Wondering Who Did That Painting? There’s an App (or Two) for That
With companies racing to develop Shazam for art, we see what instant-identification apps really add to your experience in museums and galleries.
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At the Betty Cuningham gallery on the Lower East Side recently, I noticed an arresting painting: It showed a nude woman curled against a window, asleep, with the old New Yorker Hotel and Empire State Building in view and a fish above her, hanging or floating. I opened a smartphone app called Magnus, snapped a quick picture, and clicked “Use.” Seconds later, I got that addictive, satisfying click. The app had found a match.
The painting was by Philip Pearlstein, according to the app, known for reinvigorating the tradition of realist figure painting. It was titled “Model With Empire State Building.” dated 1992, measured 72 inches by 60 inches, and was for sale for $300,000. In 2010, it had sold for $170,500 at Sotheby’s in New York, the app told me. Magnus then slotted this information into a folder marked “My Art” for digital safekeeping — and future looking.
Magnus is part of a wave of smartphone apps trying to catalog the physical world as a way of providing instantaneous information about songs or clothes or plants or paintings. First came Shazam, an app that allows users to record a few seconds of a song and instantly identifies it. Shazam’s wild success — it boasts more than a billion downloads and 20 million uses daily, and was purchased by Apple for a reported $400 million last year — has spawned endless imitations. There is Shazam for plants or Shazam for clothes and now, Shazam, for art.
The art-oriented apps harness image recognition technology, each with a particular twist. Magnus has built a database of more than 10 million images of art, mostly crowdsourced, and aims to help prospective art buyers navigate the notoriously information-lite arena of galleries and fairs.
Other apps are geared toward museumgoers: Smartify, for example, takes an educational approach, teaming up with museums and sometimes galleries to upload digitized versions of their collections, wall texts, and information about artists. Google Lens — Google’s advanced image recognition technology — is making new forays into the art world. In June, Google Lens announced a partnership with the de Young Museum in San Francisco to show parts of the museum’s collection. In July, Google began collaborating with Wescover, a platform oriented toward design objects, public and local art, furniture, and craft — enabling you to learn the name of that anonymous painting in your WeWork space or coffee shop.
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