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Old-School Generative Artists: Celebrating the OGs

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Aug 3, 2023

Tyler Hobbs (Fidenza), Erick “Snowfro” Calderon (Chromie Squiggle) – we’ve talked about some of today’s most influential generative artists, who used NFT technology to advance the Generative Art movement.

Today, let’s look at some of the pioneers who first thought of using a computer to create art: the true old-school OGs of Computer and Generative Art who made today’s digital art scene possible.

Georg Nees (1926 – 2016)

Georg Nees was a German mathematician. He worked at Siemens Schuckertwerke in Erlangen for many years. 

Georg Nees, 1986, photograph by Alex Kempkens under CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1963, he procured a flatbed plotter for his department at Siemens, which allowed him to create some of the earliest computer-generated works of art. He later described the machine as the “temptation” that led him to create something “useless” rather than technical. 

Flatbed drawing machine ZUSE Z64, photograph by Tomasz Sienicki under CC BY 3.0

His work was inspired by the philosophy of his doctoral advisor, Max Bense, which led him to develop an interest in combining art and mathematics and explore the possibilities of using computers for artistic expression. 

In 1965, Nees showcased his art at the "Computer Graphics" exhibition held at the University of Stuttgart, becoming the first artist to display his computer-generated art in an art gallery. 

Nees got his Ph.D. with his thesis on Generative Computer Graphics, considered one of the first theses on that subject.

Nees didn’t just break ground in computer generative and non-generative 2D art. He explored using computers in sculpture, generative design, and architecture.

Frieder Nake (b. 1938)

Frieder Nake is a German mathematician, computer scientist, and Professor. 

Frieder Nake, 2012, photograph by Matthias Müller-Prove under CC BY-SA 4.0

When he was still a student at the University of Stuttgart’s Computing Center, he was approached by one of his Professors, Walter Knödel, who asked him to develop software for the University’s new drawing machine. His subsequent experiments with the plotter allowed him to explore computer art.

A Konrad Zuse Z64 Graphomat plotter, the model that Nake used for his work in the 1960s, by Steve Parker under CC BY 2.0

His work was displayed alongside Georg Nees’s just a few months after Nees’s first-of-its-kind computer art exhibition. Like Nees’s, Nake’s work was influenced by Max Bense - which, considering the two contemporaries’ similar geographic locations and areas of expertise, isn’t too surprising.

Besides being a pioneer of Computer and Generative Art, Nake has taken an important role in studying its theory and history. In 1974 he wrote Ästhetik als Informationsverarbeitung, one of the first books to study the relationship between aesthetics, computing, and information theory. In 1999, he started "compArt: a space for computer art,” a project dedicated to documenting the early history of computer art.

Prolific and tireless both as an academic writer and artist, Nake has continued to produce a large body of work. His art has been displayed in galleries worldwide. Even at the age of 84, Nake remains active both as a Professor and artist. Just last year, he ventured into the blockchain, creating his first NFT collection, "Homage to Gerhard Richter."

Vera Molnár (b. 1924)

Portrait de Vera Molnár, by Pantalaskas under CC BY-SA 3.0

Vera Molnár was born in Hungary but moved to France, where she still lives, soon after her studies. She studied Aesthetics and Art History at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. 

Molnár is the only pioneer in our (non-exhaustive) list who was a career artist originally. Her work then led her to experiment with algorithms and computers. As we’ve seen with Nees and Nake, the others followed the reverse order.

In 1959, nearly a decade before having the opportunity to use a computer, Molnár devised her "Machine Imaginaire," a system of chance-driven combinatorial mathematics she used to create a series of abstract geometric drawings.

In 1968 Vera Molnár finally had access to a computer at a Sorbonne research lab. She learned Fortran and BASIC so she could experiment freely. Using (non-imaginary) computers allowed her to experiment much faster, accelerating her creative process – especially when the advent of computers with screens in 1974 allowed her to examine the results of her code right away and modify them as she wished before deciding to print.

Interruptions à recouvrements” from 1969, by Vera Molnár under CC0 1.0

Like Frieder Nake, Molnár created her first NFT last year, at 98 years old. Turning 99 this year doesn’t appear to have slowed her down, either: her new NFT collection, “Themes and Variations” – made in collaboration with Martin Grasser – minted (and promptly sold out) on Sotheby‘s Metaverse just last week!

A. Michael Noll (b. 1939)

Michael Noll is an American engineer and researcher. He worked as a researcher at Bell Labs for fifteen years, where he was able to use a digital computer to create art.

Noll made his first computer art program in the Summer of 1962, creating one of the first computer-generated works of art.

In 1965 his work was exhibited alongside Béla Julesz’s at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York.

Noll has an extremely diverse body of work, with numerous publications and patents. Besides computer art, Noll was one of the pioneers in the creation of stereoscopic computer-animated movies of four-dimensional hyper-objects and computer animations for TV and film. He also created a precursor to today’s virtual reality systems, the “Tactile Man-Machine Communications System.”

Noll is now retired, enjoying some well-earned rest from his fascinating career as a tech researcher, university professor, science advisor at the White House, artist, and more.

Final Thoughts

Despite the limitations of early computer technology, these artists demonstrated the potential for computers as a creative tool. They pushed the boundaries between computing and imagination – and the hardware of those poor old computers – to the limit. 

They changed what we consider art and, in doing so, opened the door to a new world of creative expression.

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