LOS ANGELES — New technologies enable artists to depict hitherto-inaccessible forms; old ones afford the control necessary to realize an artistic vision. An exhibition of early computer art, Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) shows that artists working with early-stage technologies make their best work by combining new techniques with older ones (painting, drawing, filmmaking).

Days after seeing Coded, a few works continue to fill my mind when I close my eyes: drawings by Desmond Paul Henry and Harold Cohen and a film by John Whitney, Sr. These works exemplify the synthesis of old and new methods.

Henry created the delicate curves of his drawings using an analogue computer that had calculated bomb trajectories during World War II. Working by hand, he filled the in-between spaces with marker. The computer-generated curves are novel, but it is Henry’s hand-drawn biomorphic additions in black and orange marker that make the memory of the images linger.

Whitney, an animator, worked with an IBM programmer to generate sequences of abstract patterns. After recording the patterns on 16mm film, he was able to manipulate them using his familiar darkroom and editing bench. A tabla soundtrack gives the film a shimmering, hypnotic rhythm. (The tabla, an Indian percussion instrument made of skin and wood and played with bare hands, is another example of a centuries-old technology.)

Cohen, a painter, wrote a computer program to draw closed shapes. After transferring these shapes to paper using a plotter, he filled them in with colored pencil. The computer’s shapes feel like what a newborn experiencing vision for the first time might draw: no houses with pointed roofs and no stick-figure people, just lines for their own sake. Against the precision of the computer’s steady lines, Cohen’s color choices are delightfully funky.

The pieces by Henry, Whitney, and Cohen stand out partly because so many of the computer-derived works in Coded are self-involved and joyless, more impressive as demonstrations of technical skill than as art. (This is less true of the works about computers by artists working in traditional media, like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s picture of NASA engineers relaxing and Boris Artzybasheff’s satirical illustration for the cover of TIME.) Yet the strangest part of Coded is the amount of space dedicated to material that has nothing at all to do with computers. Works by well-known postwar artists (Hans Haacke, Donald Judd, Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, Lawrence Weiner) offer a superfluous sampling of the period’s artistic mainstream. 

Exceptions among mainstream selections are Eduardo Paolozzi’s colorful prints incorporating circuit board and fractal patterns, and Sol LeWitt’s “Incomplete Open Cubes” (1974/1982), which fits perfectly with Manfred Mohr’s computational exploration of the same subject, a wireframe cube with varying numbers of edges removed.

Today, the novelty and sense of possibility that once attended computers has passed on to neural networks. During the 2010s, the best neural network-derived art came from artists who combined the new technology with traditional techniques, like Jake Elwes, who stages human and neural network-generated drag queens together; Helena Sarin, who trains neural networks to mimic her own paintings; and Shinseungback Kimyonghun, a duo who challenge painters to make portraits that neural networks cannot recognize as faces. These works are poignant, funny, and memorable because of the way the artists express their own perspectives through the technology.

During the past two years, as neural networks have become dramatically more powerful and easier to use, a wave of automatically generated images and text has swept across the internet. If Coded is any guide, the most moving, satisfying, and enduring art to result from this latest technology will come not from autonomous art-making machines, but from human artists painstakingly synthesizing old and new.

Desmond Paul Henry, “Untitled” (1962), mechanical drawing in green, blue, red, black, and orange Biro ballpoint inks on white card, hand embellished with blue duplicator ink and black and orange marker pen inks, 14 1/8 x 10 1/4 inches (collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)
Henri Cartier-Bresson, “JFK Space Center” (1967), gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches
Cover of TIME, April 2, 1965, featuring an illustration by Boris Artzybasheff

Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982 continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) through July 2. The exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and curated by Leslie Jones, curator, Prints and Drawings.

Justin Manley is a writer and software engineer living in London. His fiction and criticism explore the limits of spatial and optical perception and the interactions between technology and culture. You...