Drawing with Code

Anne and Michael Spalter are major collectors in the fringe world of computer-generated art. They are not globe-trotting art-investors hoping for a return from their investment, instead their collection is a meaningful array of their personal interests.

The Spalters have dug deep through an international network of digital artists whose output are often works-on-paper. Depending on their age these works are either photograms, plotter drawings, or inkjet prints. The two exceptions are noteworthy, the silkscreened artists’ portfolios Art Ex-Machina, published by Gilles Gheerbrant in Montreal in 1972, and Artiste et Ordinateur, which was also an exhibition of the same name at the Swedish Cultural Center in Paris in 1979. The positives for each silkscreen were plotter drawings, which evidently make wonderful positives as the resulting silkscreens look amazing.

Jean-Pierre Hébert, Untitled, 2001, plotter drawing, ink on paper,  21 1/4 x 21 ½ inches.

Roman Verostko, Untitled, 1990, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 31 3/4″ x 43 1/4”, framed.

Drawing with Code, which recently ended at the DeCordova museum, centers on a keystone of their collection: the history of the alrgorists. The algorists were artists who wrote their own algorithms for computers, borrowing time on expensive mainframes at night before computers became ubiquitous. They produced art with technology that was not, and probably still isn’t, considered normal art making tools. While getting her MFA from RISD, Anne Spalter lied to her reviewers that one of her prints was an etching. She revealed afterwards that she had actually forced BFK through a laser printer, which did not make her any new friends. She had learned this defensive mechanism after having visiting artists refuse to view her work, never mind discuss it. Manfred Mohr tells a story of having an egg thrown at him while lecturing in Paris, as the computer was a war machine and had no place in an art context. After applying numerous times, Mark Wilson “forgot” to mention that his work was computer-generated the same year he was finally awarded an NEA grant.


Drawing with code is an apt title, as every artist in the exhibition is using some form of mathematical language to create these images. The two earliest works are from Ben Laposky. They are photograms (he called them oscilions) capturing an oscilloscope’s visual display. Laposky used photo-film to trap the electrical motion of the lights on the display as a form of abstract art. These are the only images from before digital computing in the show, but are not the only photograms. There is also Stan VanDerBeek‘s videos Poemfield 1-4, which were optically output onto film stock in 1966. There was no way to print the images onto film, so they had to be recorded off of a monitor.

Ben F. Laposky, Electronic Abstraction 4, 1954-1956, oscilliscope, high speed film, photo paper, 16.5 x 13 inches.

Most work from the pen plotter era is orthogonal or at least linear in nature. Most of the artists had to find a way to engage that issue and keep their work aligned with their artistic goals. Vera Molnar moved from producing intricate line drawings by hand to printing them as it saved her time. Her work, which is like a vibrating living grid of Sol LeWitt cube sculptures, was expanded and diversified by engaging with the computer. The computer allowed her to be freed from the unvaried task of drawing squares, one after the other, across larger and larger spans of paper. The mechanical pen, attached to a plotter increased the number of compositions she was able to produce in a given year without changing the sensibilities found in her work.

Vera Molnar, Untitled, 1971-1974, plotter drawing, ink on paper, Computer: IBM; Plotter: Benson, 40 1/2″ x 40” framed.

Jean-Pierre Hebert‘s work looks like fluid, loosely woven silk fabrics. The hard, unavoidable line becomes a woven soft fabric on the paper. He originally produced his works by hand like Molnar, and still does. He has produced pulp paper versions of his drawings and even more radically, created drawing machines that leave the line in sand. The type of work he produces is not based on what medium it is produced in, but is defined by the process that he uses to pinpoint the next image. Recording and finishing his image is the part that runs itself. Deciding on the image is the hard part.

Roman Verostko was trained and lived as a Benedictine monk after his undergrad education at art school. His symmetric plotter drawings can reach up to human scale. He has exhibited extensively and specializes in colorful abstractions filled with religious messages that I don’t think could offend the most staunch atheist. Besides quoting multiple religious sources, he also pulls from scientific texts. He encodes the quotes in a new language that offers up a visualization of our calligraphy that expands on what handwriting can be. It may be more precise to say that his work considers our inability to convey profound truths with words instead of quoting scripture.

Hiroshi Kawano, Untitled, 1972, serigraph, from the Art Ex Machina portfolio 197/200, silkscreen after plotter drawing, 15 x 21 inches.

In Mark Wilson’s career, he has painted, used plotters, and eventually started using the Iris, epson, and other inkjet printers. I asked Wilson about his experiences with the plotter and his transition to the inkjet. Listening to him talk about the changes in early digital prints is just like nerding-out over the different technical possibilities for hand-pulled prints. From early slow plotters to the bottomless plotters that are capable of covering any surface you put it over with whatever image you program in. The plotter artists made up the rules as they went along. Verostko even hacked his plotter to use sumi ink brushes.

Manfred Mohr, p-300b, 1980, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 27 ½ x 27 ½ inches.

Wilson’s images started with paintings of what could be called landscapes. They look like computer chip architecture. His more recent works are just as geometric, but now, like computer chips, they’ve only gotten more intensely intricate. The arcs and ribbons of overlapping transparent inks force your eyes to focus on smaller and smaller details, until you can’t take it any longer, and you pan back, to see the entire image.

Drawing with Code is a narrative of how technology slides into art. We all know that at one point hand pulled prints (of any style) were the contemporary technology of the day. As time glides forward, each cutting edge scientific advancement becomes passé and eventually becomes inexpensive enough for artists to mess around with. The main difference from that history, is that these artists were producing studio works with current technologies. Instead of waiting for these working methods to be partially forgotten and become anachronistic oddities, they were misemploying the tools of industry to make better pictures.

They don’t seem lush to us yet. Their surface seems rough and ugly compared to our soft impressions on handmade artist grade papers. Plus they can’t be prints as they don’t have a matrix that I can hold in my hand. Inspecting their surface misses the point though, judge these artworks for the content of their character. These artists have dissected complex themes and conditions; they’ve asked big questions. Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of the Media Lab has put it this way, 25 years ago we were embarking on a “digital revolution — a revolution that is now over. We are a digital culture.”

Frieder Nake, Untitled, 1972, serigraph, from the Art Ex Machina portfolio 197/200, silkscreen after plotter drawing, 21 x 15 inches.

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Categories: Exhibitions, Reviews

4 Responses to “Drawing with Code”

  1. steven says:

    Great story…what is the source of this article?

  2. Jason Urban says:

    John Pyper wrote this review for Printeresting.

  3. Anne Spalter says:

    Dear John,

    Thanks for this thoughtful review! I loved the writeups on the individual artists. Glad you enjoyed the show!


  4. in 2008, Mary & Leigh Block Museum has installed an exhibition “Imaging by Number: A Historical View of the Computer Print” curated by Block Museum senior curator Debora Wood and artist Paul Hertz. the exhibition traced history of computer prints and was accompanied by a great catalog. some of the images from the exhibition are posted on http://www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/exhibitions/past/imaging.html