iPad apps, Part 2: Pleasures and Pains of the Kin-Aesthetic

In my last post, I suggested that the promise of the iPad was that:

  • by engaging us physically with a magic pane of glass that refreshes and surprises us through a succession of media, we’d become enchanted with the topics at hand (literally, at our fingertips)
  • where curiosity leads, knowledge may follow

While games are interactive, immersive, and exciting—often matching up our intelligence with our twitch reflex (sometimes to the detriment of the former), most art museum apps are glorified brochureware: staid, elegant, austere, docile in their templates. Dignified, of course—where would museums be without their dignity? But in the final analysis, boring. Three exceptions. In this post, I’ll discuss the first:  MoMA’s AbEx NY.

This app is well known and has already been much praised. Last year it was awarded “Best Mobile App” in Museums and the Web’s Best of the Web competition, and it won a Webby in the category Lifestyle – Tablets & All Other Devices. But what is it that makes it so good? Well first of all, it’s immersive. It immediately plunges you into a vast canvas made up of so many smaller ones, each one a portal onto a different artist’s pictorial space. You’re moving from the get-go: up, down, back and forth, just to see what’s available in this vast new landscape/mindscape. Orienteering. What surprises lie in store? What’s around the corner, just beyond view? It combines the open white disclosure space of the imagined wall background with the limited look-ahead of an adventure. Yes!

MoMA Abex app opening screen - landscape mode

So you see all of these colorful images, with their different and arresting visual vocabularies, and of course you tap on one to dive in—and what do you get?

Willem de Kooning's "A Tree in Naples" in MoMA's AbEx NY app

A luminous display of super-rich color—perhaps more dramatic and certainly more incandescent than the original oil on canvas painting, and hence an unfair comparison, but also much smaller. That said, you can continue to dive in. Keep swimming, pawing at that interface, and you get in closer and closer—closer, in fact, than a guard would let you get in the galleries:

Willem de Kooning's "A Tree in Naples" in MoMA's AbEx NY app-detail

So this is a different kind of experience. It allows you to physically penetrate the picture space—with no load time. And you can do this with every single artwork—every colored square image—on that vast and varied opening canvas. Each artist’s intentional, symbolic, and gestural world opens up to our gaze matched to our hand, as we paw and swim into its depth and breadth.

The sculptures are a little less satisfying: they are often monochrome, and we want to pivot them, see them in 3D. (Wait for the next app under discussion: we’ll get there.)

But the paintings for me, are a total win. The app’s immersive—down to the individual brushstroke. Get in as close as you want. The photography is stunning. What we have here is the triumph of the visual, mated to the physical involvement of your hand. The kin-aesthetic. What did Steve Jobs say at the iPad 2 launch? “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that makes our hearts sing.” In my book, the recipe for a great app is:

INTERACTION DESIGN (physical delight) + VISUAL SATURATION (fascination) + IDEAS —> EMOTION

Even awe.

And there are plenty of IDEAS in the app, too—but I don’t feel like they’re the strongest part. They’re well managed, don’t get me wrong, but they’re less exciting—with one exception. After all, we’re used to the voice of curatorial expertise as delivered via audio tours and wall labels. For some of us this is the stuff of our daily working life. Which is what makes it so exciting when something new comes along on the Idea front, too—and in the MoMA AbEx app, that something new is named Corey d’Augustine. He is that rare bird: an educator/conservator and painter. And he will show you, via video, in real time, how Rothko achieved his effects, how Pollock achieved his, and how Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman achieved theirs. It is fascinating.

Educator-Conservator Corey d'Augustine prepares a demo

Demo of thinning paint with turpentine pour

With paint suitably thinned, applying veils to make a pseudo-Rothko — MoMa AbEx NY app video

What else does the app do right?

While the various menus initially display the artworks against a white background evocative of the gallery walls, once you tap an artwork to bring it up fullscreen, the app design surrounds it with a thin black border, providing maximum luminosity to the painted surface itself—sans competition (see de Kooning illustrations above). In that view, all options other than pinching and zooming (“diving in”) are discreetly offered in fine print at the top and bottom of the screen: About This Work; the artist name, title, and date; Share; and View Slideshow. The slideshow can be launched and paused at any moment if you desire more detailed information about any artwork; then you can return to its auto-timed sequence. Sharing is accomplished by offering up a Tweet with a link to the artwork as presented and already licensed on MoMA’s website, thereby circumventing what I can only imagine would be a bundle of copyright complications. There are various sub-menus—which I must say it took me a while to find, so absorbed was I in the visual experience of the paintings. These include different ways to sort and browse the content; a map with landmarks pegged to Abstract Expressionist history in New York and Long Island (nowhere else, of course: this is about New York); the list of videos, some featuring Corey and others featuring the curator, Ann Temkin, and a lucid dictionary of Art Terms linked to illustrative artworks and videos.

Even a year out, this app stands up as a supremely balanced effort, where the thrill of discovery is not overwhelmed by didacticism, and new insights are offered up both through sheer visual sensory exploration and revelatory process videos.

Bravo, Team MoMA—and design and development partners, NY-based Deep Focus.

In the next post, we’ll explore two other outstanding art apps—one produced by a small museum, the other a new form of magazine.

One Response to “iPad apps, Part 2: Pleasures and Pains of the Kin-Aesthetic”

  1. Cath says:

    The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new app Contemporary is quite lovely. Also ambitious in that it’s intended to work for people before, during and after their visit, and to match what’s on display (so it will need revision with every rehang).

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