Abstract Art in the Early Digital Age

February 7, 2016

Before the age of the personal computer, computers were primarily available only to research facilities and large businesses. As such, their user base was comprised of mathematicians, scientists, and business professionals. Many early mathematical computers were programmed using punch cards and outputted to mathematical plotters, large machines that draw on graph paper much like a human would. With these new devices filling research labs around the country, a subset of mathematicians attempted to create art with them. The resulting works were created primarily with mathematical plotters, but others were created with oscilloscopes. Although these artists were the first to use computers, mathematicians have had a fascination with art for thousands of years. Pythagoras influenced Greek artists as far back as the 6th century BC to use aesthetically pleasing ratios in their art. With more tools at their disposal 1960s mathematicians were able to explore the link between beauty and mathematics with much more nuance than ever before (Phillips 126). Early computer art was initially met with skepticism from the public who doubted whether something computer made could be called art to begin with. However, computer artists, such as Roman Verostko and Ben Laposky, created algorithmic art with many themes paralleling those found in the abstract expressionist and modernist movements. These artists created works that embrace the limitations of their mediums and are entirely self-referential. Moreover, early computer artists saw algorithmic art as a universal visual representation of mathematics going so far as to as to claim that their work indexes mathematics and computation. They explored profound content, such as the inherent dualities of the world around us. Lastly, they paved the way for modern computer graphics by inspiring computer scientists to explore the realm of computer art and to envision a future in which any artist may employ the use of a computer.

Figure 1: Verostko, Roman. “Epigenetic Painting: Software As Genotype.” Leonardo. 23.1 (1990): 17-23. Print.

Roman Verostko is known for his artwork created with a mathematical plotter. To create his art, Verostko modified brushes to fit where the plotter would normally hold its pen as seen in figure 1. Verostko, much like the abstract expressionists and the modernists, formalized plotter art to draw attention to its strengths, while acknowledging its weaknesses. He, “embraced the constructivist concept of a ‘new reality’ that could stand by itself as an art form without reference to other reality” (Verostko, “30 Years” 230). Historically, painting almost exclusively represented themes outside of itself. Even then, only a small subset of themes, such as religious scenes, were deemed acceptable for high art. The modernists abhorred this concept and gradually shifted toward paintings that were more self-referential in nature. That is, modernist paintings embraced the strengths and weaknesses of painting to create works that consisted of less conventional themes that were not painted to be realistic, but were stylized using line and color to emphasize qualities that are unique to painting. The abstract expressionists, much like Verostko, pushed this to its logical conclusion by creating paintings that entirely lacked reference to world outside of themselves. Verostko accomplished this by investigating forms that are unique to algorithmic drawing. He argues that these unique forms are created by form-generating power, variability and self-similarity of form, and tireless and extensive precision in drawing. Form-generating power is the idea that most algorithmic drawings require the use of functions that are too complex for any human to compute mentally. This factor means that setting parameters and programming the drawings is generally a trial and error process. Variability and self-similarity of form is the theory that changing a piece of code will have a unique effect on the algorithmic drawing, but the drawing will still be similar to the previous drawing. Thus, variability in a small part of the program can create a family of similar, but unique drawings. Tireless and extensive precision in drawing is the idea that the computer and plotter never get tired. They can draw with precision indefinitely, removing the unique artifacts created from drawing by hand (Verostko, “30 Years” 230-1). This conscious reflection on the forms that are unique to automatic drawing is the same attention to medium specificity that the abstract expressionists and the modernists valued.

In addition to medium specificity, Verostko was interested in the, “apparent polarities of the human experience” (Verostko, “Epigenetic Painting” 19). However, he was most intrigued by the polarity between order and chaos, a theme that pervades all of his works. Verostko believed that the human experience was dictated by balancing control (order) and uncontrol (chaos). For example, an (unordered) impulse may give rise to an (ordered) conscious response. He believed that order and chaos were in a constant dance, pushing and pulling each other around an equilibrium point like a tide ebbing and flowing. Moreover, Vertosko connected control to life and uncontrol to death. This interest in the duality of control and uncontrol parallels Mark Rothko’s interest in the duality of life and death, most notably seen in the Rothko chapel in which the viewer is faced with a painting representing an abstraction of life as they walk in and a painting representing an abstraction of death as they walk out. Rothko believed that all of our actions are motivated by a desire to avoid death. This idea is similar to Vertosko’s idea that conscious actions are examples of control, which in turn is connected to life. He captured this relationship between control and uncontrol in software through formalization of the process behind expressing an art concept. Given that computers are very rigid, controlled systems, Vertosko introduced uncontrol to his work by adding randomness to his algorithms. More than adding uncontrol, Vertosko saw this addition of randomness as parallel to the use of automatic drawing by the surrealists and abstract expressionist. Where surrealists drew from the id and abstract expressionists drew from the collective unconscious, Vertosko’s algorithmic art drew from the computer’s pseudorandom number generator. Since computers are inherently deterministic they can not generate true random numbers. Instead, they take many inputs, such as sensor readings, to a mathematical function whose output only appears random to a human. Vertosko saw this use of the computer’s pseudorandom number generator as a source of automatic drawing for the machine. He thought it, “yeilded insight into computerized automatic processes” (Verostko, “Epigenetic Painting” 20). In addition to randomly generating paintings, Verostko also randomly generated titles for his works such as Your Joyous Alarm and Instantly Frayed Whimsy (Verostko, “Epigenetic Painting”, 17-23).

Figure 2: Left: Simple two input figure. Right: Oscillon 263, 1960.
Laposky, Ben F. “Oscillons: Electronic Abstractions.” Leonardo. 2.4 (1969): 345-354. Print.

Like Verostko, Ben Laposky was interested in exploring the strengths and limitations of his medium, as well as identifying the meaning in his art. However, rather than using a mathematical plotter, Laposky made his algorithmic art using an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope is an instrument that takes an electrical signal as input and displays the signal’s waveform on a small screen. By attaching separate wave generators to the vertical and horizontal inputs of the oscilloscope Laposky was able to generate much more complex patterns than he could with a single wave generator. One such pattern is the left figure in figure 2. He called the figures he produced Oscillons or electronic abstractions. For even more complex figures, like Oscillon 263 on the right of figure 2, Laposky chained multiple wave generators together in series or combined the outputs from multiple generators in parallel. Due to the limitations of the oscilloscope screen the Oscillons, “may be kinetic–they may pulsate in their parts, expanding and contracting, or change back and forth between two shapes” (Laposky 350). This kinetic effect is an artifact of the way waveforms are drawn on an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope screen draws a point by aiming a beam of electrons at a material coating the inside of the glass screen. This material is excited when struck by the electrons and lights up in response. To draw a figure, the beam traces the figure repeatedly. Limitations of our eyes and the fact that the material takes some time to dim creates the illusion of a static image. However, the complexity of various Oscillons exceeds the oscilloscope’s capacity to draw a static image, thus resulting in a kinetic figure. Just as the abstract expressionists aimed for works that were medium specific, Laposky saw this kinetic quality of the Oscillons as benefit of the medium to be aimed for rather than a limitation to shy away from. In addition to the two dimentional screen, this kinetic factor adds time as a third dimension that is accentuated by the artifacts of tracing the Oscillon with an electron beam. In order for a figure to be an Oscillon, Laposky argues that it must have been composed by the conscious decision of an artist and may not be a naturally occurring form. That is to say, an Oscillon contains an imprint of the artist’s thought. Lastly, Oscillons are, “visual manifestations of some of the basic invisible aspects of nature, such as the movement of electrons and energy fields” (Laposky 353). Just as many abstracts expressionists painted indices of the collective unconscious that invisibly affect every person, Laposky’s Oscillons are indices of the powerful yet invisible forces of nature that compose the entire universe (Laposky 347-53).

Although Verostko and Laposky are very much major characters of the algorithmic art movement, they certainly were not the only algorithmic artists at the time. Algorithmic artists explored themes of randomness, medium specificity, and self-referentiality. One group of such artists collectively referred to themselves as the Algorists. The Algorists were primarily mathematicians and programmers, but also consisted of artists like Manfred Mohr who came to the digital art scene from abstract expressionism and was self taught in computer science (Dietrich 162). Much like the abstract expressionists, the Algorists were curious about the strengths and weaknesses of computing as an artistic medium. Most commonly, they explored the, “relationship between rule-based systems and randomness” (Phillips 126). This fascination with the contrast between the procedural and the random is very similar to Verostko’s artistic interests in the duality of control and uncontrol (Verostko, “Epigenetic Painting” 19-20).

Although themes of randomness and computer specific features are the most present in the algorithmic art movement, other less popular themes can be found. Some artists, such as Charles Csuri, saw algorithmic art as enabling the artist to explore the consequences of creating a universe with physical laws different from the laws of our own universe. In doing so, these artists considered their work to be an exercise in science fiction. Other artists, such as Vera Molnar, embraced the nonhumanness of the computer. Molnar credited the computer with allowing her to, “go beyond the bounds of learning, cultural heritage, environment – in short, of the social thing, which we must consider to be our second nature” (Dietrich 162). By removing all social influences, Molnar’s works are in line with Greenberg’s beliefs that painting should be entirely self referential. Molnar’s works are unable to refer outside of themselves because they lack external inputs altogether. Some artists, such as Hiroshi Kawano went so far as to claim that, “human standards of aesthetics are not applicable to computer art” (Dietrich 162), and therefore, humans must be careful to not impose their own sense of beauty on the computer. The programmer in this scenario plays the role of the teacher, or “meta-artist” and the computer becomes the artist. Harold Cohen similarly claimed that the programmer, “like a child, can only get in the way” (Dietrich 162). This act of stepping aside to allow the computer to express itself parallels Jackson Pollock acting as a channel for the collective unconscious without imposing himself on his works. Regardless of their motivations, all of these artists explored themes that were specific to their medium in a way similar to the abstract expressionists. Where the abstract expressionists deconstructed painting to its strengths and weaknesses, algorithmic artists similarly deconstructed computer art.

Although algorithmic art was never popular by any means, it did draw the attention of some art critics. In an early showing of plotter art by Georg Nees, the audience questioned whether or not the drawings could be considered art, and if so, whether the artist was in fact Georg Nees or the computer he used. In response to this, the arranger of the exhibit labeled the pieces as artificial art. In his essay, “Art in the Time of the Artificial,” Frierder Nake claims that this label is absurd as all art, human-made or otherwise, is artificial. That is, art is a purely man-made construct that does not exist in nature and is therefore, by definition, artificial. To address the fact that the art is virtual, Nake offers that, “virtuality is not the opposite of reality. It is part of reality! Virtual reality is the semiotic domain of reality” (Nake 164). That is, virtual reality, and therefore algorithmic art, exists as signs referring to real objects or concepts. To further define the process of creating computer art, Nake employs semiotic theory. First, an artist translates the referent to a sign. Then, the signifier is pulled apart from the sign as a detailed description of the referent. This signifier can then be translated to a computable structure. It is through combining and manipulating these structures that algorithmic art is created. Depending on the type of structures used, the result falls into two main categories. If the structures are derived from the real world, then the algorithmic transformation produces a new sign that is an abstraction of the inputs. However, if the structures are derived from the artist’s imagination, the transformation produces a new sign that is a concretization of the inputs. Regardless of where the input structures came from, the output is an entirely new aesthetic sign consisting not of a signifier and signified, but of a calculating and calculated. Since these signs are produced computationally they do not refer to any physical object. In this sense, the computational signs are indices of the processes that created them. Therefore, any computer art that significantly manipulates its input signs is entirely self-referential, a property that is essential to abstract expressionism and modernism (Nake 163-4).

Though algorithmic art failed to achieve any popular appeal, it had profound impacts on the future of computer art and the young field of computer graphics. One such example of this was an early emulation of grey scale printing invented by engineers at Bell Laboratories. While plotters worked well for painting, they lacked to ability to print images due to the fact that they could only print in strict black and white with no shades of grey in-between. That is, one could not vary the amount of black ink used in a mark. However, Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon of Bell Labs discovered that by superimposing characters plotted on microfilm, they could trick the eye into seeing various shades of grey. By filling a small unit area with some amount of black while leaving the rest white, the eye will perceive that unit as grey. The ratio of black to white determines how light or dark the area is. This process allowed artists to create more complex forms entirely on the computer and simply print them out (Knowlton, Harmon 1-19).

Another example of the impact of early computer art can be found in Oskar Beckmann's studio computers. Beckmann began creating art using storage oscilloscopes but quickly became frustrated with the process and built a specialised computer for artists with his son. In the process, Beckmann theorised about what a computer for artistic design should accomplish and came up with a set of requirements for a "studio computer". These requirements included, "a computer for the artist's studio must be operated by the artist, without the 'detour' of programming" (Oberquelle, Beckmann 24). In short, the computer was designed to remove the technical background required to create computer art thus opening the field to non-programmers and non-mathematicians. (Oberquelle, Beckmann 20-30).

With the added abilities of these new technologies, computer art moved away from abstractions. This demonstrates that much of the abstract art created on the computer was done out of necessity as the limitations of the medium were too great to print forms that were representational of real objects. Moreover, the extremely primitive technology required the early algorithmic artists to philosophize about the strengths of their medium in a way similar to the modernists and abstract expressionists. Where many early algorithmic artists saw the unique forms produced by computers as essential, later artists like Beckmann found them to be annoying artifacts that limited their artistic expression. Modern computers have mostly followed Beckmann’s vision of assisting artists rather than imposing their own “personality” onto the artwork.

Regardless, the plotter art of Verostko balancing control and uncontrol, as well as the kinetic, pulsating Oscillons of Laposky and many more contributions from this small art movement exist as the culmination of an unlikely pairing of abstract art and mathematics. These artists explored themes that paralleled those of the abstract expressionists. They achieved a universal visual representation of mathematics by imaging waveforms, and incorporating pseudorandom number generators into their artwork. This universal representation was leveraged to explore profound content such as the duality of control and uncontrol. Lastly, these works were unquestionably medium specific as the algorithmic artists philosophized about why some computer outputs can be called art, and how to achieve these aesthetic forms. Though this artwork has been mostly forgotten, it paved the way for modern computer graphics in a time before the existence of digital displays.