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Harold Cohen

British
(1928–2016)

Before Utah
circa 1971

Aaron computer software program
in. (cm)
Gift of David and Terry Peak
2012.8

Harold Cohen’s early career as an abstract painter might seem an odd beginning for someone who developed into one of the pioneers of computer art. Yet, as Before Utah demonstrates, there are some deep and recognizable connections between abstraction in painting and the abstraction of this computer-generated piece. Before Utah consists of a video screen, upon which plays a series of amorphous shapes and lines that are constantly shifting and changing, making literal the movement implied by action painting. The evolving image, constantly making and remaking itself, is a picture of randomness made visible through outline, shape, and color, with lines differing in thickness and length, frequently forming abstract shapes filled in with digital tints.

This work is the result of a computer program invented by Cohen, AARON, the first one ever developed for the sole purpose of generating painterly imagery. Far from rejecting the principles of abstraction, Cohen’s intention was to program those very qualities into the algorithm in order to mirror abstraction’s cognitive processes. Once he set the program running, Cohen removed himself from the operation altogether. Does this mean that AARON was the artist? If we allow that possibility, then it surely calls into question our most deeply held and profound assumptions about art as the product of human consciousness. Cohen himself asked: “What are the minimum conditions under which a set of marks function as an image? If what AARON is making is not art, what is it exactly, and in what ways, other than its origin, does it differ from the ‘real thing’? If it is not thinking, what exactly is it doing?”

David Wall


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