Colette Bangert on Growing Visually

With work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum and more, the acclaimed nonagenarian artist Colette Bangert spoke to Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) about a life spent observing, exploring and collaborating.
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Colette Bangert, The Look of the Land, 1966. Courtesy of the artist and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Colette Bangert on Growing Visually

With work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum and more, the acclaimed nonagenarian artist Colette Bangert spoke to Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) about a life spent observing, exploring and collaborating.

Peter Bauman: Many artists who make generative or algorithmic art stress the algorithm or system above individual outputs. Is that the case for you? Where does the art mainly—not exclusively, of course—lie in your work? Is it the system that makes the outputs or the outputs themselves?

Colette Bangert:
Jeff and I worked together. The algorithms were written by Jeff. The visual ideas came from seeing my handwork during our daily lives together since we met and married in the late 1950's, producing the plotter ink drawings on paper. And in turn, these influenced and extended my handwork. The creative code created the drawings but the drawing itself was first a drawing on paper to be seen along with all other drawings, including Durer's. The computer code was a means to an end. Of course, it is a much more complex tool than a pencil but a visual understanding of what art can become means understanding for us what a line, an interesting line, can become.

Colette and Charles Bangert, Circe: Coloured Line Study W, 1984. Courtesy of the artist and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Peter Bauman: You mention how your handwork influenced your computer work. Given that computer code was “a means to an end” for you, do you feel that the process of creating art with algorithms enhances or detracts from the personal, human touch traditionally associated with artmaking? How do you balance the creative potential of the algorithm with your own artistic intuition and sensibilities when working on a piece?

Colette Bangert:
During my collaboration with Jeff—playing with computers, code and printers to create drawings—slowly I became deeply aware of just what my handmarks were and could become.

A simple algorithmic black ink pen line could go beyond what I had seen or done. The machines and Jeff enlarged my personal abilities.

Working with me, Jeff and his programming skills also had a way to visually create meaningfully. We were all beginners, visually exploring the new medium with its complex tools. The new medium enlarged our worlds; the handwork enlarged our worlds. Reviewing in my mind all of our work's dates, I can see how the feedback developed over the decades. The hand and algorithmic work flowed gently, one into another into another, as artists working with more than one major medium experience. Extending the tools also extended the how and why and the number of people seeing the art as it slowly was put out into the world, everywhere beyond Lawrence, Kansas. The work with Jeff ended with his dementia and 2019 death. I continue my work by hand. My creative life goes onward.

Peter Bauman: It's wonderful to hear that you continue to work and I'd love to hear more about that. Please also accept my condolences for Jeff. I'd be curious to know more about your visual inspirations (historical, contemporary, natural, etc.). What do you see as an artist that you're conveying through your work? How has that evolved through the years?

Colette Bangert:
I have always been becoming an artist. Being an inner-focused, quiet female person, I grew myself visually in a sense, able to focus on each stage as it was there. Every so often, a person would show up who became that time's guide. There was Mary Huntoon, the first real woman artist I met in Topeka in 1962. Then Elden Tefft saw with me the visual future while being involved in his sculpture conferences (1968–1976) at the University of Kansas, which led to inviting [Robert] Mallary, [Ken] Knowlton, [Harold] Cohen and [John] Whitney. This also led to other conferences, including SIGGRAPH's. Even being a hands-on female artist was workable, as my collaboration expanded possibilities even though I was isolated as a result. Yet, being a loner by nature, my life and work continued to develop beyond what just I could do and what the current art scenes understood. There was always someone who understood, like Anne and Susan Lawrence with their Kansas City galleries; James Hunt at the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka; and the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas' Steve Goddard and Saralyn Hardy. In Europe, there was Herbert Franke as well as England's Paul Brown and Douglas Dodds. And now, there are ever many more. Art that I continue to look at by Toby, Burchfield, Klee and aboriginal Australians still inspires me, even as I see new art daily on the Internet.

What I've done in my 90 years is a day-by-day visual recording of what I saw and experienced here in the United States, even as I visited other countries and their art. It has been a kind of being there each day: the materials of the time, paint, colored pencils, ink, paper, canvas, cloth, thread, Jeff, many plotters, printers, computers and other people.

Yet, there was always the changing sky, seasonal ground and what I saw in between as I looked, walked, traveled and lived.

Sometimes there were other people, other art. Mostly it was just me daily seeing and creating marks on a surface, then seeing what was there and once in a while that seeing went out into the world to be seen. The work itself, over the years, I named landscape as a way to understand and show connections to the world of the trees, sky, ground, green—or not look of the land—I've seen daily, even as the world climate changes everything. It's colors, lines, forms and places daily, year by year, as I also change and grow onward.

Colette and Charles Bangert, Landscape: Black and Red, 1970. Courtesy of the artist and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Peter Bauman: You mentioned the natural, which is one of your and Jeff's great inspirations.
You've written, in one of my favorite essays on computer art, “A field has no center, and is not really flat, so I use no flat areas. The form of grass as grass, leaves as leaves, is what I’m exploring…Line as form. Grass as form. Grass is also random and random is a natural computer facility. Computer grass is natural grass.”

How did the mechanical and the computational paradoxically allow you to investigate the natural? What advantages did computers provide and how did you balance this tension between the computer and nature in your practice?

Colette Bangert:
There was and continues to be for me, a visual/body connection with the natural world, which is always there. There was also a way of visual handmark making using various mediums and materials. Through collaborating with Jeff, I extended my ways to make and understand what could be created as art, as it also gave Jeff a way to create visual art. It all seemed seamless. We liked, loved each other. He was a mathematician and skilled programmer who wanted to create art. Together, we used the new medium, which used numbers and equipment yet lacked to us visual qualities—qualities that could be programmed if asked the right questions. A line, straight or curving, is a basic part of our human visual vocabulary. My early drawings and paintings used lines, colored lines.

Computers and plotters used lines and colored ink in pens. Tiny lines could become anything. Computer coding is built from small units. Nature is built from small units. My visual work has been formed from small units.

I have used a number of mediums, often at the same time. There was no tension, rather a natural wonder, that I, my work, Jeff and his were on a shared common ground. It was our way to create what was of interest for us to see. Our world expanded to everywhere. There were some people around the world who were also beginning to create using this new medium. Newness comes and extends; however, it evolves more newness.

Visual art seems to be about seeing and creating and bringing newness into our ongoing world. 

Colette and Charles Bangert, GRASS SERIES II, 80-11-comp-f, 1980. Courtesy of the artist and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Peter Bauman: You emphasize the importance of seeing. I’m wondering what you have seen and what specific challenges you faced as a woman in your career. How have you navigated these to establish your voice?

Colette Bangert:
My personal experiences as a woman artist were natural ones. As a young introvert, I was aware of my being female and the reactions that my culture gave me. Yet being such an inner and visual hands-on person gave me a self-focus, assurance and perseverance to become a visual artist, which I was already.

The personal challenges were those every artist faces during their creative lives: where to live and with whom, studio space and materials, how to support the studio practice, where to find support and an audience for the work, and what the work itself is and will be. It was about just continuing growing as a human being who happens to be female and visually creative. Finding a loving support person in Jeff was wondrous. He and I could grow and support our own creative collaborative drawings as we lived our lives together.

It was not different being a woman artist, a computer artist, a collaborator or an American midwestern person.

Each of these challenges seemed to add to my visual work ever deeper qualities throughout my life.

When I was a young art student in a five-year BFA studio program at John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, a basic understanding I received as I looked at our visual work was that I was as good as or even better than the men students. Being, becoming an artist, meant doing art—the work itself—over and over, day after day, for a lifetime. I and the work and mediums slowly shifted and changed, as did the world's understandings.


Colette Bangert is a visual artist producing both traditional and new media work. Her computer-generated art resulted from a decades-long collaboration with her husband Charles "Jeff" Bangert.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.