Art

1960s Computer Art Pioneer Gets a Retrospective in Chelsea

Wall panel from the 1971 Manfred Mohr solo exhibition "Computer Graphics - Une Esthétique Programmée," various inks on paper, 30.51 x 110.83 (photo by the author)

The most commanding visual in Manfred Mohr: 1964- 2011, Réflexions sur une esthétique programmée at Bitforms gallery in New York isn’t one of the German digital art pioneer’s own pieces. Rather, it’s the scroll-size wall panel from Mohr’s solo show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1971.

Visitors were asked to respond to the question:

Que pensez-vous de la recherche esthétique faite à l’aide d’un ordinateur? (“What do you think of aesthetic research done with the aid of a computer?”)

The mess of scrawled responses, looking like a manic Cy Twombly, ranges from thoughtful comments like “Il y a forcement un homme derrière une machine” (“There is necessarily a man behind a machine”) to written cries of “FROID” (COLD) or a contrarian “CHAUD” (hot).

Installation view at bitforms gallery (Image courtesy bitforms gallery nyc)

That’s not to say that the rest of the work is dull, just that it lacks that visceral punch of the wall panel. But in a simple way, that’s the point. Manfred Mohr is known for being one of the first artists to use the computer to guide and transmit art, and his 1971 solo show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris was the first museum exhibit to be entirely composed of works calculated and created by a digital computer. The wall panel is a human shout in a gallery full of machine-guided art, where cubes steadily form and close and calculation replaces impulse.

Installation view at bitforms gallery (Image courtesy bitforms gallery nyc)

While the exhibit centers and reflects on that 1971 solo show, it is a comprehensive retrospective, if on first glance a difficult one to arrange chronologically. Plotter ink drawings from 1976 descend from one corner, while laser-cut steel glyphs from 1993 frolic over another wall. Most of the work is surprisingly animated, apart from some rather stark pieces that center on the late 1960s. There are also a couple of LCD screen pieces from 2010 that seem too sterile and somber, but they weren’t on when I went by the gallery,  so they might have some life in person. Yet in the majority of the work, the vigorous movement of the plotter or Mohr’s own hand guided by the computer is evident. Just as that observant viewer wrote on the wall panel, there is a man present behind the machine.

Photos and invitation card from the 1971 opening at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (photo by the author)
Manfred Mohr, "P-021" (1970-83), plotter drawing ink on paper, 19.75 x 19.75 (Image courtesy Bitforms gallery)

Once oriented to the show with a chronological compass, the progress of repetition and digital experimentation is more clear. At the 1971 solo show, Mohr demonstrated his plotter art, which drew lines and diagrams with mechanical arms. Starting as an abstract expressionist and also spending time as a jazz musician, Mohr’s plotter drawings have an improvised feel even in their strict geometry. I could imagine them as sheet music for robots.

Manfred Mohr, "Schrift-Bild" (1964), tempera on canvas and wood, 25.2 x 1.4 x 17.9 (Image courtesy Bitforms gallery)

There is a mechanical echo of the wall panel in “Schrift-Bild,” an earlier piece from 1964 when Mohr was just discovering the writings of Max Bense, a German philosopher who wrote on information aesthetics and greatly influenced Mohr’s algorithmic curiosity. Mohr went on to write in the FORTRAN programming language used for the plotter drawings, where the work became stricter and cubes and hypercubes emerged from the lines. More recent art is dominated by layered shapes, stepping backwards in time they burst apart, seismographs of angles left in their place.

Manfred Mohr, "P-159, Sewing A" (1974), plotter drawing and sewing, 13.75 x 16.5 (Image courtesy bitforms gallery nyc)

Digital art is hardly rare now, and a wall panel erected in the digital interaction-minded Talk to Me exhibit currently at the MoMA would likely elicit similar responses as back  in 1971. The work in the show at bitforms seems to pull close and then away from the coldness of the machine, brushing against the supposed artistic frigidness of guidelines and algorithms. Yet Mohr always has been able to keep visible that man behind the machine, a pulse in the processing.

Manfred Mohr: 1964- 2011, Réflexions sur une esthétique programmée will be on view at Bitforms gallery (529 West 20th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 15, 2011.

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