A Brief History of Digital Art

From risqué low-fi computer drawings at Bell Labs and Andy Warhol experiments on a Commodore Amiga to trippy selfie videos commissioned by Stella McCartney, here’s a look into how the digital art genre has developed since the 1960s — and how it’s finding a market.


Frieder Nake Hommage à Paul Klee

history of digital art
Credit: Kunsthalle Bremen (photo Karen Blindow)

While studying in Stuttgart, Germany, artist Nake entered an algorithm directly into a room-size ER 56 computer (which boasted a memory capacity of 4,000 words) that mathematically interpreted a 1929 Paul Klee painting. Called by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum the “most complex algorithmic work of its day,” the computer ran a flatbed drawing machine and produced several varying images. Nake chose the image above as the most successful. Watch as an interactive-art student re-creates this process.


Robert Rauschenberg Open Score

Credit: Courtesy of Experiments in Art and Technology and the Daniel Langlois Foundation

American artist Rauschenberg formed the nonprofit group Experiments in Art and Technology, or EAT, to bring artists and engineers together. For the first EAT event, dubbed “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” which he hosted at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, Rauschenberg used infrared cameras, video projections and radio transmitters on tennis rackets to produce the multimedia performance above.


Bell Labs Nude

history of digital art
Credit: Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton

Engineers Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton were the first to scan a photograph and republish an image. While performing experiments at Bell Labs, then a hot bed for computer innovation, they used an IBM 7040 punch card computer to convert a photograph’s grayscale values into various ASCII symbols. At the time, Nude was an astonishing, somewhat-lewd accomplishment that Bell Labs tried to suppress. But after Harmon presented it at one of Rauschenberg’s EAT meetings, The New York Times ran it on its front page.


Manfred Mohr Presents Computer Graphics, Une Esthetique Programée

history of digital art
Credit: Manfred Mohr/Bitforms Gallery

Mohr began using computer algorithms in his art in 1969, while working at the Meteorology Institute in Paris. Three years later, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris exhibited his work. Displayed alongside his drawings was a banner asking (in French), “What do you think of aesthetic research made with the help of a computer?” Visitors wrote answers that mostly echoed the sentiment: “A Surrealist Machine” and “There is a forcing of man behind the machine.” In 2011, New York’s Bitforms Gallery held a Mohr retrospective and rehung the banner (pictured above).


1985 (with 2015 reprisal)
Andy Warhol Amiga Experiments For Commissioned Digital Work

Credit: The Andy Warhol Museum/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Credit: The Andy Warhol Museum/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Never one to shy away from a commercial endeavor, Warhol in 1985 became a Commodore representative, agreeing to create digital art on an Amiga 1000 to help advertise the computer. His 28 digital “experiments” were nearly lost until 2014, when artist Cory Arcangel worked with the Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club to recover the files.

These four digital Warhols have never before been seen in their native environment: a vintage Amiga. Warhol Museum visitors will soon be able to view these Amiga Graphicraft creations, plus six other Warhol experiments, and create their own images on a retrofit computer.


Nintendo at the Whitney Biennial

Credit: Cory Arcangel

The 2004 Whitney Biennial inclusion of the hacked Nintendo game Super Mario Clouds (above) launched the tech-skewering art career of New York artist Cory Arcangel, 37. The recognizable sky from the Super Mario game became emblematic of the merging of art, tech and pop culture. For an installation called Real Talk at a later solo show at the Whitney, Arcangel used T-Mobile, AT&T and Cingular signal repeaters to boost wireless coverage in the notoriously reception-free New York museum.

Top image credit: Jamie Zigelbaum.

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