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March 28, 2023

Painting and the Personal Computer | Samia Halaby

The pioneering painter and digital artist explains what makes the computer the ultimate tool of abstraction
Credit: Samia Halaby, Simultaneous Depth, 2019. Courtesy of the artist
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Painting and the Personal Computer | Samia Halaby

Few artists have made the jump from painting to digital art. Even fewer have done so as effortlessly as Samia Halaby in a way that advances the cause of both. After leaving Palestine in 1948, Halaby studied fine art in the American Midwest at a time when female abstract painters were marginalized. Today, as the art world expands to encompass new digital practices and hybrid forms of creativity, her career stands as a blueprint for the kind of radical inclusivity on which crypto art depends.

It was the mid-1980s when Halaby encountered a personal computer for the first time, programming her Commodore Amiga 1000 to produce “Kinetic Paintings” that combined geometric form with motion and sound. Here was a kind of generative art, coded in C and BASIC, that used the native capacities of the computer to extend ideas she had already been exploring for twenty years. Her decision to work across analog and digital media is indicative of her own natural tendency to challenge painting’s canonical associations with rectilinearity and western hegemony. Here, she tells Alex Estorick what makes abstraction the art of the future and why the computer is the ideal medium for it.                 

Samia Halaby, Yafa 79, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Alex Estorick: Where are you based these days, Samia?

Samia Halaby: My place is in New York. But if life was good and everything were just and hunky dory, I’d be in Jerusalem — my birthplace.

AE: Tell us about your background and how you came to produce computer-based kinetic art alongside your painting practice. 

SH: All I can say is that I was always very interested in the visual. And when it came time to study seriously, I was committed to the idea of independence — to learn how to support myself. I graduated in 1963 with an MFA in painting from Indiana University at a time when there were only big monster computers. I can remember visiting an exhibition by IBM sometime during my student years that had a huge influence on me, imprinting my brain with permanent excitement for all things digital. My friends in the Computer Science department would discuss their experiences programming the university’s mainframe computer with white punch cards.

On one occasion, they presented us with a printout of the Mona Lisa composed entirely of computing characters. The printout left me cold but the punch cards were exciting. 
Samia Halaby, Surprising Pathways, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

My next fascination was with Sketchpad — a program written by a graduate student at MIT in 1963. Back then, my work was based on perspective and I was making paintings of geometrical still lifes, so the idea that a computer could work in 3D and rotate objects was exciting. When I ended up returning to the university as a professor in 1971, I was invited to join the computer lab. But then all of a sudden an academic position opened up at Yale University, which closed the door on the enthusiasm that had been slowly building.

Then in the mid-1980s, my mathematician sister bought herself an Apple II, which gave me the opportunity to program with Logo — a language made for children. You could learn it in ten minutes. 

I ended up buying an Amiga 1000 at a blowout sale. It had obviously underwhelmed the financial community, but to me it was magic. I sat at home with my two manuals and got lost in a new world of thought. For three years, all I did was program that computer, making abstract paintings that I term “kinetic painting.” My aesthetic life had shifted.

Samia Halaby, (Still 6 from) Bird Dog, 1987-88. Courtesy of the artist

AE: I’ve read that you’re influenced by a myriad of different sources: Islamic architecture, the Bauhaus, the Russian avant-garde, Josef Albers. What are your most lingering aesthetic or conceptual interests?

SH: I read a lot of art history, and because I’m Palestinian living in the Western world, and because I see the Eurocentricity of art history, I can see what’s wrong with the way it’s being taught. I’ve also concluded that differentiating illusion from abstraction is a mistake. All art is both abstract and illusionistic. All human invention is an abstraction from reality. We observe, we learn, and we extract; and we use what we learn as the basis for making things. That is to say: we abstract and create illusions. Even linear perspective, which is designed to rationalize the world, is an abstraction from reality. Similarly, in Arabic art, symmetry is an abstraction from reality.

Our global culture moves forward by imitating and abstracting from reality.

If I could put a computer in the hands of Rodchenko and Tatlin, they would take it to the skies. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-20) was a mock-up for a spiraling tower that would issue messages from a cloud bank. The Constructivists did more than simply use the technology of their time, they were running ahead of it and pushing it to move faster. I envy that aesthetic atmosphere of social creativity even if I know it was a difficult period.

Samia Halaby, Tiger’s Eye in Late Winter, 1978. Courtesy of the artist

After spending the first two decades of my life investigating how our eyes see, I started to look at the world in motion and that brings abstraction. I began to understand the relativity of space and that time is a fourth dimension in painting. As I thought about it, I came to feel that space, time, and movement are one, which influenced my kinetic paintings made with the computer. 

An image which implies perspective destroys the relativity of space in an abstract painting. My kinetic paintings are abstraction in motion. 

I use the computer for what it can do as a medium. It does not have a lens, although it can be taught to show things as though through a lens. That tells you how important it is that painters use modern technology rather than imitating earlier media. I once asked myself: “why am I doing oil painting in the new century when there is this technology?” To me, it felt like a necessity to take up that technology and discover its own true nature. 

The computer adds to the visual language of painting. It also creates an amazing picture plane, which is the envelope that contains a painting and which separates art from reality. In the past, painters prepared a white surface and dreamed of deep space. But the computer’s surface is almost alive. It also has memory, which allows you to bring things back and add sound. The computer gave new attributes to the language of painting and I want to be an artist at the edge of its investigation.

Samia Halaby, page 120 from sketchbook D43, 1984-85. Courtesy of the artist

AE: You use the word “edge,” which might suggest someone at the leading edge. But it might also refer to an artist who exists in a borderland, somewhere between different art histories: Western and non-Western, “fine” and decorative. Can you speak about the influence of Palestine on your visual repertoire?

SH: My failure is to use the word “painting.” I should really say “picture” because a mosaic is a picture; a stamp is a picture; and a teenager scribbling on her sneakers is making pictures. These pictures all possess language and art now is very international. I take from Arabic art history, Japanese art history, Soviet Constructivism, American Abstract Expressionism, and others in between. We live in a world of uneven development and I have a Marxist point of view. 

I see myself as a Palestinian internationalist in attitude. Palestine is my big love and the Arab world is a great teacher. 

In honor of my commitment to the land of Palestine, I made a kinetic painting, Land (1988), with positive and negative shapes that shift and expand, vying with each other. That’s something you can only do with the computer. 

Samia Halaby, (Still from) Land, 1988. Courtesy of the artist

AE: You are a trained painter who embraces craft and non-art approaches. You also speak about picture-making in an expanded sense, producing works that are more than traditional pictures. 

SH: The Arabic language is full of conjugation and Arabic culture is at ease with algebra and geometry. So the intuitive urge to program comes, I think, from my ancestry. I’ve questioned my Western education, which taught me that the picture plane is a rectangle or window. I’ve also questioned gravity, which led me to start painting in the air — hanging sculptures made from papier machê. I allowed my sculptures to grow in any direction, both toward and away from light. Any part of my sculptures can sprout a new growth. A hanging sculpture cannot live on a pedestal.

I’m always looking at the whole of human culture. Medieval Arabic art, which art historians often regard as ornamental, has never been analyzed formally. But it is a language of visual abstraction. You’ll notice a tendency of most Arab artists to want to put things together like a mosaic. I share that precision of conjugation and symmetry. Of course, the basis of symmetry is crystallography. But abstraction is born of working-class revolution. You cannot deny that the Paris Commune gave birth to the Impressionists. Mexican Muralism was also born of revolution, while the Abstract Expressionists were a product of industrial unionism

Abstraction is the culture of the working class.

The capitalist art world then embraced abstraction as the art of the modern while the bureaucratized working-class leadership of the early 20th century mistakenly called it “decadent.” The capitalist leadership used arts propaganda to claim abstraction as its own but soon created postmodernism to negate it. But postmodernism is not a visual medium, it is verbal and philosophical and uses the visual to illustrate its verbal manipulations. There was a point when it was fashionable to apply scientific terminology to art without knowing the meaning of the terminology. That prompted two physicists to write a magnificent book, Fashionable Nonsense (1997), exposing how ridiculous postmodern criticism had become.

Samia Halaby, Brass Women 6, 1992. Courtesy of the artist

AE: In the postmodern age, technology has become a tool of financialized capitalism. So how can social radicalism exist in a digital context?

SH: Not all digital art forms are radical and futuristic. I see abstraction as the art of the future. But a mishmash of images — playing art historical games on a computer — adds nothing to the language of picture-making. I want to find out what new media can offer to picture-making that wasn’t there previously. You can do very backward things with digital technology. You can use it for propaganda and you can kill people with it; or you can heal, house, and feed humanity. It is how we use technology that counts.

AE: Can you say something about The Kinetic Painting Group and your collaboration with Kevin Nathaniel in the 1990s. I’m interested in how you applied your practice to music.

SH: When I was working with the Amiga computer, I was going to SCAN (Symposium on Small Computers in the Arts Network) in Philadelphia. It was for people like me who programmed on small computers and whose equipment was not big enough for SIGGRAPH. We would flock to SCAN and there would be musicians jamming at night after the meetings were over. The stage was a spaghetti of black wires with me sitting in the empty auditorium listening, wishing that I could program the keyboard in a way that allowed me to add images to accompany the sounds. I ended up connecting several short programs to each key of the keyboard. 

Once my app began running, the keyboard became an abstract painting piano. 

A set of keys selected one of 18 color palettes, creating immense variety within limited parameters. I called it The Kinetic Painting Program and I used it as a private tool to perform with sound artists including electronic musicians. Kevin had been a student of mine at Yale and he adopted African analog percussion tools and modes of expression. We performed as The Kinetic Painting Group, often in unknown corners of the New York music scene — places described as “off-Off-Broadway.” 

The Kinetic Painting Group, Performance of “Rain” at Goddard Riverside Community Center, 2019. Courtesy of Samia Halaby

AE: The fact that you’ve worked across both painting and computation makes me think of Harold Cohen, who gave up his career as a painter to program an AI. But you have kept up two parallel careers. What, for you, is the relationship between analog and digital art?

SH: They influence each other, that’s for sure. The major influence the computer had on my painting was that it improved my color. On the one hand I was looking at this luminous screen and then on the other these dull paintings. And I thought: “Samia, you can make them brighter.” But the process is the same. If I put a stroke on a painting, I’m still walking back and forth all the time. With the computer, it’s the same — adding and subtracting — the only difference is I’m sitting down.  

As I developed my programming, working in C, my programs became more organized, willful, and consistent. C slowed me down as I spent more time structuring the programs than doing the artwork. But that was a good thing. I also got tired of corporate software packages — it still hurts that I cannot get some of the stuff off my legacy computers. I’m waiting for someone to emulate Windows 95. I started out programming on Windows 2.0 but I might have to start over with a Raspberry Pi. We shall see.

Samia Halaby, (Still 9 from) Diamond, 1988. Courtesy of the artist

AE: You’ve spoken of your interest in the nature of programming. How close are natural and mechanical growth?

SH: I think it is human culture that grows. Whether we are using a computer or a paper and pencil, it’s the same. Along the way, I’ve found programming to be so beautiful. It imitates our lives, our relationships, our cities and pathways. A function is like a factory. It is a closed box that is fed at the front, returning products we request like an immensely obedient machine. Mistakes along the way are our mistakes.

AE: The notion of “abstraction” runs like a thread through your words and your work. You’ve been organizing for causes concerning class, race, and Palestine since the 1970s. Where do you see a progressive future for art and technology right now?

SH: NFTs and the blockchain are amazing technologies. Imagine a future where we are able to clock everyone’s work hours in an international bank which people can draw on, one that’s totally honest and which doesn’t cheat anyone. 

The blockchain will make things like that possible. It’s going to replace money — not by having all these cryptocurrencies, but by ensuring accounting that is fair, reliable, and international. Best of all, it will be done for social use and not for private profit. 

The NFT market may have collapsed, but the blockchain’s potential remains. When I first started making NFTs, I was thinking: “this is fantastic. I will not lose any more fragile digital artworks.” And then, of course, somebody calls me up and says: “I’m trying to sell your NFTs, quit adding more, you’re flooding the market.” [Laughs] While I’ve been trying to use the technology to its full potential, I’ve thrown my market out the window. This is the contemporary contradiction — technology has the potential to liberate us but there are those who still want to control it and wield it for private profit.

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Samia Halaby is a painter and explorer of the language of pictures. Her love of painting combined with theoretical writings on the subject have led her to explore the potential of the visual language. Her explorations include abstractions in motion programming the computer; paintings free from the stretcher; folded, layered, and stitched paintings; hanging three-dimensional paintings; and paintings that are to be read as scrolls or books. After decades of invisibility in the art world, now in the late season of her life she is preparing a number of retrospectives around the world, while her digital art of the 1980s is finding acceptance at international art fairs. 

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.