Paul May

Manfred Mohr - Réflexions sur une Esthétique Programmeé

31 October 2011

A response to the Manfred Mohr retrospective "Réflexions sur une Esthétique Programmeé" at the Bitforms gallery in New York, written for the Recurring Concepts in Art class at ITP.


This is a semi-academic examination of an exhibition of work by Manfred Mohr. For decades Mohr has used computation in his artwork; he started at a time when computers were large, rare and exclusively logical beasts - the idea of using them to generate art was incredibly novel. The critical responses to Mohr’s use of computers in the production of his art ranged from delight to outrage. This exhibition brings together a collection of his works that explore the intersection of computing, language and aesthetic.

My response is organised under three concepts: The Artist Steps Away from the Canvas and Observes, The Artist Reduces Complex Phenomena to Simple Elements and The Artist Collaborates With Non-Human Actors. I refer to some other works we were looking at in class at around the same time, including Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score; one of the most famous pieces of performances art ever staged which included groundbreaking technology for its time. I also refer to work of Constructivist artist and architect Laszlo Moholy-Nagy whose work involves a studied investigation some of the essential elements of art; colour, light, line, movement and shape.

The Artist Steps Away from the Canvas and Observes

For me, Mohr’s process and work are an example of the movement away from the artist as the sole, literal producer of the artifact (holding the paintbrush or wielding the chisel) towards a model of creation where the artist is the originator (providing an opportunity or a vision), the referee (the designer of rules and constraints), the over-seer (providing ongoing impetus, clarification), and then the observer (watching the elements of the work come together - along with the audience).

Manfred Mohr
Mohr establishes a project, and like an engineer - sets about designing the limits/traits of his system. This image shows the logical flow for the computer code that will give instructions to the computer and plotter drawing one of his pieces.

This proto-code would then be translated into working instructions for the computer. From this point, Mohr’s involvement in the production of the final artwork is that of a collaborator with the drawing machine - he chooses the paper, mounts the pen in the machine, and makes the decision to proceed. 

<img src=””/ class=”photo” />

For me, this photo captures the idea of changing role of the artist. He is smoking a cigarette while the arm of the plotter moves over the surface of the paper, drawing the image. Mohr is keenly interested, watching the image emerge as an audience member might - he is deeply invested in the work, but his direct involvement in its making has already happened.

What I find exciting about this image is that it captures the feeling of something unfolding that can’t be stopped. It also captures the sense of anticipation and chance. With any computer program there is the potential for the unexpected - times when something is lost in translation between intent and outcome. In the photo, I get a sense that Mohr is watching to see what might happen, as well as what he knows will happen. Mohr speaks about the influence of chance in his artist’s statement:

Even though my work process is rational and systematic, its results can be unpredictable. Like a journey, only the starting point and a hypothetical destination is known. What happens during the journey is often unexpected and surprising.

A photo of Robert Rauschenberg's Open Score from 1966. In the photo two tennis players can be seen on a court, surrounded by spotlights

For me, there’s a direct parallel between Mohr’s algorithmically drawn works and Open Score by Robert Raushenberg. Rauschenberg puts himself in a similar position to Mohr; he is the driving vision behind the piece, he designs the constraints/rules that will apply - those of a recognisable tennis match, but the outcome of the piece is the confluence of preparation, the work of collaborators (human and technological) and an element of chance.

Like Mohr’s work, Open Score expresses the potential for something with a defined set of rules and a repeating structure to offer something unexpected and unrepeatable.

The key difference that I see between what Mohr and Rauschenberg are doing is in their attitude to the audience. In Open Score, Rauschenberg amplifies the experience of the tennis match using sound and light - he gives them a hyper-real tennis match that involves their senses as no other game of tennis ever has. There is a clear sense of the impossibility of this work being repeated and a question as to whether its possible to separate a spectacle from the reactions of the crowd.

In Mohr’s work, while an audience may be present to see the pieced being produced by the computer and plotter - they can only watch as the process unfolds. Their may be captured elsewhere (such as the poster from the 1971 show) but this emotion doesn’t find its way into the “performance” underway (interactivity beyond simple choices/interventions [e.g. an audience member unplugging the drawing machine]).

The Artist Reduces Complex Phenomena to Simple Elements

The second concept that I feel is in evidence in Mohr’s work is that of a reduction of complexity/form to simplicity/geometry.

Mohr makes the direct conceptual link between the reduction of shapes to their individual lines with the reduction of words to their individual letters (Fig 3).

Manfred Mohr

This conceptual link is mirrored in the process used to make the work. By using a computer and plotter to draw his images, Mohr puts himself in the position of literally needing to translate shapes into their most basic elements. Move the pen left two inches. Lift the pen. Move the pen up one inch. Put the pen down. By breaking words to their letters, and shapes to their lines - Mohr demonstrates that complex forms are the products of basic elements, repetition and human ingenuity .

There are clear parallels between Mohr’s attempt to sub-divide forms into their most basic elements and Moholy-Nagy’s effort to categorize and classify the essential elements of colour and material. I feel as though Moholy-Nagy’s goal was a purer, more potent form of expression stemming from a return to the atomic level. In a sense, Moholy-Nagy’s work is about the future, but calls out to the past. Go backwards to the origin to know how to proceed.

In Mohr’s case I don’t get a sense that he is saying the work is more powerful because it is formed from very simple instructions - I think he is making a statement that the language of the machine (code), producing works from a simple visual alphabet (geometry), has limitless potential for complexity and depth; a call to consider a collaboration with the non-human in the production of something inherently human - language, and a call to judge this new language on the same terms as we judge existing language.

The Artist Collaborates With Non-Human Actors

The most literal concept that underpins Mohrs’ work is that of a collaboration between man and machine in the production of art. It’s unsurprising that in his 1971 show, the feedback from the audience was mostly negative - with the dominant sentiment being that that art was a human endeavour, and not one that could simply be generated by a machine.

It’s hard to look at this reaction from the current perspective - simply saying that the audience was wrong and Mohr was right, given the centrality of the computer of many cultural and artistic works we see around us today.

A fairer way to look at the reaction he got at the time is maybe to look at any of Mohr’s artistic predecessors and examine their use of what would have been considered “state of the art” technology. An example I like is Van Gogh’s examination of his process and his tools. The image below shows a piece of one of Van Gogh’s many letters to his brother Theo. In this letter he discusses the merits of different type of Faber pencils.

One of Van Gogh’s many letters to his brother Theo. In this letter he discusses the merits of different type of Faber pencils.

Mohr takes this concept further; his pencil has capabilities beyond those of Van Gogh’s and the existence of these capabilities poses questions about the location of the “value” of art - is it in the thought, the process, the artist? Is it solely located in the end product? Is it possible to separate the art work and the tools used to make it?

Like Rauschenberg and the diverse group of artists and scientists involved in EAT, Mohr’s work could not exist in its end format without the use of technology. The key difference between Mohr and Rauschenberg/EAT for me is maybe the attitude to the technology itself - I feel as though with EAT the technology was developed in service of the idea and the desired outcome (a sense of direct engagement and magic) - but that the technology was fluid/interchangeable. I don’t really get a sense that technology itself is under scrutiny.

With Mohr I feel as though he is making a considered approach to work within the limits of available technology (rather than finding any technology that was capable of offering the end experience/artifact). He also seems to be making a direct comment on the huge potential of the technology itself. Mohr refers back to a specific technology - like logic, repetition, the computer, the pen, the letter or word.

Final Thoughts

Mohr’s work really surprised me - it felt like a poetic collaboration between man and computer made at a time when any type of digital computation was rare, in any sphere - let alone in the production of art. 

The concepts I see in his work; the artist as orchestrator but not direct “maker”, the reduction of forms to simple elements and the use of technology are strongly in evidence in contemporary art and culture; he was clearly ahead of his time.

  • {{text}}
  • Paul May is a researcher, interaction designer, and technologist from Dublin, Ireland. He is currently working with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on smart health applications.