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Mona Lisa to monogrid

How did we transition from art that looks like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to art like Kim Asendorf’s monogrid? Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) investigates the history of art's mechanization to contemplate the future of digital generativity.
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Left: Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503-1506. Right: Kim Asendorf, monogrid (Detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist


Mona Lisa to monogrid

How did we transition from art in the style and form of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa to art like Kim Asendorf’s monogrid? Mona Lisa is a singular, static and complete work produced with paint on a canvas, while monogrids are iterative, animated and real-time manipulations of pixels on a screen. The short answer to explain this transition is the mechanization of art, beginning in earnest around two hundred years ago with the invention of the camera. The longer answer, laid out below, recognizes that this shift did not occur easily or rapidly. Below is an overview of the ways artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Vera Molnár and Tyler Hobbs have combined art and machines to broaden the definitions of both, considering first "Art and Machines," then "Art Machines," and lastly "Coded Art Machines." The longer answer also gives space to contemplate what this previous change can tell us about where we are in generative art and where we may be headed.

Painting has not always been seen as the ultimate form of art. In the year 1400, it was unclear which art form would dominate moving forward. The most likely answer at that time was sculpture, where painting largely played a subordinate, preparatory role on altarpiece shutters. The sculptures inside the altars were intended to be the focus, with the sparse and simple shutter paintings serving to contrast the splendor of the sculpted centerpiece. For the telling of intricate stories, tapestry was the preferred and showiest method for image-conscious, late-Medieval nobles. It was not until the first half of the fifteenth century that Jan van Eyck’s experiments with layered oil paint demonstrated its power to most richly convey light, form and color. Painting allowed artists to easily express both the outside world and their imagination. By 1506, Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa.

Painting remained the pinnacle of high art for the next five hundred years. It wasn’t until machines intervened with the acceptance of photography that painting felt the first blow to its dominant run. Photography challenged painting’s ability to most richly and accurately portray the outside world and, after around one hundred years, introduced total abstraction to painting, further expanding the medium’s possibilities.

This story, about how we went from the painting-dominated era of the Mona Lisa to the pixel era, as signified by monogrids, is the story of how machines changed art. Not any single machine; rather, we explore the concept of the machine as a system-creating device or systematic way of thinking to realize our most human attributes and ideas, drawing on Vera Molnár's and Sol LeWitt's apparatus-agnostic perspective on machines. Machines, like painting before them, have distinct advantages, such as the ability to convey light, form and color at the pixel level to create anything an artist can imagine. As Vera Molnár wrote, “without the aid of a computer, it would not be possible to materialize quite so faithfully an image that previously existed only in the artist’s mind.” Yet machines can do so much more—they allow for algorithms to conjure even the unimaginable and for AI models to remember things once lost.

Can fixed, static images on a canvas remain the dominant form of expression moving forward when the ability to manipulate pixels with machines offers such distinct advantages? This essay marks the history of the mechanization of art—beginning with the transition to the digital in late-nineteenth-century industrialized countries—to place our current situation in a broader context and contemplate its future prospects.

1. Art and Machines

Turn of the Century: Eadweard Muybridge & Marcel Duchamp

Taking advantage of the machines of his time, Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion series (1887) reflected two critical developments in art’s trajectory at the turn of the century: the vivid capturing of motion and seriality, both made possible by photography. These developments, known as chronophotography, were a new technique to convey motion. They directly influenced Marcel Duchamp's modernist classic of dynamism, Nude Descending the Staircase (1912). As a leading figure in Conceptualism, Kinetic art and Dada, Duchamp was foundational to modern art’s dematerialization and emphasis on movement and randomness, three crucial developments in generative and digital art’s history. Duchamp was never afraid to incorporate mechanical ideas or applications into his work, including Nude, his kinetic sculptures and readymades, even if it meant criticizing or questioning machines. Always so prescient, Duchamp allegedly said to Constantin Brâncuși at the 1919 Paris Aviation Show: "Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do anything better than that propellor? Tell me, can you do that?"

Early-Twentieth Century: Vladimir Tatlin & Bauhaus 

Later, in the twentieth century, Vladimir Tatlin and the Bauhaus continued to harness the introduction of machines in art at its most avant-garde boundaries. Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919–20) embodied kineticism and Constructivism, believing that art should be a reflection of the industrializing times and envisioning a colossal fusion of art and technology. Simultaneously, Walter Gropius was opening the Bauhaus, a school championing the integration of craftsmanship and mass production. The Constructivist ideas of pared-down, geometric forms would infuse the Bauhaus, with teachers Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy joining the staff. For Constructivists as well, the artist no longer had to be a painter holding a brush but could just as easily be an engineer with tools.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912


2. Art Machines

Mid-Century: John Cage, Lucinda Childs & Vera Molnár

Advancing into the mid-twentieth century, the Fluxus group, heavily inspired by Duchamp, demonstrated a growing trend in thinking about art systematically. The musical piece Variations VII by John Cage, for instance, was created at random using a set of parameters that the artist initiated. Fluxus artists particularly embraced interdisciplinary creativity, with diverse practices including musician Cage, video artist Nam June Paik and conceptual artist Yoko Ono. Fluxus and Neo-dada artists also embraced machines to make art, as demonstrated by 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering (1966). This legendary event united luminaries like Cage, Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs and Robert Rauschenberg with engineers from Bell Labs, who were creating some of the earliest computer art. This fusion of art and technology epitomized an excitement for art’s use of machines to produce generative, multimedia forms of expression. The impact of Muybridge’s chronophotography can even be seen on the 9 Evenings poster.

Perhaps no artist demonstrates the fungible, conceptual nature of the machine more than Vera Molnár, who thought systematically and algorithmically about art before ever accessing a computer. Molnár used an imagined machine, her machine imaginaire for nearly a decade before finally getting her hands on a computer, a machine réel. For Molnár, machines held greater significance than merely being a tool for creative expression, as she wrote, “The machine, thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being.” She reiterates this point to Hans Ulrich Obrist: “My goal is not at all to use a computer; I don’t care about computers, but the computer is like a slave in making my dreams a reality. My imagination, if you will.” The “machine” represents a systematic way of thinking for Molnár that could require no external mechanical device other than a paintbrush. But the mindset alone was a genie in a bottle, making her wishes come true.

Later-Twentieth Century: Sol LeWitt, Harold Cohen & Sonia Sheridan

The conceptual link from machine to art was made even more explicit by Sol LeWitt, who based his practice on the notion that, as he wrote, "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art." Like Molnár, LeWitt uses machine as a metaphor for a systematic practice with ideation at its heart. The execution of the task is perfunctory but LeWitt thinks of ideas as machines, often instructions, as the system that executes his ideas. His exploration of repetition also drew inspiration from Muybridge's seriality, particularly LeWitt’s systematic exploration of cubic variation. The next to solidify the merging of art and machine was Harold Cohen, who devised a peculiar system, claiming it was his "other self," in the form of a floor-crawling, painting robot named AARON—a literal art machine. Finally, Sonia Sheridan, through the establishment of the Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago, aimed to envision creative systems using cutting-edge technology such as the color copier. She has exhibited her work alongside artists like Cage, Paik and Marina Abromovic at institutions such as MoMA and Reina Sofia.

Vera Molnár, À la Recherche de Paul Klee (Detail), 1970. Photo courtesy of the author


3. Coded Art Machines

Turn of the Millennium toolers: Casey Reas, Zach Lieberman & Lauren Lee McCarthy

Inspired to continue the legacy of Muriel Cooper, John Maeda joined the MIT Media Lab in 1996 with the goal of making machines, via programming, more accessible to artists. He created Design by Numbers, which his students Casey Reas and Ben Fry developed into the Java-based Processing. Zach Lieberman’s C++ language, openFrameworks, was also a critical contribution to the empowerment of artists with tools for coded creative expression. In 2015, Lauren Lee McCarthy created p5.js, the widely-used version of Processing based on JavaScript. Her self-reflexive work, like Duchamp, examines the inherent values embedded in machines—in her case, software. McCarthy demonstrates the power of machines to facilitate participation and emotive reflection through performance. She described to me how she creates a “shared vulnerability in the performance. There is an opportunity for connection with other people because you are both somewhat vulnerable stepping into it.” Rather than accepting machines as dehumanizing, McCarthy explores how machines can in fact bring us closer to other humans. Machines prior to the efforts of these artist-engineer-toolers were largely inaccessible to artists who did not have a collaborator, advanced coding knowledge, access to advanced machinery or all three. These toolers made machines more accessible to contemporary artists, sparking an explosion of interest in coding to this day.

Today: Tyler Hobbs, Kim Asendorf & Linda Dounia

Increasingly, artists are choosing code as their medium of expression, another type of machine. These artists, including Tyler Hobbs and Iskra Velitchkova, choose to articulate their commentary on the digital systems that run our lives with the very system itself. They use machines called algorithms to incorporate randomness and generativity into their work, opening up the space of what’s possible for humans to express. Velitchkova employs algorithms to create distorted forms with a delicate haze enabled by coded detail, giving her work an emotional depth derived from nostalgia. Her work reminds us that machines have the power to stir feelings that are not necessarily beautiful but speak towards the greater Beauty of raw human expression. Tyler Hobbs spoke to me about the power of algorithmic artwork: “There's also new territory that they can explore that other media cannot. I think we've just scratched the surface of what algorithmic art can show us because it's such a powerful way of working.” Kim Asendorf, whose work monogrid now ends our story, creates work celebrating the digital and its mechanical legacy in direct ways. Echoing Molnár's and Hobbs's positions, he told me, "I create a huge experiment and hopefully I see something that I could not imagine before. That's what computers give me." A further demonstration of what machines provide us is an artist’s ability to train their own datasets to create bespoke coded art machines based on AI called GANs. One such artist, Linda Dounia, told me how her work highlights the machine’s capacity to achieve even more: “I'm using a machine; I'm using something that is not human to remember, which is a very human trait or capability.” For Dounia, her work creates memory machines, visualizing the presumed forgotten with the help of AI. With the latest machines, artists can portray parts of their lives or culture that were thought to have entirely disappeared.  Machines help us express not only the imagined and the unimagined but also the remembered and the unremembered.

Linda Dounia, Flore Perdue #27, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Bright Moments. Owned by Le Random


Closing

The word “machine” in art has been associated with art’s dehumanization. Machines in art imply the removal of the human hand, a bias that any artist who first used the camera and now codes machines has combated. After all, the more space for machines, the less space for the human, right? But it’s become abundantly clear over the last two hundred years that the opposite is more often true. Machines augment our humanity without diminishing a painter’s ability to paint. As Molnár slyly remarked to Obrist, “The most human art is made by computer, because every last bit of it is a human invention.” LeWitt also praises the role of human input, remarking that ideas, his art machines, “are discovered by intuition.” Physical or metaphorical machines are made by humans; they require human spirit to operate and they allow us to more fully express the depth and breadth of our humanity. Machines in art demonstrate humanity's most remarkable qualities: our insatiable curiosity that drives our desire to create, given anything placed in front of us. By meaningfully exploring these tools, we can create machines that open up avenues for creative expression that were once impossible. What will machines allow us to do next?



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