Works by Charles Csuri and D. P. Henry are included as part of “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982,” on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from February 12 to July 2, 2023.
Douglas Dodds: It’s a real honor to be talking to the daughters of two artists of a certain generation. Elaine, your father, Desmond Paul (D. P.) Henry (1921-2004) and Caroline’s father, Charles “Chuck” Csuri (1922-2022) were virtually the same age, living in different countries, pursuing different paths, but nevertheless ended up being involved in this wonderful world of digital, algorithmic, and computer art. They both went through the Second World War, which obviously had a bearing on their work. Elaine, according to your website, your father took part in the Normandy landings in 1944. How do you think that experience informed his work?
Elaine O’Hanrahan: Well, there were two waves of Normandy landings. My father was in the support unit, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, so he arrived on the Normandy beaches six days after the first wave. When he was traveling with the British Liberation Army through Germany, he was particularly struck by the destruction that British bombers had inflicted. He was a traditional artist to start with, working by hand to depict gaunt, distorted faces behind swirling forms as well as figures hanging from trees. Some of his machine drawings bear grim titles, like “The dead rising from some forgotten battlefield.”
Nevertheless, he saw the technology as something that was protecting them. He worked with anti-aircraft guns and their predictor systems — that’s what helped him understand the bombsight computers that he would later adapt into drawing machines. The war really changed his life, and it was thanks to the war that he got to university because it meant he received a grant as an ex-serviceman. Before the war, he was a waterworks clerk for Huddersfield Water Works, and then he ended up being this medieval philosopher at Manchester University.
DD: Caroline, I read somewhere that your father was in the Battle of the Bulge?
Caroline Csuri: Yes, he got the Bronze Star Medal for heroism having volunteered at the age of 20. During the Battle of the Bulge his US Army unit lost communications with headquarters; Chuck ran through an open field against enemy lines and a barrage of bombs and machine-gun fire to restore communications. He claimed that his experience as a football player and sheer terror helped him to dodge the bullets, though one grazed his helmet. Like D. P., my father was also profoundly impacted by the war, but until recently he only communicated its effect through his art.
Being from a Hungarian immigrant family, my father was able to go to college thanks to the G.I. Bill and a football scholarship. Chuck became interested in art as a child when his older brother took him regularly to The Cleveland Museum of Art. My father recalled that he drew feverishly, creating his first sculpture out of a bar of soap while hand carving a totem out of a tree trunk. He later attained his MFA and became a professor of Art at The Ohio State University with further degrees in Engineering and Computer Information Science. Chuck was also inspired by another of his brothers who was a professional magician, later describing his computer as his “magic black box of surprises.”
I discovered a binder of my father’s from 1989 that references his introduction to the computer in 1955 by a friend, an engineer at Ohio State. They described the problems of converting a computer program from the Russian language into English. That was a radical idea in 1955 as there were no plotters or graphic output devices, but he was able to speculate on computerized theories of art and artificial intelligence. The problems of programming deterred him for eight years, but then, in 1963, he discovered some research by engineers who had produced a computer picture of a woman’s face with a special typewriter that could strike the paper using ten levels of gray. Once he realized the implications of that, he knew that it was the birth of a movement and that he had to take that path for his own art.
DD: Elaine, you said that Henry taught philosophy after the war. Does that mean that he was an academic in his day job and an artist in his spare time?
EO: Yes, he loved drawing. He’d been drawing on his bedroom walls since he was a little boy. Before the outbreak of war in 1939, he was attending night school art classes and he carried around his sketchbook during the war. He was experimental in his art and liked the idea of repurposing media. He would use anything available to him in his pictures just to see the effect, including zinc and castor oil baby bottom cream. He even converted the drum of our old washing machine into a harp.
He liked doing things he felt no one had done before.
Leslie Jones: It’s so interesting to know that Henry worked with anything he could find, with the mentality of a tinkerer. It makes sense that he would then use a bombsight analog computer as an art-making device. Elaine, how do you see your father’s work in relation to other artists working at the time, like Jean Tinguely, for example, with his Métamatic drawing machines?
EO: Like Tinguely, my father was both a tinkerer and what they used to call an “outsider artist.” Because he wasn’t based in London, he wasn’t at the center of any kind of art scene. His main job was as a philosopher and his art was for his own pleasure and enjoyment. It was only through a surprising series of events that people came to know about him.
In 1961, there was a local art competition with the northern artist, L. S. Lowry, as one of the judges. My father beat a thousand entries to win the competition with an abstract, hand-drawn painting. Lowry actually came to our house and when he saw this machine whirring away in my father’s study he was absolutely fascinated at how this interactive, automatic drawing machine was producing abstract, curvilinear pictures, many of which my father then embellished by hand in response to their suggestive features. He urged my father to include some of these machine drawings in the competition prize, which was a one-man show in London.
Lowry knew the importance to artists of gaining exposure in London. So in September 1962, my father exhibited his traditional art alongside his machine drawings, which really caught the attention of the press. There were all these really dramatic headlines, like “A ROBOT DRAWS THE DOCTOR’S PICTURES.” Shortly afterwards, he exhibited this first drawing machine on a BBC news program, which got the Americans interested.
George Will came over with all these photographers who took pictures that were going to be featured in LIFE magazine in 1963. Unfortunately, JFK was assassinated and so that issue was scrapped. And it never happened again. I wonder what could have happened — it was just so unlucky.
After that, he didn’t exhibit again in London until the exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity,” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968. While some of his machine-generated images may bear a resemblance to Tinguely’s métamatics, Henry’s purpose was to celebrate machines. Nevertheless, both artists embraced randomness in the way their electro-mechanical drawing machines functioned.
CC: It’s so interesting how far ahead of their time they were. My father ended up having several one-man shows of his traditional paintings at the Harry Salpeter Gallery in New York. But he only got his first exhibition by throwing photographs of his artwork on the floor and storming out of the gallery. As an isolated artist based out of Columbus, Ohio, he was deeply frustrated by the art establishment. Thankfully, the gallerist called him back.
What’s so interesting to me is that he did his traditional art in tandem with all his explorations on the computer. Prior to “Cybernetic Serendipity,” he exhibited Hummingbird (1967) at an experimental Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, and won the prize. The work was about transformation and the infinite possibilities of the image through time. Recently, I found hundreds of photographs of hummingbirds in flight that my father had studied with the mind of an artist and researcher. He clearly extrapolated and expressed their flight patterns in that film.
What younger generations may not understand is just how hard it was for these artists to do what they were doing. Hummingbird was his line drawing of 25 motion sequences, generated by a computer with punch cards. It took 30,000 punch cards just to make the bird move.
I don’t know if it was from being in the war, but they were both fearless and courageous. My father faced ridicule. At the time when he was experimenting with computers, people thought that computers were evil, that they were going to take over the world.
DD: In the 1960s, many in the traditional art world were hostile toward computer art for various reasons, including because these big computers were used by the military to do horrible things to people around the world. Caroline, I’d like to come back to another work by your father, Random War (1967). How was it created?
CC: Perhaps Leslie might like to speak about this piece, since it’s going to be featured in LACMA’s new exhibition.
LJ: It’s my understanding that Csuri was using a drum plotter and a pseudorandom number generator to plot fallen soldiers, and another kind of imaging technology for the text at the top. As you were saying, Caroline, at the time you couldn’t just combine them in a computer like we can today. So Csuri resorted to screen printing, which a lot of artists did at the time, to enlarge the work and to combine images and text that were generated separately.
CC: He actually did both the text identifying the soldiers and the images of the soldiers themselves on a computer, all controlled by a random number generator. This was one of the first pieces of conceptual art where the computer controlled whether a soldier was wounded, deceased, or missing an action. It was interesting that he included such a variety of names in there — Ronald Reagan, Arnold Palmer, Roy Lichtenstein, as well as ordinary people. It leveled the playing field to include randomness as part of the human experience.
I spoke to my father about Random War — not only was it a commentary on the war from the viewpoint of a veteran, it was also a nod to the fact that people thought computers were evil at the time. My father had an ironic sense of humor. What better way to show that computers were satanic than to have a computer determining the outcome of somebody’s life? It really did foreshadow the computer game.
LJ: The work would have seemed quite large at the time because anything that was coming out of a printer or a drum plotter would have been the size of a sheet of paper. As a trained artist, I think he understood the importance of making his work monumental. At eight feet across, it’s going to be one of the larger works in the exhibition.
DD: Elaine, your father also used wartime technologies to create his artwork. Was that a conscious decision or was it coincidence?
EO: Because of his time with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he knew about anti-aircraft predictor systems. So he was definitely interested in wartime technology. There were a lot of army surplus stores in Manchester, which is where he bought an analog bombsight in 1952. It was an American Sperry Bombsight Computer in mint condition, designed to help bomber aircraft drop their bomb load accurately. He brought it home, set it up with servo motors, and took the casing off so that he could see all the cams, cogs, and gear trains. Then he just set it going.
In his words, “when you see the components dancing, it has the aesthetic fascination of watching a ballet dance.”¹ But he didn’t convert the bombsight computer into a drawing machine until around 1961, some nine years after its purchase. His own father had worked for a boiler manufacturer, and the only books at home when he was a child were catalogues of boiler parts. So from an early age he was fascinated by industrial steam boilers.
He just loved mechanics, and he was never interested in the invisible workings of a digital computer.
He spent nearly nine years admiring the inner workings of the Sperry bombsight computer and, by 1960, decided there must be some way to capture their graceful mechanical movements on paper. So he turned the very instrument that inspired him — the bombsight computer — into a tool to capture these movements on paper. And that’s how the first drawing machine came into being.
Prior to “Cybernetic Serendipity,” my father had cannibalized Drawing Machine 1 to make Drawing Machine 2, but when my eldest sister visited the exhibition, she said that our father’s drawing machine stood out as being rather old-fashioned compared to the very modern, futuristic looking ones. When my father visited the exhibition himself and saw all this advanced technology, he decided he wasn’t going to call his machine a computer anymore, he was going to call it a “special-purpose machine.” I think the combination of “Cybernetic Serendipity” and Spirograph — which came out in 1965, to which his drawings were often compared — discouraged him a bit. But his electro-mechanical drawing machines remain a bridge between the industrial mechanical age and the new electronic digital age that emerged in the 1960s.
CC: Your father and mine were both interested in distorting images. There are so many parallels, even though they took different directions.
My father certainly saw art as a transformation of the human experience but he also regarded his work as a form of scientific visualization.
The artists at “Cybernetic Serendipity” were all cutting edge but they had so little support in crafting their own machines. What was striking about that show was the sheer variety of approaches to creativity and innovation. My father recalled a bicycle that was connected to a large screen, where the user would change the position of images by pedaling. Needless to say my father decided to pedal backwards.
DD: Elaine, was “Cybernetic Serendipity” a high point in Henry’s artistic career? What happened afterwards?
EO: I think the exhibition was revealing for my father. That second drawing machine went off on tour around America for a few years, and it came back totally destroyed. In the meantime, he’d made a third drawing machine in order to maintain some kind of creative outlet. He ended up making five. The pictures got bigger and bigger with each machine. But he also turned to cameraless photography for about 10 years in the 1970s.
What didn’t help the cause of art produced using technology was the fact that the technology could break down.
DD: Caroline, I know that Chuck’s work is also in major museum collections like MoMA. It must be very gratifying to know that it’s there for posterity.
CC: It is. He is in several important museums. He also spearheaded the field of digital art and animation. But he was only able to collaborate in an interdisciplinary way to advance the technology because he got a grant from the National Science Foundation — the first artist in history to accomplish that. He said “it sent shock waves through the University.” In 1968, he produced a sculpture with a computer-driven milling machine — also the first of its kind. That was his light bulb moment to start developing 3D computer art and animation.
My father was very involved in interactive art. In 1970, he curated an exhibition at the Hopkins Gallery, Ohio State called “Interactive Sound and Visual Systems” — an experiment in what would later become virtual reality. He wanted to represent the frontiers of research and education in a modern university. It was revolutionary to create art and animation in real time and it was a departure from mainframe computing. The show included a large computer system where visitors could interact with the computer themselves. In one instance, user were able to create and view objects moving along a path controlled with a light pen.
My father subsequently partnered with creatives to develop the artistic tools that pioneered 3D animation. This led him to build a computer graphics company, Cranston/Csuri Productions, where they did scientific visualization, medical, flight, and military simulation, as well as more commercial 3D art and animation. But my father was much more interested in creating fine art films. He was always interested in doing something with computers that couldn’t be done by conventional means.
His art involved so many different areas of exploration, but one of them was the “Infinity” series, where he would randomly program a computer to produce thousands of images. Of course, they now do that on Art Blocks, but he was doing it very early on in the 1980s.
In his view, that level of complexity in art could only be achieved by a computer, which was an important distinction for him between conventional art and digital art. He called his explorations on the computer his “playground”; it was his magic box. He would act as the initial creator and then, after every image calculation and variation, as an editor, deciding on the most aesthetically pleasing and meaningful image out of many thousands.
Alex Estorick: Csuri’s “Infinity” series is particularly resonant right now given the rise of long-form generative art. This has created interest in the most surprising, outlying outputs of a given system. Do you know if Chuck had any further reflections on that?
CC: Absolutely, I think he felt that sometimes the greatest works of art were done by accident. Surprise was always something that he enjoyed, and there are outcomes that can happen in the generative realm that you might not have ever thought of before. But Elaine, I am curious whether your father was ever frustrated that people weren’t taking this seriously as a movement?
EO: I think he was. I was a little girl of five when he made his first machine. And I felt I was the only one in the family who was taking an interest in what he did. I would watch the machine and we would talk about it. But nobody really believed that it had any long-term value. He certainly felt that it was innovative enough that one day, it would be recognized. But if I hadn’t promoted his work, no one would probably know about him because he was more a precursor than an influencer.
CC: Before my father passed last year, when he found out about NFTs and the fact that people were suddenly interested in an artistic movement that had already been happening for 60 years, he actually wept. He was so emotionally overcome with the fact that this was finally coming to fruition. For all those years, the art world never took it seriously. And now, like it or not, NFTs have given that whole movement credibility through provenance and by making art less elitist.
He spoke very early on about AI and its impact on the role of the artist in creativity and ultimately society. He ran his imaging scripts in a very organic and experimental way where he would set his artistic parameters, let the computer run wild calculating variations, and then tweak the artistic outcomes. But he was also very clear that he never wanted his images to be just NFTs — he always wanted a tangible art object as his ultimate artistic expression.
He also felt strongly that, in the NFT space, a lot of the true artists were drowning in a sea of masses. He felt it was important for curators, galleries, and museums to identify the pioneers and those important artists that elevated the medium and continued the momentum of the movement. The exhibition, “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982” at LACMA, where D. P. Henry and Csuri are showcased alongside other computer art pioneers, will be pivotal in the history of computer art.
LJ: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were also the “New Tendencies” exhibitions, “Software” at the Jewish Museum, and MoMA’s “Machine” and “Information” exhibitions. But then there was very little for the rest of the ’70s, which I see as a politically-driven tendency to steer away from technology because of its associations with the military, the government, and large corporations. For me, Random War is so important because, despite its vilification, Csuri understood the computer’s potential as a means of political expression at the time.
CC: Yes exactly, it was a commentary on the Vietnam war.
EO: Of course, the bombsight computer was also used to help airmen accurately target their bombs during WW2. My father definitely experienced a mischievous delight in repurposing it to produce machine-generated drawings. On the other hand, he also felt that the technology was there to protect them during the war. But when it came to the bombing of the civilian population in Germany, he wasn’t impressed with that.
DD: You’re both doing a lot to preserve your fathers’ legacies. Caroline, you’ve shared Chuck’s thoughts on NFTs, but Elaine, I believe you’ve also been exploring the possibility of tokenizing your father’s work.
EO: I think NFTs naturally lend themselves to digital works as it means they can’t simply be reproduced by people. But I think the value of my father’s work is that he captured the performative trace of a drawing machine at a single moment in time. His work is already unique, it can’t be reproduced, it’s not a program, it’s not stored information. I think that’s probably how I would want to keep it.
CC: I know what my father would have wanted his legacy to be — he wanted to feel that he had made a genuine contribution to the history of art, as a traditionally trained fine artist who developed the artistic tools that shaped the discipline of digital art. I’m hoping that with the help of gallerists, scholars, and curators, this will continue to be recognized and that the younger generations will know what came before them. My father was proud of having founded The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design at The Ohio State University, where he mentored 60 PhD students who went on to further shape the digital art world. He also co-founded the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) that continues making technological advances. My father said he could only have achieved what he had in academia because of the creative freedom he had to research in an inspiring interdisciplinary collaboration.
EO: Writing in 1962, my father said that his drawing machine was symbolic of a revolution in art akin to when the human voice was used to accompany instrumental music. He really felt this was the beginning of something very big.
CC: Web3 is going to change our world because everything is tailored to an individual’s needs and preferences. Coupled with the ongoing impact of AI, it’s all very exciting. But my father also wanted the human element of his work to resonate beyond its automation.
LJ: Your fathers and many other individuals who worked with computers were written out of mainstream art history.
But I think a large reason for that is because there was so much experimentation going on by scientists and technologists who muddied the waters a little bit by exhibiting work that was not that interesting from an aesthetic point of view because it wasn’t made by people trained as artists. As a result, people were quick to judge — as the art world always does — without taking the time to evaluate it in relation to conceptual art. In some instances, I think art history takes time. I feel like we’re going through a similar thing with NFTs right now — sifting through what will really hold up as art and stand the test of time. It happened in the 1960s as well, but it took 60 years, I think, because of the confusion I was talking about earlier.
The aims of LACMA’s exhibition, “Coded,” are really two-fold. One is to bring to light so many artists who have been overlooked, in my opinion, because they worked with computers or were responding to computer technologies. The other aim is to look at mainstream art of the period — conceptual art, Fluxus, and even minimal art — through the lens of computing. Sol LeWitt was using an algorithm to generate his work and therefore should be seen in the context of the computer age.
EO: Thank you very much Leslie for including our fathers in the exhibition.
CC: Yes, thank you. It gives me great comfort to know that both of our fathers and other pioneers will inspire the generations to come.
Caroline Csuri is the daughter of a family of artists. Her father, Charles Csuri, was a professor of fine art and an American computer art pioneer, and her mother Lee Csuri, who was Professor Csuri’s student, worked as a professional painter and sculptor. Caroline has worn many creative hats, influenced by her visionary and entrepreneurial father. Traveling the world while working in the fashion industry, she built an interior design business while exhibiting internationally as a computer artist. Caroline was inspired by her father to achieve a degree in Art Education and Computer Graphics from The Ohio State University. She worked closely with her father for 30 years in a creative exchange of artistic ideas that further helped to produce his art objects. The head of CsuriVision Ltd. since Csuri’s passing in 2021, Caroline has dedicated herself to promoting his legacy and career. With the help of expert curators, gallerists, museums, and collectors such as Spalter Digital, her goal is to help promote Csuri’s art in the context of advancing the digital art movement. For more information visit https://www.charlescsuri.com/.
Elaine O’Hanrahan is the youngest daughter of British computer art pioneer Desmond Paul Henry (1921-2004) and curator of the D. P. Henry Archive. In 2005, she completed an MPhil in Contextual Studies on “Drawing Machines: the machine-generated art of Dr Desmond Paul Henry in relation to conceptual and technological developments in the UK (1960-68).” She has since been responsible for bringing her father’s extensive archive of machine-generated artworks back into the public domain, through the setting up of www.desmondhenry.com together with papers delivered at Liverpool John Moores University (2011), Goldsmiths, University of London (2014), Birkbeck, University or London (2015), and St. Mary’s University (2017) and talks at Manchester University (2013, 2017) amongst others. Thanks to Elaine and to the support and encouragement of key figures in the digital art world, Henry has been included in a range of exhibitions in recent years in Europe and the US, including a major solo retrospective in 2011 at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. In 2018, Elaine published “The Contribution of Desmond Paul Henry (1921-2004) to Twentieth-Century Computer Art.”²
Douglas Dodds is an independent curator and researcher. He was previously a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which now holds an extensive collection of computer-generated art from the early 1960s onwards. V&A exhibitions include “Digital Pioneers” (2009-10) and “Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers” (2018).
Leslie Jones is Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.
“Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from February 12 to July 2, 2023.
¹ D P Henry interviewed by E O’Hanrahan, February 10, 2003.
² E O’Hanrahan, “The Contribution of Desmond Paul Henry (1921-2004) to Twentieth-Century Computer Art” in Leonardo, Vol. 51, no. 2, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, April 1, 2018.