Booting Up Computer Art

In the 1960s, curious computer scientists transformed computers into art machines.

Aram Bartholl, "Map," 2013. Credit: Aram Bartholl/
Aram Bartholl, “Map,” 2013. Credit: Aram Bartholl/

In 2013, the artist Aram Bartholl installed a massive, red upside-down teardrop in Kassel, Germany. It was designed to look like a pin from Google Maps.

While Google Maps is a digital representation of the physical world, Bartholl’s giant “pin” was the opposite—a physical representation of the digital world. It smuggled a pixelated, clickable symbol into real life, as if to remind us just how much computers and the Internet shape our everyday experience.

In recent years, works that reference computers or digital culture, like Map, have caught on in the art world, appearing in major venues like the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York. What today’s museumgoers might not realize, however, is that art and computers have a decades-long history together, dating back to the 1960s. That’s when “computer art”—art made by computers—first emerged, long before the invention of the Internet or the first personal computer.

The first computers were largely functional machines, reserved for specialists in military or university laboratories. In the 1960s, a single computer cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and could weigh a metric ton. Most had no screen and read programs from punch cards. As these hefty machines gradually became more common in labs, curious computer scientists tried using them to make art, embarking on experiments that presented a challenge to more traditional art.

The ZUSE Graphomat Z64 drawing machine in 1964. Credit: Robert Rohrbach
The ZUSE Graphomat Z64 drawing machine in 1964. Credit: Robert Rohrbach

One of those computer scientists was Frieder Nake, who in 1963 was studying mathematics in Stuttgart, Germany. “I was working as a student assistant for the computing center,” he says. “The lucky situation was that the boss of the computing center one day came to me. He said: ‘We’re buying a drawing machine.’”

The machine was a ZUSE Graphomat Z64, designed to help engineers sketch plans. (Its manufacturer, Zuse KG, had been founded by Konrad Zuse, who built one of the first modern computers during World War II.) The problem was, the Z64 didn’t come with any software—someone needed to program it from scratch. Nake’s boss asked him if he could do it. “This short moment changed my life,” says Nake. In learning to program the Z64, he started to grasp the creative capabilities of computers—and thus began a long career as a computer artist and academic.

Frieder Nake, 13/9/65 Nr. 2, 1965 (also known as Homage to Paul Klee). Credit: Digital Art Museum, Berlin
Frieder Nake, 13/9/65 Nr. 2, 1965 (also known as Homage to Paul Klee). Credit: Digital Art Museum, Berlin

Nake wasn’t the only one curious about what early computers could do. Around the same time, a handful of other scientists were experimenting with artistic applications for computer algorithms. Two Americans at Bell Labs, for instance, created a female nude out of computer characters such as multiplication and division symbols (see Studies in Perception, below).

At the time, creating even a simple computerized image wasn’t easy. First a programmer had to feed the instructions and equations that would result in the desired image into a computer. (This was done using punch cards.) Only after the computer finished crunching the numbers could it be hooked up to a plotter—like Nake’s ZUSE Graphomat—which would then draw the image. Programmers inserted drafting pens that the machine controlled along an x-y axis, sort of like a computerized Etch-a-Sketch.

Frieder Nake, "13/9/65 Nr. 2", 1965 (also known as "Homage to Paul Klee"). Credit: Digital Art Museum, Berlin
Frieder Nake, “13/9/65 Nr. 2,” 1965 (also known as “Homage to Paul Klee”). Credit: Digital Art Museum, Berlin

Early computers came with technological limitations, but they excelled in other areas. Where an artist working by hand might labor over geometric shapes, a computer could render them with unprecedented precision. An algorithm, meanwhile, could adopt certain aesthetics of earlier abstract art—for example, the repetition of squares and lines found in De Stijl art—and generate endless variations on it. “[Earliest computer art] is art done by brain and not by hand,” Nake reflected later, in a 2010 paper. “It liberates the artist from the limits of handicraft skills.”

Early computer art came into conflict with art created in more traditional ways, however. By the mid-1960s, computer-generated images were appearing in European and American galleries, but many art critics were skeptical that machines could fabricate what they considered true pieces of art. Works presented in 1965 at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York were “cold and soulless,” according to the New York Herald Tribune, and as beautiful as “the notch pattern found on IBM [punch] cards,” according to TIME magazine.

Many computer artists tried to defy existing assumptions about art, including the idea that viewers preferred handcrafted paintings. For example, the American computer scientist and computer artist A. Michael Noll staged the equivalent of a blind taste test for modern art in 1966: He asked 100 people to examine Composition With Lines, a 1917 painting by Piet Mondrian, alongside a computer-generated scattering of black-and-white bars that was programmed to look similar (see below). Fifty-nine people preferred the computer image, and only 28 correctly identified the Mondrian. (The fact that Noll tried to empirically study the enjoyment of art may say as much about his philosophy as the images he created.)

Noll’s experiment didn’t prove that Mondrian’s painting was meritless, of course, or even that computers had real artistic potential. But it did suggest that computer art could find an audience. In fact, despite negative reviews, “there was some hype about [computer art],” too, says Wolf Lieser, owner of the DAM gallery in Berlin, which represents Aram Bartholl. “It was trendy to have something modern, or connected to technology.” In 1968, for instance, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London hosted the first large computer art exhibition.

Mondrian's "Composition With Lines" is on the right. Noll's computer-generated image is on the left. Credit: A. Michael Noll, The Psychological Record
Mondrian’s “Composition With Lines” is on the right. Noll’s computer-generated image is on the left. Credit: A. Michael Noll, The Psychological Record

Computer art made enough of a stir that even a handful of artists-by-training, like Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnar, gave up lithography and painting to take up computer programming. In an artist’s statement (referenced in the journal LEONARDO), Molnar suggested that computers had vast artistic potential, even to “produce combinations of forms never seen before, in nature or in museums, to create unimaginable images.”

But in spite of the optimism of 1960s computer artists, the field struggled to stay relevant in later decades. As technology advanced and computers grew more familiar, they started to lose their mystique. Critics described computer art as unimaginative or mechanical, as if “there was no creative mind behind it,” says Lieser. “It was not really considered a very artistic medium, or a medium which was really opening new frontiers for art,” he says.

In the past few years, however, another trend has emerged. While the first generation of computer artists such as Noll and Nake explored the possibility of using computers as tools to create art, a new generation—including artists such as Aram Bartholl—is exploring the sheer ubiquity of computing, and the digital culture it has created.

Many of today’s computer artists—both those who make art using computers, and those whose art reflects digital life—consider early innovators like Molnar, Mohr, and Nake to be a starting point for their work. Museums are likewise showing an appreciation for the art form’s early practitioners. “Larger museums have started to recognize this field [computer art] as an important field, and have started to collect, started to buy work of early pioneers,” says Lieser.

In the 1960s, computers were a novelty that much of the art world resisted. Today, they’re ubiquitous, and it seems only natural that contemporary artists explore their influence. Maybe that’s one reason that the term “computer art” doesn’t come up very often anymore. These days, we just call it art.


*This story was updated on April 9, 2015, to reflect the following changes: Wolf Lieser is the owner of the DAM Gallery in Berlin, which represents Aram Bartholl. (An earlier version stated that Lieser is the curator of the Digital Art Museum in Berlin, which represents Aram Bartholl.) Also, we have removed the last picture, which was incorrectly identified as Cubic Limit Series (1973), by Manfred Mohr. It was actually titled Schotter (Gravel) (1968-1970) and was created by Georg Nees.

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About Daniel A. Gross

Daniel A. Gross is a writer and public radio producer based in Boston.