The Art of the Lock Screen

by Bob Schwartz

If you are a smartphone user, you look at the lock screen—the opening screen you swipe to get into your phone—maybe a hundred times a day. Just a second at a time, but seconds add up to a real experience and impression.

The pre-loaded images on lock screens are pretty banal, meant to show off the screen’s high-resolution capability without offending or overexciting anyone. The state-of-the-art Samsung Galaxy S3, for example, out-of-the-box displays a close-up of a dandelion. It can be changed out, but the few stock alternatives are not any better—beautiful, color-rich, but not much else. There is a cool effect that when swiped, the lock screen image ripples like water and fades, but a rippling and fading dandelion is still a dandelion.

As noted, it can be changed out, to any image at all. Outside the parameter of its being a vertical rectangle, the possibilities are infinite.

That’s how Jackson Pollock came to this lock screen.

It wasn’t an easy choice, but the road to it was a fascinating journey in art.

The first decision was to steer clear of the figurative. Even if a work was found that could properly fit the dimensions of the screen, or it was cropped to fit, people and things didn’t seem so appealing. There was also the issue of having typed words—time, date, etc.—and maybe icons on top of those figures.

That left thousands of variously abstract works of art. To narrow it down to a manageable, shorter-than-a-lifetime task (this is, after all, a phone, not the Getty), the online collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate were reviewed.

And so, for a couple of hours, an intensive search. Surprisingly, the functional nature of the application wasn’t a drawback. It wasn’t like the derisive cliche about an interior decorator picking paintings on the basis of whether they match a planned color scheme. Instead, it was like speed dating art in a museum—in a good way. Every image had a chance to speak, but instantly, because that is exactly how it was going to be seen from now on.

A few styles were rejected. Pure monochromatic paintings may be important as works of art, but on a phone screen just look like a single color background. Op art seemed like it might work, but in that confined space, the screen seemed overbusy and dizzy, and a little jarring.

The finalists were Ad Reinhardt and Jackson Pollock. From Reinhardt, his blocks of color were especially inviting, including this version of Abstract Painting (Blue) (1952):

In the end, Pollock’s Full Fathom Five (1947) is the art of this lock screen. Here’s a description from the Museum of Modern Art:

Full Fathom Five is one of Pollock’s earliest “drip” paintings. While its lacelike top layers consist of poured skeins of house paint, Pollock built up the underlayer using a brush and palette knife. A close look reveals an assortment of objects embedded in the surface, including cigarette butts, nails, thumbtacks, buttons, coins, and a key. Though many of these items are obscured by paint, they contribute to the work’s dense and encrusted appearance. The title, suggested by a neighbor, comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which the character Ariel describes a death by shipwreck: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

All along, before the search started, there was something about putting Pollock on the phone, just as there is something about putting him on the wall. People mocked abstract expressionism—and Pollock as its most famous artist—as some kind of cultural con game. “Anybody can do that, hell, my five-year-old can do that.”

Well, no. If you want evidence that this is art, check out the few square inches of screen above. Even if the screen says “swipe,” even if you’re in a hurry to get to a call or an app, just linger and look for a few extra seconds. What is going on there reaches out sixty-five years, from a time when pocket phones and pocket computers were glints in the eyes of scientists, madmen and mad scientists. And now Jackson Pollock lives there.

No dandelions. Just pure digital cool.