Hanging the Electronic Picasso

By Samuel Greengard|Thursday, July 01, 1993
Whether you fancy Gauguin or Van Gogh, digitized images and advanced electronics can place art on your living-room wall.

Viewing great art is not always easy. You can make a pilgrimage to the Louvre or the National Gallery, only to confront crowds blocking your brief views of favorite paintings, or you can pore over the pages of art books that only hint at the majesty and depth of the original works. In the not-so-distant future, however--thanks to the digitization of images and the continued miniaturization of electronics--even the most humble abode may rival the great museums of the world when it comes to showing the works of Leonardo, Raphael, Matisse, and Picasso.

Call it a brush with illusion. Hang a high-resolution, ultrathin computer screen on a wall of your home, hook it up to an image source (CD- ROM, cable TV, satellite transmitter, or videodisc player), and view whatever art, photography, or computer animation strikes your fancy. As your mood, lighting, or guests change, so can the picture. Such a capability is finally beginning to move off the desktop and onto the wall. Sharp Electronics, a leader in liquid crystal display monitors (the same technology that goes into today’s notebook computers), has made a start by introducing stand-alone color display screens that are nearly flat--the smallest is a mere one and eleven-sixteenths inches thick--and can be hung on a wall. The screens reproduce TV and video signals without the usual flicker, and with richer colors than conventional television. Buyers can connect the pricey screens to videodisc players that will allow them to view a different piece of art every two minutes.

But the drawback to the Sharp screens is their size. The current generation is limited to a maximum of just under 20 inches, attained by some of the thicker, more expensive models. Moreover, they don’t work well unless they’re viewed straight on. The biggest hurdle is designing hardware powerful enough to display the tremendous color, contrast, and resolution fine art demands--on a wall unit with a diagonal span of 50 to 100 inches. That technology is at least five years away from being perfected.

But developing the hardware is only half the picture. Where will art aficionados obtain stunning images of their favorite Modigliani or Miró? Most likely through vast data bases that contain text, images, and video. Continuum Productions, a Seattle-area firm owned by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, is the leading promoter of this concept (Gates has become so enamored with the idea of electronic wall art that he’s installing the technology throughout the futuristic home he’s building). Continuum has already acquired more than 100,000 photographs and art images, including Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Paul Gauguin’s Vase of Flowers. The works come from such prestigious collections as the National Gallery in London and the Hulton Deutsch Collection.

The idea, says Steven Arnold, Continuum’s president, is to provide a vast data base and image base that will not only provide a famous painting but allow multimedia exploration of an artist or topic. Based on their interests, says Arnold, people will be able to punch up Andy Warhol, say, look at the artist’s works, and get text, photographs, and video on the entire Pop Art period. That might lead them to another artist, maybe Roy Lichtenstein, whose work they may also want to examine--even zooming in on the comic strip-like details of particular images.

All this may only be the beginning. Some futurists predict that large-scale video art exhibitions may become the norm. Waiting rooms, offices, and public spaces may eventually be transformed into mini-museums capable of offering ever-changing exhibits. Arnold says it will be a fundamental change in the way people relate to information--not only art but a whole range of visual and auditory subjects. With traditional TV, for example, what’s on each channel is now prescribed by the folks in programming, he says. With this technology and the development of digital data bases, power will rest, as it should, with the user
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