which takes the initial parameters of the design (things such as lengths, areas, volumes, currents and voltages) and treats each like one gene in an organism. Collectively, these genes comprise the product’s genome. By randomly mutating these genes and then breeding them with other, similarly mutated genomes, new offspring designs are created. These are subjected to simulated use by a second program. If a particular offspring is shown not to be up to the task, it is discarded. If it is promising, it is selectively bred with other fit offspring to see if the results, when subject to further mutation, can do even better.

Aging innovators know it: Amazing ideas aren’t the only way to go

January 21, 2008

Elizabeth HazenThe ability to come up with brilliant new ideas tends to decline with age, but that’s no problem for people whose innovations aren’t dependent on brilliant ideas.

They’re innovators who are experimental, rather than conceptual. For them, aging isn’t such a handicap, since they typically improve with experience. But they do face a particular problem of their own:

People tend to forget that they exist.

Despite the examples of middle-aged and older experimental innovators from Henry Ford to Sam Walton, experimental innovators are often overlooked when thinkers theorize about innovation.

A recent example this pervasive forgetfulness is Janet Rae-Dupress’s piece “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike” that the New York Times published Dec. 30.

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