The American Algorists – Linear Sublime

Bruce Wands
Director, New York Digital Salon
Chair, SVA MFA Computer Art Department


To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the New York Digital Salon, we have chosen the exhibition The American Algorists: Linear Sublime, which showcases the works of Jean-Pierre Hébert, Manfred Mohr, Roman Verostko, and Mark Wilson. Curated by Dr. Grant Taylor, art history professor at Lebanon Valley College, the show begins its run at the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery from August 30 to October 20, 2013. The exhibition will be on view at the Westside Gallery, School of Visual Arts in New York City from October 27 to November 27, 2013.


The creative histories of these artists go back decades. Roman Verotsko and Mark Wilson exhibited their work in the First New York Digital Salon in 1993, and Manfred Mohr has appeared in several salons. I have followed their careers closely, and as the current Chair of the SIGGRAPH Art Awards Committee, Jean-Pierre Hébert was selected for the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art in 2012 and Manfred Mohr is the 2013 recipient. Roman Verostko received the award in 2009.


I first became involved in computer art in 1976 while a graduate student at Syracuse University. The only computing resource available was the university’s IBM mainframe. Access was limited—we would drop off a stack of punch cards in the morning and retrieve a line drawing anywhere from a few hours later to the next day. However primitive this may seem by today’s standards, it gave me an epiphany regarding the future of contemporary art. Using the programming language ArtSpeak, I saw that the computer could draw lines and shapes with far more precision than the human hand, and offered new conceptual territory rooted in mathematics. In these early years, there was considerable resistance from the established art community to recognize new media. Computer art could not be categorized within the traditional fine art standards of drawing, painting, and sculpture. The lack of archival printing methods and curators who understood digital creativity added to the struggle. In his 1985 book Drawing with Computers, Mark Wilson expressed, “In the past, computer art has elicited much interest. While the art world became enamored with technology in the late sixties, it soon lost interest. …. New realism and photorealism became dominant in the seventies and, in turn, were displaced by a rekindled interest in expressionism. Thus, the New York art world has largely ignored computer art.” This statement comes close to encapsulating the history of digital art. The initial infatuation with computer art was seen simply as a trend. Since then, this has changed and contemporary art using new technologies is now viewed as just that—contemporary art. Emerging artists have never known a world without computers and therefore do not draw the lines of distinction that existed previously. What is incomplete is the art historical record.


Dr. Taylor selected Gaussian-Quadratic, created in 1963 by A. Michael Noll, to set the tone for the exhibition and establish the line as a key component of digital art. Noll was a researcher at Bell Labs, which was a vital center for the development and exploration of computer art and music. The exhibition then highlights Jean-Pierre Hébert, who began working with conceptual algorithmic art in 1974. His work has appeared in seventeen SIGGRAPH Art Shows. In 1995, he co-founded “The Algorists” with Roman Verostko, and they were joined by Hans Dehlinger, Helaman Ferguson, Manfred Mohr, Ken Musgrave, and Mark Wilson. Technically, Hébert’s work rests on simple coding informed by geometry, mathematics, physics, and great attention to rendering details. Some of his concepts stem from Zen Buddhism and a spiritual approach to life. In my book Art of the Digital Age he states, “For twenty years my personal endeavor has been to create new kinds of drawings, where my mind or my eyes or my hand would no longer be a limit.” In addition to six of his prints, the exhibition includes pieces from Artist Book: Twenty-Four Views of the Metagon and Sand Installation: Ryo Anji, which explores ephemeral patterns in the sand made through digitally controlling a steel ball.


Beginning his creative career in the late 1950s as a jazz musician and painter, Manfred Mohr initially focused on gestural abstraction. In 1962, he began the exclusive use of black and white as means of visual expression. After discovering Professor Max Bense’s information aesthetic, his art transformed from abstract expressionism to computer-generated algorithmic geometry. The influence of mathematics and music gives his work a core essence of rhythm and repetition. In 1972, Mohr turned to sequential drawings of the fixed structure of a cube, and made his first computer-generated films. He renewed his work on the 4D hypercube in 1987, and began to use color in 1998 to show the complexity of the work through differentiation. Four years later, he designed and built small PCs to run his program space.color, and in 2004 wrote the program subsets. The resulting images are visualized on LCD panels in slow, non-repetitive motion. His latest software Artificiata II creates digital paintings and animations that are based on the 11th- to 13th-dimensional hypercube and uses diagonal paths as graphic elements. The animation algorithm contains random variations of speed and suites of stills adding a musical rhythm to this work. The five artworks by Mohr in this exhibition range from black-and-white plotter drawings to color prints and computer-based animation. According to Mohr in his website, “The computer became a physical and intellectual extension in the process of creating my art. I write computer algorithms, i.e., rules that calculate and then generate the work, which could not be realized in any other way. My artistic goal is reached when a finished work can dissociate itself from its logical content and stand convincingly as an independent abstract entity.”


Roman Verostko maintains an experimental studio where he has developed original algorithmic procedures for creating his art. Active as an exhibiting artist since 1963, his earliest use of electronics consisted of synchronized audiovisual programs dating from 1967. He began experimenting with programming and exhibited his first coded art in 1984. By 1987, Verostko had modified his software with interactive routines to drive paint brushes mounted on a pen plotter’s drawing arm. Examples of his algorithmic plotter work include the Pathway series, Pearl Park Scriptures, Diamond Lake Apocalypse, and Manchester Illuminated Universal Turing Machine, produced in honor of Alan Turing. When referring to his creative work, Verostko says, “I have sought to create original forms that are unique realities without reference to other objects or images. My pursuit followed the lead of those pioneers who wanted to create art using visual form much like a composer creates music with audio form.” His earliest image in this echibition is from the 1990 “2x Artist Book: Derivation of the Laws—George Boole.” Verostko states, “The illustrations in this book have evolved from procedures made possible by Boolean logic. For several illustrations I adjusted my algorithms to use terms from Boole’s symbolic logic for graphic improvisation.” Four other works showcase Verostko’s command and control of line and color as expressive forms of digital art. Also included is a documentary showing the process of how his images are created.


I first became aware of Mark Wilson’s creative work at the Small Computers and the Arts Conference in Philadelphia in 1990. I was so impressed that I recommended he join the MFA Computer Art Department at the School of Visual Arts, where he taught from 1991 to 1995. A decade before, Wilson purchased a microcomputer and learned programming with the goal of creating artworks. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Wilson an Artist Fellowship in 1982, and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts has given him three grants. He received Distinction and Honorable Mention Awards from Ars Electronica, and the Golden Plotter Award in Gladbeck, Germany.


In addition to the New York Digital Salon, each of the artists in the exhibition have been recognized by such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, various granting agencies and digital art groups, including ACM SIGGRAPH, Ars Electronica, and ZKM. Public and private collections are stimulating an increased interest is digital art and its history. More than half of the images in this exhibition are on loan from the Spalter Digital Art Collection, one of the largest private collections of early digital art in the United States, and others are courtesy of the artists. One of the most comprehensive collections of digital art resides in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Overseen by Douglas Dodds, Senior Curator for Computer Art and Head of Central Services in the Word and Image Department, this collection dates back to the 1960s and includes the Patric Prince Archive. Prince is an American art historian who actively collected early digital art. Another large component of the V&A collection is from the British Computer Arts Society. Exhibitions of digital art have been presented by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, MoMA in New York City, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofia in Madrid.


For the past twenty years the New York Digital Salon has brought attention to the art form and helped fill in the gaps in contemporary art history. As the Curator for the first three exhibitions and the Director of the Salon for the past fifteen years, it has been a rewarding journey to see digital art take its rightful place in the 21st-century art scene.