Exploring Early Computer Art, 1950-1980

Mark Wilson, “Untitled Gray Ground & Untitled Light Gray Ground” (1973) (click to enlarge)

Personal computing may have begun in the 1980s but the history of computer art started much earlier during a period when only a few visionaries sensed the impact computers were going to have on our lives.

The Slovakia-based Translab has a good online archive of early computer art from names that aren’t widely known but were important for their early work with computers. These works date from the third quarter of the 20th C. and reveal a parallel history of electronic experimentation that doesn’t have much relation to commonly known art history.

For further reading on the topic, Wikipedia’s page on the topic is very helpful. One fact in particular jumped out at me, namely that most of the creators of early computer art were engineers and scientists — and not “artists” — who had access to university computing facilities.

According to the Translab page, the two major centers of computer art during this early period were The Murray Hill lab, Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, US (now AT&T), and Technische Universitat Stuttgart, Germany (Max Bense).

According to Wikipedia:

The first two exhibitions of computer art were held in 1965 – Computer-Generated Pictures, April 1965, at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, and Generative Computergrafik, February 1965, at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart, Germany. The Stuttgart exhibit featured work by Georg Nees; the New York exhibit featured work by Bela Julesz and A. Michael Noll. Note the names of these expositions, not mentioning the word ‘art,’ because these ‘generated pictures’ were not yet seen as such.

A. Michael Noll, “Four Computer-Generated Random Patterns Based on the Composition Criteria Of Mondrian's Composition With Lines” (1964) (click to enlarge)

I don’t know much about the Stuttgart space mentioned above but I can say that I’m not surprised that the Howard Wise Gallery was the venue for the one of the earliest computer art shows. During its short existence in New York (1960–71), the Wise Gallery was home to many firsts in electronic and digital art. Owner Howard Wise’s New York Times obituary mentions he was, “an art patron and a former dealer who gave important early support to the technology in art movement in the United States” and that his gallery exhibited “the first survey in the United States of contemporary kinetic art” and three years later he showed “the first comprehensive survey in this country of kinetic light art.” As if that wasn’t enough, Wise also organized the first exhibition of video art in 1969, TV as a Creative Medium, and “two years later he founded Electronic Arts Intermix, a nonprofit organization that distributes artists’ videotapes and provides editing and post-production facilities for independent videomakers … which became a model for other arts support groups in New York and elsewhere.”

While some of these early computer art projects look more like experiments than finished projects, I would love to see a comprehensive exhibition of this period that could give us a critical assessment of the success and/or failure of these projects.

Hat tip @DesignObserver via @kirstenbutler

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