Modern digital abstract art, specifically generative digital art, has been something that has interested me while I have studied at SCAD. I am more of a designer than an artist by trade, but personally I prefer to be inspired by traditional artists instead of designers. I find that when being inspired by designers, it’s very easy to want to mimic or reproduce aspects of their work instead of being inspired and using that inspiration as part of your work. I have been inspired by the following traditional artists specifically because their work reflects a generative form. Their work, either internally or externally, shows generative systems that are illustrated in their work.
Modern abstract art is often a reflection of the abstract art that was prominent in the 1950’s to the 1970’s. It started when de Kooning created his “action painting”1 methods in his paintings and when Pollock started throwing drips of paint down on the floor. These artists helped lay the foundation for modern digital art within the Abstract Expressionist movement. Later, Sol LeWitt’s geometric wall paintings, which were a response to the early Abstract Expressionists, brought structure and systems to abstract art. While de Kooning and Pollock implied generative systems in their work, LeWitt’s geometric art laid the foundations for generative art through the use of structure, repetition, geometry, and an autonomous system.
In recent years, the creation of abstract art through the use of computer computation has become a popular context for digital artists. The difference between the early abstract geometric painters, like Sol LeWitt, is that they used a manual process, while the digital abstract artists of today use automated computer systems. One such artist is Scott Draves, who uses computer algorithms and distributed network systems to create abstract generative art. Draves uses computer algorithms and data to create abstract pieces that also do not have a natural form but they have a defined system. His process is a generative one, where the art creates itself through the autonomous system the artist has to setup beforehand.
The works of Pollock, de Kooning, LeWitt, and Draves varies greatly but similarities exist when evaluating their process within the visuals they created. These artists use different tools and processes in their exploration of abstract art, yet their creations are similar in how their work reveals systems which the artist used to bring them to life.
William de Kooning struggled with this painting for over a year and a half and the end result also looks like it is in an unfinished state.5 de Kooning struggled to finish this painting which can be seen through the mixing of layers of aggressive paint strokes, scrapes, and sanding.5 The result gives the impression that the painting has generative form. Women I looks like it is being born through itself with the help of the artist’s hand. Kooning’s action painting may not have been fully autonomous and Kooning remained in control of it, however it was an organic process that Kooning gave into and let the painting come to life through the layers of paint.
Jackon Pollock, a contemporary and friend of de Kooning, painted One: Number 31 in 1950. Previously, Pollock painted more traditional abstract works with brush strokes and easels. Looking at Pollock’s work from 1950 to his death in 1956, there is a sense of rhythm and motion in his paintings. In One: Number 31, splatters of black, white, and green paint can been seen as series of lines and curves. Each throw of the paint is a unique element in itself, however viewed in sections or as a whole, shapes and groups start to appear because of how the individual elements dance around each other.
In 1950 an Italian critic wrote, “It is easy to detect the following things in all of his paintings: Chaos. Absolute lack of harmony. Complete lack of structural organization. Total absence of technique, however rudimentary”.7 Pollock denied this and said he was in complete control of his paintings. One: Number 31, shows that harmony can be born out of chaos. While Pollocks drips appear random and chaotic at first, a system of rhythmic motions takes form to show that a structure can exist as a whole. This structure may be organic and not geometrically sound, but the work shows a system that builds on itself because of the work of an artist with an autonomous method.
Sol LeWitt was an artist who cared more about the mind of the artist rather than the hand of the artist.11 Like his predecessors, Pollock and de Kooning, he decided to depart from the focus on the figure and embraced an abstract style void of natural form. However, starting in the 1970’s, Sol LeWitt’s work gained notoriety with his focus on minimalism through the use of geometric arrangements with color and line. 8
LeWitt first creates his paintings in his mind. Very often he would never paint the paintings himself.10 Richard Lacayo wrote his method was “to devise a set of instructions–for instance, draw 10,000 ten-inch lines, covering the wall evenly–that could be carried out by assistants”.10 For LeWitt, his mind was the computer he created his real art in. The artifact of that process was created later on by his autonomous system of assistants.
Scott Draves is not your typical artist like Pollock, de Kooning, or Lewitt who studied at an art school. He is a computer engineer from Google with a PhD from Carnegie Mellon.12 His brush is not made of wood but instead it’s a computer. His paint is not acrylic but instead it’s code and algorithms. His methods and tools may be different from the traditional artists but his work is an example of current movement and the next generation of Postmodern digital art.
Drave’s Electric Sheep is a distributed computer system that generates abstract geometric art through the use of mathematics.13 This system is a form of artificial life in how the art reproduces itself based on the interaction of hundreds of thousands of people on the internet. 13 Everyone who uses the Electric Sheep software participates in the process of creating the art. When a single image is generated on the viewer’s computer, it is based on millions of variables coming from the distributed computer network. After the image is created, it is sent back to the network so that other images can be generated with the variables from this new image. 12
The foundation for Drave’s process is algorithms that create abstract digital illustrations. Like Sol LeWitt, Drave’s art is first created in his mind, but instead of assistants creating the final artwork, tens of thousands of computers in a connected network work together to create unique illustrations. Also, there are geometric similarities between the images that come from Drave’s system and LeWitts, but it’s more interesting seeing the similarities between the automatic brush strokes of de Kooning and Pollock.
Generative art is about the process or system in which the art is created.14 To give an example, Andrew Marantz wrote, “A wind chime: Its maker chooses the tones, but the wind controls the melody”.14 Abstract art, specifically Postmodern Abstract Expressionist, is art that is born out of the inner processes within the artist and manifested in a dynamic way.15 The journey from abstract art to generative art is not a direct one, however the path started with the artists who let their inner processes direct them.
Generative art is about systems and processes.14 Early Abstract Expressionists used their inner systems and organic processes to create their art. Later, geometric abstract artists used mathematical but manual procedures to create art first in the mind and then later on the canvas. Today’s digital artists are continuing with this trend to use generative processes to create abstract art, but instead of paint and canvas, digital artists use algorithms and computers to create their abstract images. Like LeWitt, for today’s digital artists, the art is created in the mind.11