A History of Digital Art in 30 Works, Part 1

Definitions in art are notoriously slippery things, especially when we’re trying to put our finger on contemporary movements.

So in an effort to get a grasp on what exactly we mean by “digital art”, we’re not going to attempt a definition.

Each of the pieces below encompasses some aspect of the jumbo golf umbrella that is digital art — time-based media, generative art, digital video, et al.

Instead of pursuing some relentlessly elusive classification, definition, or movement, we’re simply going to take a look at 30 of the most interesting, pioneering pieces in the history of digital art.

Maybe at the end of it all, we’ll be closer to understanding this strange new hybrid. Maybe not.

Georg Nees “computer graphic”

1965

23-Ecke (Polygon of 23 vertices)

German academic Georg Nees was the first person to show art that was generated by a computer — 10–12 small pieces (no one remembers the precise details) in a solo show hung at the University of Stuttgart.

Nees’ revolutionary output was aided by recent developments in plotter computer printers, which move a pen across a piece of paper, typically determined by a FORTRAN or ALGOL program.

Nees’ 1969 doctoral thesis, later published as Generative Computergraphik helped launch the Generative Art movement, which often uses dynamic algorithms to create iterative works of art.

Frieder Nake “13/9/65 Nr. 2 (Hommage à Paul Klee)“

1965

Trained as a mathematician and artist, Frieder Nake was inspired Paul Klee’s 1929 painting Highroads and Byroads to create an algorithm that would explore Klee’s use of vertical and horizontal interplay.

Rather than attempt a literal reproduction of Klee’s piece, Nake used it as a launch pad for his own ideas about algorithmic art forms.

The Victoria & Albert Museum explains Nake’s process: “Nake defined the parameters for the computer and the pen plotter to draw… He then deliberately wrote random variables into the program which allowed the computer to make choices of its own, based on probability theory.

“…The artist could not have predicted the exact appearance of the drawing until the plotter had finished.”

Kenneth Knowlton and Leon Harmon “Nude”

1967

Kenneth C. Knowlton was a remarkable polymath, whose own influence on both computer science and digital art cannot be overstated. An artist, mosaicist, and computer graphics pioneer, Knowlton was working alongside Leon Harmon at Bell Labs on photomosaic technology — creating large prints from smaller symbols or images when they created “Nude”.

Jasia Reichardt offers background in The Computer in Art: The image came to shape “after Harmon was asked to make a ‘modern art’ mural to decorate an office. The complete idea, according to Harmon, emerged within minutes, and two months later the office was emlazoned with a 12-foot long, and by now famous, nude made of alphanumeric characters and produced with the aid of a computer. The nude and various other images generated in the same way, Knowlton and Harmon referred to as ‘computer processed creatures’.”

Allan Kaprow “Hello”

1969

The experimental television program “The Medium Is the Medium”, produced by Boston public television station WGBH in 1969, presented remarkable experiments in video art from visionaries like Nam June Paik, James Seawright, and Aldo Tambellini.

The 4-minute and 23-second piece from artist Allan Kaprow deserves particular mention here for its visionary embrace of interconnectivity. Kaprow’s “Video Arcades” were conceived of as a form of public utility ‘a person will be free to do whatever he (sic!) wants, and will see himself on the monitors in different ways.’

Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema explains Kaprow’s vision thus:

KAPROW HAS SUGGESTED A GLOBAL FORM OF HELLO, INTERCONNECTING CONTINENTS, LANGUAGES, AND CULTURES IN ONE HUGE SOCIOLOGICAL MIX. THE INFORMATION TRANSMITTED IN HELLO, HE EMPHASIZED, WAS NOT A NEWSCAST OR LECTURE BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGE OF ALL: “ONESELF IN CONNECTION WITH SOMEONE ELSE.”

Lillian Schwartz “Mandala”

1970

Lillian Schwarz was a pioneer in the development of computer graphics and animation, working at Bell Labs and as a member of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). Schwarz’s innovations in art continued at Bell Labs for three decades.

In 1984, Schwarz was commissioned by MoMA to create an advertisement for their newly renovated gallery space. The resulting 30-second spot won an Emmy, the first ever awarded to a computer-generated film.

In 2016, Schwartz enjoyed her first-ever solo show at the age of 89. Magenta Plains’ Lillian Schwartz: Pioneer of Computer Art helped restore this remarkable artist to her proper place in the history of digital art.

Manfred Mohr “Presents Computer Graphics, Une Esthétique Programée”

1971

A legend in algorithmic art , Manfred Mohr began his life as a jazz saxophonist, and that same improvisational spirit can be seen in his computer generated art pieces.

In 1970, he was invited by Pierre Gaudibert, a director at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, to mount a solo show of his works.

The resulting show, 1971’s “Computer Graphics — Une Esthétique Programmée” is considered “the first show of works entirely calculated by a digital computer and drawn by a plotter” in history.

The centerpiece of the show, however, was a decidedly hybrid affair. Visitors were asked to write their response to the question “What do you think of aesthetic research done with the aid of a computer?” on a large sheet of printer paper (seen below).

Mohr’s show was remounted in Chelsea’s Bitforms Gallery in 2011. You can check out a PDF of the original show’s catalog here.

Paul Brown “Untitled Computer Assisted Drawing”

1975

Paul Brown received his Higher Diploma in Fine Art at Slade School of Art, shortly after the University of London college had established the “Experimental and Computing Department”, one of the first integrate the computer technology into the curriculum.

While there, he was a core member of the “alife” arts movement, using generative systems to evolve individual elements according to simple sets of rules. His works often start with routines known as “automata”.

Vera Molnar “Tablotin 327 6”

1979

Through the 1940s and 50s, Vera Molnar worked as post-constructivist, but as her interests became more and more computer oriented, Molnar ditched the canvas for a computer.

In 1967 she cofounded the group “Art et Informatique”, which explored the conjunctions between art and computing. The next year, having learned FORTRAN and BASIC, Molnar began creating computer-generated art and never looked back.

Liberated from the canvas, Molnar quickly abandoned the grids she had painted in favor of vibratory, nearly hypnotic pieces like “Tablotin 327 7" (above). In 2015 she was the subject of a retrospective Regarding the Infinite, at New York’s Senior and Shopmaker Gallery.


Read Part 2 of our series, tackling 1985–2010, right here.

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