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February 7, 2023

When Art Entered the Computer Age

The curator of a groundbreaking new exhibition of computer art at LACMA speaks to Lady Cactoid
Credit: Sonya Rapoport, page 4 from Anasazi Series II, 1977. Photography courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Estate of Sonya Rapoport
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When Art Entered the Computer Age

Opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on February 12, 2023, “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982” is a pivotal reappraisal of art in the age of the mainframe. Organized by Leslie Jones, Curator of Prints and Drawings at LACMA, “Coded” examines the critical, but long-overlooked relationship between early computer art and other art movements of the time, such as Op art, conceptual art, Fluxus, and Minimalism. 

Accompanied by a richly illustrated scholarly catalogue, the exhibition begins in the early 1950s when access to computers, originally the purview of government, the military, or large corporations, was severely limited. In contrast to other recent exhibitions, such as 2016’s “Electronic Superhighway” at the Whitechapel Gallery, which examined early computer art from a contemporary vantage point, “Coded” goes to great lengths to explore the specific contexts surrounding early experiments with computers. Artists, who often relied on universities for access to these expensive and massive new machines, either had to find engineers with whom to collaborate, or teach themselves coding languages such as Fortran. But even once they had, they encountered a range of obstacles — from exceedingly slow render times to the absence of monitors and digital printers — which necessitated that they work “blind,” unaware of their final outputs until they could translate them to plotters or microfilm readers.

This is Jones’s gift to art history: to recreate a moment characterized by both awe and apprehension regarding this young digital technology. 
Angelo Testa, IBM Disks textile, 1952-56. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund. Photography courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA

Investigating art, poetry, film, dance, and music created with computers or in response to them, “Coded” immerses viewers in the realities of the era so that we might see more clearly its dynamic innovations as they emerged. Although many early works of computer art were created by scientists, from the beginning there was a strong desire to engage art history, often with the aim of legitimizing the new tools as artistic media. Both Bell Labs’ engineer A. Michael Noll and German mathematician Frieder Nake used the modernism of Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee as launching pads for their own contemporary probings of code-based art. While, for Jones, Hungarian-born Vera Molnar’s work stands out for the way it extends the legacies of Constructivism, Concrete art, and GRAV, with which she was associated.

Of course, generative art has a long history, but for decades it was largely cut off from “mainstream” art. In “Coded,” Jones underscores time and again the manner in which historic computer art was both exhibited and written about separately from traditional art. As Grant Taylor reminds us, critics dismissed the first computer art as being machine-made, unoriginal, and dehumanizing: 

In many ways, computer art has become synonymous with negative criticism itself.¹ (Grant Taylor)

Those digital practitioners currently experimenting with art on the blockchain, frequently marginalized as “NFT artists,” will be familiar with the predicament faced by many of the artists shown here. Yet by reconnecting computer art with conceptualism, Minimalism, and other art movements, this exhibition not only reveals their shared terrain, it allows us to see them for the complex political and social developments that they were. The result is a richer appreciation of the past and our splintering technological present. Here, Leslie Jones shares more about her groundbreaking new exhibition. 

Frederick Hammersley, SCALLOP POTATOES #50, 1969. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Frederick Hammersley Foundation. Courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Photography courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA

Lady Cactoid: In your introduction to the exhibition catalogue you write that, “by placing notable works by computer artists in relation to works by mainstream conceptual artists, this exhibition and catalogue invite not only a re-evaluation of computer art in conceptual terms but also one of Conceptual art in computer terms.” What is at stake historically in making this point?  

Leslie Jones: The seed of “Coded” was an acquisition: a gift of 72 “computer drawings” by Frederick Hammersely made during a period of transition in his career after moving from Los Angeles to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico. Over the course of a year, 1969, he made more than a thousand computer drawings using a program called Art1 designed by Richard Williams that was one of the first programs to be designed for artistic use. They were unlike anything I had ever seen before, other than maybe typewriter drawings, so my curiosity led me to explore the context and learn about other artists who were working with computer technology to make art at such an early date — long before personal computers — in the age of the mainframe. 

Down the proverbial rabbit hole, I discovered the work of many artists whose names and practices were unfamiliar to me that I found fascinating both visually and conceptually. There were many exhibitions and publications devoted to “computer art” — notably the catalogue for “Cybernetic Serendipity” (1968) at the ICA in London, Herbert W. Franke’s book, Computer Graphics, Computer Art (1971), and Cynthia Goodman’s Digital Visions (1987) — but, for the most part, what we now call early digital art had been ignored by mainstream art history. My aim is to introduce their work to wider audiences while at the same time relating it to mainstream trends of the time, like Minimalism, Op art, conceptual art, and Fluxus. There are many overlapping themes, including the use of systems and algorithms to generate work, serial expression, the predominance of geometric forms, depersonalization of the creative process, and the incorporation of chance. 

I didn’t want simply to present computer art as a separate movement or trend because the work seemed to be about more than just technology. On the flip side, I also hope to offer a new way of looking at mainstream art of the period, to think about works of Op or conceptual art, for example, in the context of rising awareness about computers and their functionality. 
Stan VanDerBeek and Kenneth C. Knowlton, (Still from) Poemfield No. 1 (Blue Version), 1967. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Fund. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek. Digital images courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles

It’s a bit of a zeitgeist argument, I guess, but thinking about Sol LeWitt in terms of algorithms makes as much, or more, sense to me than the rote discussion of his work as a rational rebuke to the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism. The approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course, but one shouldn’t ignore the computer’s looming presence. In this exhibition, LeWitt’s cubes will be shown in relation to the work of Manfred Mohr, who was writing programs to inventory all possible combinations of lines that make up a cube. Comparisons between their work have appeared often in the literature but, as far as I know, this is the first time their physical work will be shown together. I’d also like to make it clear that I am not the first to think about computer art in relation to mainstream movements (Grant Taylor and Charlie Gere, among others) but “Coded” is certainly the first major exhibition to bring the works together.

LC: The history of the Zagreb-based group, New Tendencies, is prominent in “Coded.” Could you tell us a bit more about them and how their approach may (or may not) have served as a model for you in structuring the exhibition? 

LJ: I made a point to include the activities of New Tendencies in the catalogue because I felt their work had been left out of many histories dealing with art and technology, especially in the US. (Margit Rosen at the ZKM Karlsruhe published an amazing catalogue in 2011 documenting their history from 1961 to 1973.) In the early years, the artists involved were mostly European and associated with Concrete, Op, and kinetic art, but they had an ongoing interest in technology and art as a means of social change and progress. 

Between 1969 and 1973, New Tendencies organized exhibitions and published four issues of their journal, Bit International, devoted to “computers and visual research” that, I think, were among the first real attempts to try and integrate, or at least introduce, computer art in relation to mainstream movements. They fostered research, experimentation, and collectivity — rooted in democratic idealism — that made them more open to the potential of computer art. “Coded” is organized thematically so there is no section devoted to New Tendencies, but works by artists who were involved are included throughout, such as Manfred Mohr, Frieder Nake, François Morellet, Hiroshi Kawano, Jean-Claude Marquette, and Victor Vasarely.

Victor Vasarely, Vega-Kontosh-Va, 1971. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston through the Contemporary Art Council, Courtesy Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photography courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: I think visitors will be interested to learn that it wasn’t visual artists, but rather musicians and poets like James Tenney and Theo Lutz, who were among the first to experiment with computers. The details behind musical projects like HPSCHD by John Cage and Lejaren A. Hiller Jr. are especially fascinating. What do you find significant about that history? I am also curious about the playlist you have created for the show. What do you hope listeners will gain from its inclusion? 

LJ: Already in the mid-1950s Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson at the University of Illinois at Urbana in Champaign were using the university’s ILLIAC computer to create compositions, and Max Matthews was developing one of the first music programs at Bell Labs. In poetry, Theo Lutz and Brion Gysin were also experimenting with computers early on.

I thought it was important to be interdisciplinary since computer technology has affected all aspects of culture. 

It’s also a nod to Jasia Reichhardt’s historic 1968 exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity,” at the ICA in London which was also interdisciplinary. I suspect that musicians and poets were early adopters because they were already familiar with the idea of working with code via musical notes and choreographic notation. I am not an expert in music so I worked with Mark “Frosty” McNeill to create a playlist of music that, like the exhibition, includes tracks made with computers as well as tracks inspired by them. The playlist is included in the catalogue, along with an essay by McNeill, and will be available for listening on LACMA’s website as well as in the exhibition via QR code. In addition to the musicians mentioned above there will be works by Toshi Ichiyanagi, Peter Zinovieff, Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani, and, of course Kraftwerk, among others.

Analivia Cordeiro, (Still from) M 3×3, 1973. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Latin American and Caribbean Fund. Courtesy of the artist.

LC: The interdisciplinary nature of “Coded” is one of its great strengths. I was keen to learn about the role of computers in experimental dance. Can you speak about Analívia Cordeiro’s upcoming performance at LACMA? What was so significant about her work, M 3×3 (1973)? 

LJ: Edward Shanken has written a great essay on Analívia Cordeiro’s work for the catalogue that goes into depth about her process and significance as a woman artist working under a military dictatorship in Brazil. M 3×3 was groundbreaking in her use of a computer program to generate the choreography as well as the cinematography. And perhaps because she was exposed to Concrete art through her father and artist Waldemar Cordeiro, the work is also very engaging visually. We are very fortunate that she has offered to do a dance workshop at LACMA. The dates and details are still being worked out but it looks like it will be sometime in June. 

LC: In your catalogue essay, “Strange Bedfellows: Art and the Computer in the Age of Protest,” you explore the often uneasy political relationship between artists and the technology companies with whom they collaborated. You credit this fraught affair with playing a role in the eventual waning of interest in computer art by the 1980s. Can you say more on this issue? Now that computers are no longer confined to the domain of the government, entering every dimension of our society, do you continue to see this question as a point of conflict for artists? 

LJ: The emergence of the computer as a creative tool corresponded with a period of increased social and political awareness and activism related to civil rights, anti-Vietnam War sentiment, and women’s liberation in the US and abroad. At the time, computers were almost exclusively the domain of the military, government, and corporations and their associations with “the system” or “The Man” — to use a colloquial expression of the day suggesting patriarchal control — affected the reception and presentation of computer art and art and technology more broadly from the early 1970s. 

Today, most everyone has access to computers so they’re not as exclusive as they once were, but I wouldn’t say that their use or distribution has achieved a state of ideal egalitarianism. Individual internet users have some power, but the government and corporations have more and I think all users, including artists, should remain wary. 

Recently, I’ve noticed that the term “algorithm” seems to have taken on negative connotations as people question the use of algorithms as a potential means of manipulation. But, as your readers know well, algorithms can also be used to make art that inspires and/or challenges authority. Let’s hope we’ve learned from the past not to disregard their positive uses.
Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2008. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchased through gifts of Helen Crocker Russell, the Crocker Family, and anonymous donors, by exchange, and the Accessions Committee Fund. Courtesy 2023 Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

LC: “Coded” ends in 1982, when the mainframe retreats from center stage and the personal computer replaces it as the machine of the future. But, as Grant Taylor writes in your catalogue, though mainframes may today be viewed as “colossal relics of a bygone era,” they are in fact omnipresent and insidiously invisible in our daily lives — from credit card transactions to “encryption and blockchain technologies in our expanding peer-to-peer economies.” Is that a connection you hope visitors will make? 

LJ: This is a connection that visitors might make but the exhibition itself is strictly historical. I want to take people back in time to recall — or understand for the first time — what computer technology represented and how it was used at a time when the potential of mainframes was hypothetical to most. 

LC: Cybernetics forms a central thread throughout “Coded.” How important was cybernetic theory and the concept of the feedback loop to the early development of computer art? 

LJ: The development of cybernetic theory, rooted in the writings of Norbert Wiener, corresponds directly with the growth of computer technology. Wiener posited the connection between the computer’s functionality and the human/animal nervous system in terms of self-regulating systems. The notion of “feedback” as information that circulated back into the system was further developed with second-order cybernetics and the writings of Heinz von Foerster and Margaret Mead, who expanded the field into the philosophical realm. Artists interested in the social and political possibilities of feedback, in the form of data and/or exchange of information, were especially drawn to cybernetics. Some, like Sonya Rapoport, did work with computers but others, like Stephen Willats, employed it mostly as a theoretical model.

Colette Stuebe Bangert and Charles Jeffries Bangert, GRASS SERIES II 80-11-comp-a, 1980. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the artist. Courtesy of Colette Stuebe Bangert and Charles Jeffries Bangert. Photography courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: In your introductory essay, you include an especially thought-provoking quote by Brian Reffin Smith

There is a mine, a treasure trove, a hoard — I cannot emphasize this too strongly — of art ideas that emerged in the early decades of computer art that still have not remotely been explored. We know how this happens. The next big thing comes along and the zeitgeist has its demands: things get left behind.... We need to carefully re-examine, restore, analyze, document, and then use computer-based arts and art made by, with, or in spite of the computer, from earlier times. It is all there. We may not need the computers from those times but I believe we do need the ideas, and the ways of making sense of technology.² 

I find this statement endlessly inspiring. I think of the unrealized aims of artists like Harold Cohen. In Joel McKim’s catalogue essay, he writes that Cohen’s interest was not ultimately AI, “but rather a desire to better understand our own processes of cognition and the very human activity of finding meaning in the world.” With all the energy being directed at generative AI these days, Cohen’s ambition strikes me as an urgent one. If you had to choose an idea from this exhibition that we need to make sense of our current relationship to computers, what might you select? 

LJ: I am drawn to the notion expressed by many artists of the time of the computer’s potential to expand our perceptual horizons, to conceive the unimaginable, due largely to its processing power. Vera Molnar started doing generative work in the late 1950s by hand. The computer became an invaluable tool for her and others, like Manfred Mohr, who wanted to speed up and maximize their process. The visual results are mind-blowing and evoke, for me, notions of the sublime which, although usually associated with experiences in nature, capture a similar feeling of awe tinged with apprehension. 

The computer provided access to new virtual fields of exploration and the artists’ enthusiasm about its creative possibilities was tangible. I think we need to hold onto this sense of excitement for the computer’s potential to expand ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
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Leslie Jones is Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she has organized numerous exhibitions including: “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982” (2023), “Tony Smith: Smoke” (2018), “Ed Moses: Drawings from the 1960s and ’70s” and “Drawing in L.A.: the 1960s and ’70s” (both 2015), “Drawing Surrealism” (2012), and “John Baldessari: Pure Beauty” (2010). She writes regularly about modern and contemporary drawings and prints including, most recently, Julie Mehretu’s intaglio prints, the work of Sonya Rapoport, and the drawings of Allen Ruppersberg.

Lady Cactoid is an artist, curator, and co-founder of the experimental blockchain consultancy, Cactoid Labs. She holds a PhD in Art History specializing in postwar/contemporary art and its intersections with technology and has taught university seminars on art and the singularity. She is the author of numerous books and articles and her large-scale exhibitions have been held at institutions such as The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), and the Getty Foundation. She and Cactoid Labs are currently helping to build an ambitious blockchain initiative at LACMA. 


¹ G D Taylor, When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. 3.

² B Reffin Smith, “From 0 to 1: Art Made between the Times of Having and Not Having a Computer,” in P Brown, C Gere, N Lambert, and C Mason (eds.), White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, 388.