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The influence of Constructivism and the Bauhaus

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Parallel to Laposky’s use of analogue systems and the emergence of abstract animation, a third precursor to Computer Art that emerged in the early twentieth century was the desire to incorporate the machine in art.

Following the inclinations of the Russian Constructivists and others at the start of century, whose simple but striking arrangements of geometric shapes have been the inspiration for numerous later artists, there was certainly an urge to experiment with machines that could generate such shapes using equations and programs.

The idea of machine-produced art was related to the influence of Constructivism and Futurism (or should I say to later movements which claimed these as their antecedents). My purpose in tracing the pre-computer antecedents of Computer Art is to show that the interest for a technological and dynamic artform was “in the air” long before the computer, but found its most interest expression thereon. The first artwork on the computer drew heavily on these predecessors for its inspiration and raison d’etre. Amongst current computer artists, the Algorists consciously draw on pre-Computer Artforms for their Computer Art.

European émigré artists in other fields had noted the significance of machinery to early 20th c. America., and several tried to incorporate it into their art. One such was Francis Picabia, who attempted to derive a “machinist” style of hard-edged precision to reflect the symbolism of the machine:

I have been profoundly impressed by the vast mechanical development in America. The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of life. It is really part of human life… perhaps the very soul. […] I have come at length upon the form which appears most brilliantly plastic and fraught with symbolism. [Francis Picabia, as quoted in William A Camfield, “The Machinist Style of Francis Picabia” The Art Bulletin, Nos 3-4, Sept-Dec. 1966 p313)][1]

Picabia - Love Parade

This marked the start of several technologically-influenced art movements in the States, which initially took their cue from European developments. The pioneering Computer artists persevered because the artistic climate of postwar America was favourable to the concept of machine-generated art. I am convinced that had this not been so, the artistic potential of the computer might not have been realised for a long time, or might instead have developed somewhere outside America. I believe it was the strong influence of abstract art and especially two-dimensional geometric art which proved decisive, and without which it is unlikely that the early computer graphics machines would have piqued any artist’s curiosity. In spite of the objections raised against Computer Art by the arts establishment, it seems that a significant number of artists were willing to use the computer.

Since America had a much higher concentration of computers, at a time when each machine occupied several floors of a building and was hugely expensive, it followed that there were more artists involved in that field because they would be aware of the computer’s potential. Only in Britain and West Germany did a similar uptake of the computer in art occur; and the German artists’ guiding principals seem to have been directly related to Constructivist concepts.[2]

Constructivism and its machine-influenced aesthetic exercised a great influence on the early computer artists, and digital Computer Art could be seen as a continuation and development of principles they had already set in motion. Indeed, the analogue computers used in 1950s Computer Art by Laposky and Whitney are bridges between mechanical and digital art.

The incorporation of mechanical and industrial processes into art really began in earnest at the turn of the twentieth century. From early in the last century, indeed perhaps from the time the Futurists eulogised the speeding car, it seemed possible that technological advancements which hitherto had been regarded warily by artists could in fact serve to advance art. Yet it was not until the founding of the Bauhaus and the appointment of the Hungarian abstract artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1923 that the adoption of mechanical forms went beyond merely depicting the machine and started emulating or even incorporating it into art.

A number of artists linked with the Constructivists and, later, with the Bauhaus, were concerned with finding ways of producing art mechanically. This was in order to increase artistic anonymity and adapt the principle of mass production to the work of art. In this way, it allowed art to avoid being tied to the “object”, and simultaneously decrease the individuality of the artistic input, which was ideologically compatible with the goals of Constructivism.[3]

It was partly in response to these currents that Laszlo Moholy-Nagy began his experiments with “telephone art”, where he ordered pictures over the phone, guided by a grid and the Ostwald colour chart. With this method, his artistic input became part of a quantitative arrangement of formal elements, precisely described by the colour system and the dimensions he was using.[4] As such, he was specifying the art and directing others to make it; his method introduced an element of artistic anonymity.

[Plate XVIII Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Telephone Painting, 1922]

Moholy-Nagy Telephone Painting 1922

The trend stemmed in part from artists’ desire to express or incorporate some of the mechanical power of industrial civilisation; and also to give the visual arts a scientific or mathematical basis. Formalistic systems like those of the Constructivists and Suprematists defined parameters for images; and importantly, some of their paintings and graphic work provided direct inspiration for the first computer artists.

The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. […] Everyone is equal before the machine […] Everyone can be the machine’s master or its slave”[5]

- Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1922

Moholy-Nagy intended that his art should be made scientific and systematized, to the point where he could specify its execution without actually participating in its creation. The series of paintings, EM 1, 2, 3 (1922), which he “ordered” from an enamels factory based on his original blueprint, were made up in three sizes.

In 1922 I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory’s color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone, the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares.

There is a strong resemblance here with a computer artist’s instructions to a computer; even using graph paper and a standardised colour chart is analogous to filling in the pixellated grid of the screen; the artist manipulates an image indirectly and can only see a facsimile, which is the display on the screen. The distance between the artist and the production, the use of intermediaries and the technologies involved all point towards this desire for disembodiment in the process of making art.

He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position. (It was like playing chess by correspondence.)   Thus, these pictures did not have the virtue of the “individual touch”, but my action was directed exactly against this overemphasis. I often hear the criticism that because of this want of the individual touch, my pictures are “intellectual”.[6]

Acting via the factory supervisor at the other end of the telephone, Moholy-Nagy plotted a painting on squared paper, referring to the specified colour chart and noting that “it was like playing chess by correspondence”. Moholy-Nagy was quite prescient in his experiment, and it was not his only use of the communication media to create art. At least part of his aim was to create reproducible art in order to disseminate it more widely.

The impersonality of the execution and the highly finished mechanical quality of the works prompted Moholy-Nagy’s observation that such works could be ordered over the telephone – thus anticipating a conceptual attitude that was to gain prevalence in the art of the late 1960s and 1970s.[7]

This impersonal execution sprang from a desire to have the “art” take place according to systematic elements that had no direct contact with the artist. Frank Dietrich perceived in this the first steps toward a “division of labor similar to and incorporating industrial production.” Its importance was the Moholy-Nagy valued the artist’s intellectual input into a work of art, leaving the execution to mechanical processes, which enabled him to take advantage of new methods of production.[8] Thus the artist would become anonymous and the art would achieve this precision of science; and through this become, in a sense, universal:

As early as 1922, Moholy-Nagy began experimenting with important developments in mechanical art that depended very largely upon the Ostwald color system, and in so doing, he demonstrated that a quantitive system of formal elements could be used to express principles of universality in art.[9]

The appeal of mechanisation was this sense of artistic anonymity and even the idea that the art would somehow spring from automatic sources rather than those regarded as mysterious and indefinable. This also applies to a form of photography pioneered by Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, often termed “rayography”. As Barbara Beth Zabel notes:

Man Ray developed a new technique which he called “rayography”, in which he placed various and often mechanical objects on photographic paper, exposed them to light, and developed them […] Such experimentation [..] was an attempt by Ray to free himself from traditional painting and its “aesthetic implications”. He wrote that “it was thrilling to paint a picture hardly touching the surface – a purely cerebral act, as it were.” [Man Ray, Self Portrait, (Boston 1963) pp72-3]”[10]

Rayograph with Sprockets

This dissociation of the artist from the act of creating the picture links back to another connection between the Bauhaus and later Computer Artforms: the democratic aspects of industrialized art production. On the one hand, a mass-produced art object was the aim of early Constructivists, especially around the time of the Russian Revolution when they worked as a design school to develop utilitarian objects appropriate to revolutionary precepts.[11] For the Bauhaus artists, instead of the creation of a unique work, the machine allowed for mass-production of objects, and could give artistic form to previously utilitarian items such as furniture or office products. This offered the hope of a truly demotic art which could be useful and decorative, and enable the general population to own works of art. To some extent (though there was no direct connection) this aim also informed such celebrated industrial design groups as the partnership of Charles and Ray Eames.

Industrial design emerged as the darling of the self-proclaimed “machine age”, and a new breed of industrial craftsmen emerged as mediators between design and the machine. Herbert Read […] stated in 1936: “The real problem [is] to think out new aesthetic standards for new methods of production.”[12]

The trend stemmed in part from artists’ desire to express or incorporate some of the mechanical power of industrial civilisation; and also to give the visual arts a scientific or mathematical basis. Another aim was that, instead of the creation of a unique work, the machine allowed for mass-production of objects, and could give artistic form to previously utilitarian items such as furniture or office products.

Moholy-Nagy’s indirect legacy to Computer Art was the idea that the technical details of an artwork could be executed remotely, allowing the artist to concentrate on its concept. Ann H. Murray, for instance, considered that “[t]he realization of the artist’s mental image can even occur without his physical involvement, or even his presence, as evidenced by reputable sculptors who send their specifications to the foundry”.[13] In this context, the computer freed the artist from a tedious task; a different overall aim to Moholy-Nagy’s “Telephone Paintings” but realised through the same mechanism. Many computer artists strive to achieve a personal style through computational processes, rather than artistic anonymity. However, the underlying assumption remains that art can be carried out in stages, with the finished piece the result of artistic vision rather than any creative effort on the computer’s part.

It might be said that although the Bauhaus artists and later designers strove to incorporate mechanical form, they did not usually succeed in making art through technology. Jane Livingston, in her article on the Art and Technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971, claimed that the Bauhaus artists aimed to reduce “art” to “craft”, in order that the productions of technology might thereby be elevated from “craft” to “art”.[14] Certainly, they were the inheritors of craft-based traditions of design; as mentioned earlier, they blurred the boundaries between applied art and fine art.

But it was not until the 1960s that an art movement with the specific goal of uniting art and technology would arise. Gyorgy Kepes, interviewed in Art in America in 1968 while he was working at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, considered there was great merit in continuing the Bauhaus’s attempt to “find an agreement across a wide spectrum of disciplines – science, engineering, art”. In this, the great advances in materials and technology since the 1920s were advantageous; Kepes mentioned electronics and the computer as prime examples. However, he cautioned against treating “the Bauhaus” as a stylistic category in itself, as it represented “a very wide spectrum of values and attitudes”. This provides a striking analogy with Computer Art.[15]

Influenced by Bauhaus ideals, Computer Art theorists such as H.W. Franke developed the idea that the computer could democratise art by automating the process of art creation, so that an infinite variety of artistic images would be generated by art programs and shown on the screen.

Franke regarded the computer in art as the culmination of artistic mechanization which had begun with musical instruments and automata.[16] He predicted its most fundamental contribution would be what he termed “the demystification of art”. With the advent of formalised and programmed mathematical art, he was sure that “all those secrets that used to enshroud art [will] vanish,” leading art away from “irrational modes of thought” and its current status as a substitute for faith.[17] Moreover, he stated four important points, of which the first two seem to have been vindicated by later developments:

  1. the unique value of the original may be open to dispute;
  2. manual fabrication by the artist may no longer be regarded as essential;
  3. the artist may lose the mystic veneration that surrounds him;
  4. scholars and art critics will be encouraged to use understandable concepts [surely not!][18]

Franke goes on to say that, since some artists desire to reach a mass audience, they will be well served by Computer Art and by the promise of widespread domestic computer networks on which people can “tune in on a large variety of aesthetic programs”. This is very prescient for 1973, though it confuses TV-style broadcasting with the more usual “narrowcasting” of the Internet. With the advent of Latham’s Organica and Cohen’s screensaver based on his AARON program, this has arguably begun to happen, though in a form Franke did not anticipate.

Although it is fashionable to deride Franke’s Modernist optimism, he was working out a train of thought that owed much to Constructivism (as he shows in his choice of artists, many of whom have Constructivist leanings) and was also a product of the visual quality of contemporary Computer Art.

These visual links between early twentieth century abstract art and Computer Art were reinforced when Michael Noll made a computer-generated homage to a 1917 Mondrian – composed entirely of horizontal and vertical black lines – and exhibited the two pieces together.[19] This was done a psychological experiment: the computer “homage” was exhibited alongside a print of the original, and viewers were asked to choose which version they preferred. A significant number preferred the computer version, thinking the original too “mechanical”. As Franke noted:

Noll’s experiment with a Mondrian painting was […] constructed of horizontal and vertical line elements, and based on its stylistic laws he produced a series of structures where the division of line elements was changed step-by-step; he then represented the entire series to a test audience. Remarkably, it was not the original but the computer picture that was adjudged to be the finest.[20]

Computer composition with lines 1964 - Michael Noll

Noll’s experiment also points to the conscious adoption of Constructivist and Abstract forms into two-dimensional Computer Art. This is a second point of contact between digital and pre-digital art. Computer artists seemingly turned to Constructivism because it was technically appropriate for the new medium, perhaps because a machine-based aesthetic seemed to demand straight-edged Constructivist forms. As Anne-Morgan Spalter says of this period:

[…] early Computer Art work has a Constructivist quality in its programmatic depiction of space within an intentionally limited vocabulary. Like Mondrian and Malevich [...] computer artists worked with the basic elements of visual spatial construction.[21]

The linear quality of early computer images enabled comparisons with previous linear abstract art forms, and this visual connection was only reinforced by the programmatic and mechanical concerns of Constructivism. However, it is difficult to decide which came first, or whether the concerns of 1960s Computer Art evolved concurrently with its visual style as a result of the technology. Jasia Reichardt, the curator of Cybernetic Serendipity, certainly believed that contemporary Computer Art was a continuation of older abstract art forms:

Computer Art is the last stance of abstract art. The development of abstract art can be divided into several clearly-defined stages. The first could be considered the discovery of the possibility of creating non-objective models in a  spirit other than that of decoration. Among the artists who belong to this particular section are Gabo, Mondrian and Kandinsky [...][22]

John Whitney went so far as to say that vector-scan images where a point dynamically develops into a line, then a surface, were anticipated by Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketch Book.[23] Indeed, computer artists of this period often acknowledged their links to Constructivism and allied art forms. Robert Mallary considered that geometric and mathematical art could be seen as an offshoot of Constructivism, which he thought “is likely to be both revitalized and broadened by this new development in art-and-technology”. Asked whether his computer works were related to his non-Computer Art, he replied “definitely”, pointing to the “formalism of Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism” This demonstrates the strong connections with abstract art perceived in particular by the first generation of computer artists in the 1960s.[24]

[1] Louis Lozowick and the Technological Optimism of the 1920s Zabel, Barbara Beth, University of Virginia PhD Dissertation, 1978, p119

[2] H.W. Franke, Computer Graphics, Computer Art, 1971.

[3] Joseph Harris Caton, The Utopian Vision of Moholy-Nagy, UMI Research Press, 1984.pp24-5

[4] Caton, op.cit., p30

[5] Quoted by Moszynska,A. Abstract Art London (1990) p93

[6] Kaplan, Louis. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Durham (1995) pp121-2

[7] Moszynska, ibid., p93

[8] Frank Dietrich, “The Computer: A Tool for Thought Experiments” Leonardo, Vol.20, No.4, p.320, 1987

[9] Caton, ibid, p29

[10] “Louis Lozowick and the Technological Optimism of the 1920s” Zabel, Barbara Beth, University of Virginia PhD Dissertation, 1978, p129

[11] Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism.

[12] McCullough, Malcolm Abstracting Craft, Cambridge, Mass. (1996), p16

[13] Ann H. Murray interviewed by Ruth Leavitt Artist and Computer 1976, pp1-3

[14] “Thoughts on Art and Technology” Jane Livingston, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967-1971 ed. Maurice Tuchman (1971, Los Angeles)

[15] From “Art & Technology – Conversations with Gyorgy Kepes”, Art in America Jan-Feb 1968

[16] Franke, ibid, p58

[17] Franke, ibid, p112

[18] H.W. Franke, “Some remarks on Visual Fine Art in the Age of Advanced Technology”, Leonardo 1973, [and in Malina’s book on mathematics and Computer Art] pp3-4

[19] Reichardt et al Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue, (London 1969)

[20] Computer Graphics, Computer Art, p113

[21] Anne Morgan Spalter, The Computer in the Visual Arts, p20.

[22] The Computer in Art Jasia Reichardt (London 1971), p94

[23] “Cranbrook Essay 1973” from Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney.

[24] Leavitt, ibid, p6