Pillow of Air: Poolside with David Hockney, Richard Feynman, a pair of Twins and some Bugs

David Hockney pool painting poster
There’s a painting of David Hockney’s that I’ve always really loved, though never gotten around to writing about; but now, in the final craw of winter, it seems as good a time as any to dip into the image’s coy allure. It’s one of his pool paintings, which as a group played on all sorts of themes of surface and transparency and awareness and memory (the wet paint on canvas, drying, summoning the fading memory of what it was like to soak in the water that balmy distant afternoon, observing the dance of light on the surface of the water and to the depths beneath, mirroring what happens as we focus on the pigments on the canvas surface and through them, to the imputed image beyond, the pool, the sandals, the steps, the palms, whatever lies beyond—all of them, all of it, just so many pigments in play and yet so much more).

I guess I also love this particular image because of its presence on a poster (one I have facing the bed in my bedroom) from Denmark’s marvelous Louisiana Museum. The way one bores through the poster to the original painting, into the scene and then beneath the shallow waves (the play of all those surfaces)—and then the second set of disjunctions provoked by that headline “Louisiana,” which initially (mis)places the image to New Orleans, say, but rather refers to that other Louisiana, in Denmark. And while the image so obviously seems to be of a pool in my homestate of California, my own heart’s true home, actually its title there in the microscript of the poster instead places it in Le Nid du Duc , which (Google reports) would be at Tony Richardson’s old estate in the hills above St Tropez.

And those aren’t the only of the painting’s supple confusions. Because where are we exactly? At first we seem to be floating up to our chests in the water, but then again, maybe not: the vantage seems a tiny bit high for that. The steps rise and bend, indicating an upper level, maybe that’s where everyone else is. We would appear at any rate to be by ourselves, unless those two palms are standing in for anything. Come to think of it, what is the deal with those palms? Or rather with the space beyond them. Is that sky or is that wall? Deliciously hard to tell, except of course that in fact it is neither. It is paint on canvas. Or rather ink on poster.


I’ve been thinking more than usual about that painting because of Richard Feynman, the incomparable Cal Tech physicist, and his meditations on what it’s like to look at the world from the side of a pool. Back in 1983, the BBC broadcast a series of shorts titled “Fun to Imagine,” which was really not much more than the good professor seated on a comfy couch explaining stuff. In this instance (Episode 8 in the series), Feynman is trying to explain how light itself works, and beyond that the sheer marvel of any sort of vision.

And he begins with a nice California analogy of his own. “I’m sitting next to a swimming pool and somebody dives in,” he says,

and before that, lots of other people have dived into the pool, so there’s a very great choppiness of all these waves all over the water. And that gets me to wondering whether some sort of insect or something with sufficient cleverness sitting in a corner of the pool and just being disturbed by the waves, by the nature of the irregularities and bumping of the waves, could figure out who jumped in where and when and what’s happening all over the pool.

Still from Richard Feynman's BBC TV series 'Fun to Imagine' (1983)

Richard Feynman in the BBC series ‘Fun to Imagine’ (1983)

Because that’s what we’re doing, Feynman goes on to insist. When we’re looking at something,

The light that comes at us is waves, just like in the swimming pool, except in three dimensions instead of in the two dimensions of the pool surface. They’re going in all directions. And we have an eighth of an inch black hole into which these things go.

It’s quite astonishing, he goes on to note, how easily that we figure everything out.

Granted, the waves in the water are a little bit more complicated. It would have been harder for the bug than for us. But it’s the same idea: to figure out what the thing is that we’re looking at, at a distance. And it’s kind of incredible, because…the waves are going every which way—right left up down perpendicular and so forth—it’s just a complete network. Now it’s easy to think of them as arrows passing each other, but that’s not the way it is, because all it is actually is this entire field that’s vibrating—it’s called the electric field but we don’t have to bother with what it is— it’s just like the water height, going up and down—so there’s some quantity shaking about in a combination of motions that’s unbelievably elaborate and complicated and yet whose net result is to produce an influence which makes me see you.

And he goes on like that, evoking “this tremendous mess of waves all over in space: all the light bouncing around the room and going from one thing to the other.” And on top of the light waves there are longer (heat) waves and shorter (radio) waves, and from this virtually infinite criss-crossing welter, the eye is still somehow able to draw out only those waves that specifically allow us to see the world before us. Those particular sandals over there. And those two damned palms.

Of course, Feynman concedes, at some level we all knew this all along. But, he concludes, “you’ve got to stop and think about it to really get the pleasure about the complexity—the inconceivable nature of nature.”


Decades after the original broadcast, I had occasion to summon Feyman’s explanation back to mind recently when I was curating a show at the Museum of Mathematics in New York City that was given over to a pair of young identical twin artists, Ryan and Trevor Oakes. Because completely independently, without ever having heard Feynman, they’d come up with a remarkably similar conception of what they themselves were up to.

Long story (and if you want to get a fuller sense of it you might just want to order the show catalog from the Museum), but one of the main things that makes the Twins singularly interesting is the way the two of them have been locked in intense conversation about what it is like to see with two eyes, pretty much since their toddlerhood. And they have become convinced that compounding spheres characterize the travel of light from its source to the eye at its every point. Thus light leaves the sun (or any other light source) in a spheroid explosion of virtually an infinite number of individual light rays, each of which, upon hitting any surface, ricochets out in another hemisphere of expanding light rays, the rays all bounding through and past each other in a tremendous criss-crossing mesh, until the human eye gathers a splay of such rays, one each from every single one of all of those ricocheting explosions into its own (inverse) spheroid capture.


The Twins’ name for this phenomenon is “light foam,” and in their most recent work, they have been trying to evoke the wildly various “light foam” suffusing our world, by drawing rings of overlapping colors into an ever denser mesh, often capturing the full spectrum of colors by simply overlaying ink from four or five colored pens. See, for example, their vantage of a Martha’s Vineyard home:


Actually, in some ways it’s easier to see what they’re getting at when they evoke the “light foam” phenomenon in black and white, as they’ve likewise taken to doing on occasion, and as it happens as they are going to be doing this week, as they complete the second of two elaborate concave drawings of the Getty Gardens. A perfect occasion to see the Twins in action, if you happen to be in the neighborhood—action involving a lot more than just light foam (for starters their whole remarkably novel and exacting method for depicting the visual world before them as if by way of a camera obscura, although using no other projective equipment except their own two eyes, mediated by way of the operations of their visual cortexes).


Oakes---Getty-drawing-process-1084(The apparatus is a whole long other story, part of which can also be found here.)





Oakes-Drawing-Getty-Garden-9604 *****

So, anyway—and now we’re getting to the point, this is the reason I was wanting to take you on this whole looping conceptual walkabout—no sooner had I included a transcript of that entire Feynman exposition in a sidebox of my catalog to the Twins’ show back a MoMath and sent the thing off to the printer than, a few days afterwards, the following item appeared in the Observatory sidebar of the New York Times Science Times section, under the headline “Spiders’ Webs Hum with Information


Like strings on a guitar, spider silks can vibrate along a wide range of frequencies, transmitting information about prey, other spiders and even the condition of the web itself, researchers say.

Spiders have bad eyesight and are known to rely on the vibrations of their webs to alert them to the presence of captives. To discover more about the vibrations, British scientists fired lasers and bullets at individual spider strings and used ultra-high-speed cameras to record the results. They found that the strings vibrated across a wider range of harmonics compared with other materials, and that the type of vibration varied with the type of impact and the quality of the individual silk.


The vibrations help a spider determine what sort of prey has landed in its web, the researchers concluded. Spiders can also produce different kinds of silk depending on their needs, essentially “tuning” their webs to the environment and hunting conditions. Their study was published in the journal Advanced Materials.


Aye, I found myself thrumming, reading the news bulletin, if only Feynman had lived to hear it! On the other hand, gorgeous web mind that was obviously his, he probably already knew it all implicitly.


also by Lawrence Weschler

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