A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation

Section 9:
Computer artists

The mid-1960s saw many artists becoming interested in the creative activities at the confluence of art and technology. Previously, most individuals involved in the creation of computer art were in fact engineers and scientists. This was due to several factors: 1) access to mainframe computers, the only kind of computing resource available at the time, was available only to scientists at industrial and university scientific research labs; 2) there was no real interactive software, requiring the scientific programming expertise of the engineers or scientists; 3) the process of artmaking on the computer was very algorithmic in nature, which was not necessarily the way traditional artists were used to thinking; and 4) the art community was hesitant to regard the new art form as a reputable or even acceptable art form.

In spite of this, and maybe in part because of this, collaborations between artists and scientists began, and in many cases flourished. It was not without difficulty, however. As Ken Knowlton portrayed the two mindsets:

  • Artists are
    • illogical
    • intuitive
    • impulsive
  • Scientists are
    • constrained
    • logical
    • precise

In many cases, the scientists themselves were portrayed as, or at least called themselves artists. In some cases, artists learned the complexities of interacting with the computer and became hybrid in their approach. The first two exhibitions of computer art (at the Wise Gallery in New York and in Stuttgart Germany, both in 1965), were organized by scientists. Most of the submissions, and nearly all of the selections were from scientists. Nevertheless, they were important events in the establishment of computer art as a recognized and eventually an accepted art form.

In 1967, artists Billy Kluver and Robert Rauschenberg founded a formal entity to "develop an effective collaboration between the artist and the engineer." This organization was very important in recognizing the important intersections between the artist and the computer. Called the EAT, or Experiments in Art and Technology, it provided an environment that encouraged important artistic creations, including collaborations between artists such as Kluver, Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg, John Cage and Jasper Johns. Support was in part provided by Bell Labs.


Click on the images below to view a larger version (when available).


Dietrich, Frank, "Visual Intelligence: The First Decade of Computer Art (1965-1975)", Leonardo, V19 #2, pp. 159-169, 1986

Franke, Herbert, The New Visual Age: The Influence of Computer Graphics on Art and Society, Leonardo, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 105-107, 1985.

Jones, Beverly, Computer Imagery: Representation and Realities, Leonardo, International Journal of Science and Art , Computer Art in Context: 1989 A Special Edition Juried by the Special Interest Group in Graphics (SIGGRAPH) Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)31- 38.



One of the most important early artistic exhibitions of computer art and digital installations was called Cybernetic Serendipity, which was held in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Organized by Jasia Reichart, it included most of the important contributors to the technology art world at the time, including Charles Csuri, Michael Noll, Nam June Paik, Frieder Nake, John Whitney, John Cage and others. Although it was not the first computer art exhibition, it is acknowledged as an important milestone in the recognition of this new medium in the art world.

Cybernetic Serendipity ran for two months and featured exhibits from 325 participants from around the world. They showed off the latest in computer graphics and some early computer-composed music. There were robots and drawing machines and the first computer sculpture.

The exhibition was the first of its kind in Britain and the curator Jasia Reichardt wrote that it showed how "man can use the computer and new technology to extend his creativity and inventiveness." It later traveled to Washington, DC and San Francisco between 1969-70.

In several previous sections, most notably Section 4, several pioneering computer artists (Whitney, Laposky, Noll, Csuri, Knowlton, vanderBeek, Foldes, Em, and others) were featured. This section highlights several more artists, representing artistic activities that have contributed to the broader discipline of computer graphics and animation; it is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the computer art discipline; that is beyond the scope of this document. I refer you to several sources, including the online Digital Art Museum, Cynthia Goodman's book Digital Visions , and The Computer in the Visual Arts by Anne Morgan Spalter for more information in this regard.



Macgregor, Brent, Cybernetic serendipity revisited, Proceedings of the fourth conference on Creativity & cognition, Loughborough, UK
pp, 11 - 13,   2002


In the paper Stuttgart 1960. Computers in Theory and Art, Jasia Reichardt reminisces about how Cybernetic Serendipity came to be.


Digital Art Museum timeline

An essay specially written for Digital Art Museum, traces the relationship between the Pioneers of computer fine art and Modern art movements.

Goodman, Cynthia, Digital Visions: Computers and Art, Abrams, 1987 (published in connection with the exhibition Computers and Art at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY, 1987)

Spalter, Anne Morgan, The Computer in the Visual Arts, Addison-Wesley, 1998.




Vera Molnar was born in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary. After studying at the Budapest Academy, she received her diploma in 1947 in Art History and Aesthetics. Her artwork was around abstract and geometrical paintings. That same year, she received the Rome Scholarship and moved to Paris.

In 1960, Molnar co-founded the “Groupe de recherche d’art visuel” (GRAV), which was a proponent of stripping the content away from the visual image in their medium in order to focus on seeing and perceiving. They were instrumental in the Op-art and Kinetic Art movements of that decade. Molnar was also co-founder of the group “Art et Informatique” at the “Institut d’Esthetique et des Sciences de l’Art” in Paris in 1967.

According to Molnar, in her eyes her work has a hypothetical character. In order to systematically process her research series, she invented a "technology", which she calleded "Machine Imaginaire". She sketched a program, and then, step by step, realized asimple, limited series, which was self-contained.

In 1968 she discovered the power of the computer to allow an artist to step away from "the social thing" in order to get at the real creative vision. She replaced the illusory computer, the invented machine, by a genuine computer. Her initial work involved transformations of geometric objects, such as a square, by rotating, deforming, erasing all or parts of them, or replacing portions with basic elements of other geometric shapes. She would often repeat the geometric primitives while fracturing or breaking them as she transformed them, ultimately outputting them to a plotter.

Molnar did work at the Centre Pompidou, ARTA (Atelier du Recherche des Techniques Avancees) and was a member of the CREIAV (Centre de Recherche Experimentale et Informatique des Arts Visuels). In 1985 she became a Professor at the Universtiy of Paris, Sorbonne.

"Proceeding by small steps, the painter is in a position to delicately pinpoint the image of dreams. Without the aid of a computer, it would not possible to materialize quite so faithfully an image that previously existed only in the artist's mind. This may sound paradoxical, but the machine, which is thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being."

From Frank Popper's Visualization, Cultural Mediation and Dual Creativity in Leonardo





Manfred Mohr was born in 1938 in Pforzheim (Germany). He studied lithography at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, in Paris. He turned from traditional painting to the computer in 1969 to realize his artistic interest in Constructivist artforms. He focused his artistic vocabulary and aesthetic expression by working only in black and white, not reverting to a color palette until 1998, using a plotter as output from the computer.

As quoted by Goodman in her book Digital Visions, Mohr says "The paradox of my generative work is that form-wise it is minimalist and content-wise it is maximalist." He has chosen the cube, and the seemingly uncountable variations of it as his primitive element. Mohr has the computer start with a cube and transform it through distortions and various rotations. According to Mohr, "Since 1973, in my research, I have been concentrating on fracturing the symmetry of a cube (including since 1978 n-dimensional hypercubes), using the structure of the cube as a "system" and "alphabet".  The disturbance or disintegration of symmetry is the basic generator of new constructions and relationships."

Former Ohio State University Eminent Scholar in Design, Mihai Nadin said of Mohr, "In order to free his explorations from the burdens of psychological patterns, Manfred Mohr literally harnesses randomness and makes it operate on the entities selected for exploration. "

In 1971, Mohr was featured in a one-man show at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which has been marked as the first museum sponsorship of a one-man exhibition of computer art. Mohr has also been honored by winning Ars Electronica in Linz.

The computer became a physical and intellectual extension in the process of creating my art. I write computer algorithms i.e. rules that calculate and then generate the work which could not be realized in any other way. It is not necessarily the system or the logic I want to present in my work, but the visual invention which results from it. My artistic goal is reached, when a finished work can visually dissociate itself from its logical content and convincingly stand as an independent abstract entity.






Larry Cuba is widely recognized as a pioneer in the use of computers in animation art, and was one of the "hybrid" artist/technologists. Producing his first computer animation in 1974, Cuba was at the forefront of the computer-animation artists considered the "second generation" --- those who directly followed the visionaries of the sixties: John Whitney, Sr., Stan Vanderbeek, Chuck Csuri, Lillian Schwartz, etc.

While still a graduate student at The California Institute of the Arts, he was convinced of the artistic potential of computer graphics, but this was years before art schools began teaching the subject. Like many of the early artists that preceded him, Cuba's solution was to solicit access to the mainframe computers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and teach himself computer animation by producing his first film, First Fig.

In 1975, John Whitney, Sr. invited Cuba to be the programmer on one of his films. The result of this collaboration was Arabesque. Later that year he travelled to Chicago to work with Tom DeFanti on the GRASS system at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Graphics Habitat. He later used the system to produce an animated sequence for the movie Star Wars. Cuba later purchased a ZGRASS system, which was a PC implementation of the GRASS system for his personal use.

Subsequently, Cuba produced three more computer-animated films: 3/78 (Objects and Transformations), Two Space, and Calculated Movements. These works were shown at film festivals throughout the world---including Los Angeles, Hiroshima, Zagreb and Bangkok---and have won numerous awards. Cuba's been invited to present his work at various conferences such as Siggraph, ISEA, Ars Electronica, and Art and Math Moscow and his films have been included in screenings at New York's Museum of Modern Art, The Hirshhorn Museum, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Amsterdam Film museum and the Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo.

Cuba received grants for his work from the American Film Institute and The National Endowment for the Arts and was awarded a residency at the Center for Art and Media Technology Karlsruhe (ZKM). He has served on the juries for the Siggraph Electronic Theater, the Montpellier Festival of Abstract Film, The Ann Arbor Film Festival and Ars Electronica.

(Some text from Cuba's Web site at http://www.well.com/user/cuba/index.html)


Scene from Two Space (1979)

Briefing from the movie Star Wars; graphics done by Cuba on DeFanti's GRASS system at UICC

Two Space - 1979

Caclulated Movement - 1985




Lillian Schwartz is best known for her pioneering work in the use of computers for what has since become known as computer-generated art and computer-aided art analysis, including graphics, film, video, animation, special effects, Virtual Reality and Multimedia. Her work was recognized for its aesthetic success and was the first in this medium to be acquired by The Museum of Modern Art. Her contributions in starting a new field of endeavor in the arts, art analysis, and the field of virtual reality have been recently awarded Computer-World Smithsonian Awards.

Schwartz began her computer art career as an offshoot of her merger of art and technology, which culminated in the selection of her kinetic sculpture, Proxima Centauri, by The Museum of Modern Art for its epoch-making 1968 Machine Exhibition. She then expanded her work into the computer area, becoming a consultant at the AT&T Bell Laboratories, IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory and at Lucent Technologies Bell Labs Innovations. On her own, and with leading scientists, engineers, physicists, and psychologists, she developed effective techniques for the use of the computer in film and animation.

Besides helping to establish computer art as a viable field of endeavor, Schwartz additionally contributed to scientific research areas such as visual and color perception, and sound. Her own personal efforts have led to the use of the computer in the philosophy of art, whereby data bases containing information as to palettes and structures of paintings, sculptures and graphics by artists such as Picasso and Matisse are used by Schwartz to analyze the choices of those artists and to investigate the creative process itself.

Her contributions to electronic art analysis, and restoration, have been recognized, specifically in Italian Renaissance painting and frescoe. Her work with colleagues to construct 3-dimensional models of the Refectory at Santa Maria Grazie to study the perspective construction of Leonardo's Last Supper and, more recently, a finite element model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to aid in the preservation of the tower in understanding its structure, have proved invaluable to Art Historians and Restorers.

Schwartz's education began immediately after World War II when she studied Chinese brushwork with Tshiro in Japan. Over the following years she studied the fine arts with professionals such as Giannini, Kearns, and Joe Jones. She is self-taught with regard to film and computer interfacing, and programming.

Schwartz has always had close ties to the academic community, having been a visiting member of the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland; an adjunct professor at the Kean College, Fine Arts Department; an adjunct professor at The Rutger's University Visual Arts Department; an adjunct professor at the Psychology Department, School of Arts and Sciences, New York University; and is currently a member of the International Guidance Panel, under the co-sponsorship for The Society for Excellence Through Education, Israel, Teachers College, Columbia University and S.A.G.E., and a Member of the Graduate Faculty of The School of Visual Arts, NYC. She has also been an Artist in Residence at Channel 13, WNET.

Schwartz's work has been much in demand internationally both by museums and festivals. For example, her films have been shown and won awards at the Venice Biennale, Zagreb, Cannes, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and nominated and received Emmy nominations and award. Her work has been exhibited at and is owned by museums such as The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), and the Grand Palais Museum (Paris).

Representing the United States, Schwartz has been a guest lecturer in over two dozen countries, ranging from the Royal College of Art in London to the US/China Cultural Relations speaker in the People's Republic of China. Schwartz has also had numerous other fellowships, and honors conferred upon her, including a Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa from Kean College, New Jersey, and grants from the National Endowment For The Arts and The Corporation For Public Broadcasting. Most recently she has received Computerworld Smithsonian Awards in three categories: For the Application of the Computer as a Medium in the Arts, including Graphics, Film/Video, and Special Effects; pioneering work in the field of Virtual Reality; and for her contributions in special editing techniques in Media and Arts & Entertainment.

She has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and television news and documentary programs. She is a Fellow in The World Academy of Art & Science. She has been appointed as a committee member of the National Research Council Committee on IInformation Technology and Creativity under the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of The National Academies from May, 2000 to December, 2001. Schwartz is the author (together with Laurens R. Schwartz) of The Computer Artist's Handbook, W.W. Norton & Company.

(Some text from Schwartz' Web site at http://www.lillian.com)






After Picasso








Wikipedia entry for
Lillian Schwartz

Apothesis - 1972


Enigma - 1975




Kinesis - 1975

The Artist and the Computer - 1976



Artist David Em was hired at JPL as an artist-in-residence, and adapted scientist Jim Blinn's visualization software to realize his own artistic ideas. Em admitted, though that the JPL deep space environment influenced the quality and look of his artwork. From the Digital Art Museum entry on David Em:

David Em started as a painter but in 1974 began to experiment with electronic manipulations of TV images. This led to his involvement with the Xerox Research PARC in Palo Alto and to collaboration with computer graphics pioneers Alvy Ray Smith and Dick Shoup, inventor of the frame buffer. In 1976 Em had access to equipment at Triple-I, set up by Gary Demos and John Whitney Sr., but it was the introduction to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the research work of pioneer James Blinn that led to Em's mature computer art style. The works produced at JPL led to the first ever artist's monograph published on digital art ( The Art of David Em , published by Harry N. Abrams)

Dr. Jim #1

Far Away

Utah Spirits







One of the foremost international computer artists is Yoichiro Kawaguchi of Japan. Yoichiro Kawaguchi was born on Tanegashima Island in 1952. He received his Master of Fine Arts from Tokyo University of Education in 1978. Currently he is Associate Professor of Computer Graphics Art at Art & Science Lab, Department of Art, Nippon Electronics College, Tokyo.

His early work was a collaboration with compter science researchers, who developed the LINKS computer, on which a lot of his work was produced. He used a technology called "metaballs" to get the soft, fluid, artistic forms of his organic shapes. Many of his algorithmic approaches to his art were taken from the growth patterns exhibited in seashells and spiraling plants.

Kawaguchi has exhibited at Biennale di Venezia 1986, Japan Pavilion EXPO 86, Vancouver, Ars Electronica, Linz 1986, AUSGRAPH '89, Sydney, and SIGGRAPH '90, Dallas. He has won numerous awards, e.g. "Eurographics '84"; Grand Prix PARIGRAPH '87; First Prize "Imagina '91".

Yoichiro Kawaguchi was awarded a Distinction by the Prix Ars Electronica jury for his entry Eggy in the category Computer Animation

Eggy - 1990



Growth - 83

Origins - 85




From a tribute to Ed Emshwiller from the CalArts web site:

Ed Emshwiller, the highly regarded video artist and dean of the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts, passed away July 27, 1990 from cancer at the age of 65.

Emshwiller was an influential figure in the experimental film movement that helped expand the horizons of American filmmaking in the 1960's and his work was frequently shown in museums and festivals.

He studied art at the University of Michigan, the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Art Students' League. He was an abstract expressionist painter and award-winning science-fiction illustrator before turning his attention to film and video. Many of his experimental films, including Relativity, Totem, Three Dancers and Thanatopsis have received awards and screenings at film festivals in New York, London, Berlin, Edinburgh, Cannes and a number of other cities.

He produced or collaborated on a number of multimedia productions at Lincoln Center, Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, The Los Angeles Film Festival, among others.

In early 1979, he produced the ground-breaking three-minute 3-D computer work entitled Sunstone , made at the New York Institute of Technology with the help of Alvy Ray Smith as software programmer.

The same year, Emshwiller became dean of CalArts' film/video school. In addition to his duties as dean, he served as provost from 1981 through 1986. Robert J. Fitzpatrick, who was president of CalArts at the time of Emshwiller's appointments, said then, "Ed has demonstrated extraordinary gifts as an artist throughout his career... To his own surprise and our great benefit, he has shown a special talent for administration and leadership as dean of the School of Film/Video. He is the only person I know who could successfully combine triple careers of artist, dean and provost."

Emshwiller was always looking for ways to push film and video's boundaries. This year, in fact, he was working with composer Morton Subotnick in, as Emshwiller described it, "interactive and three-dimensional performance with sound/image generation and various controlling devices."

With Subotnick, Emshwiller created Hungers , an electronic video opera, for the 1987 Los Angeles Arts Festival. Hungers used live performance and interactive devices that changed the sound of the music according to the environment. No two performances were ever the same. In a similar fashion, their new work was going to play with video so that the images would change from performance to performance.

To Emshwiller, the innovative technique allowing for change was a way to 'get film out of its can'. "The chaos theory, a slight deviation from a plan, will take you into a whole new realm of possibilities, and that's one of the things, I think, exciting, not only philosophically, but also in terms of practice for devising performance."

He received grants from the NEA, the Rockefeller, Ford and Guggenheim Foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Emshwiller was a great influence in experimental film and video not only as an artist but also as an administrator. He was a member of the board of trustees of the American Film Institute, board of directors of the Filmmakers Cooperative, board of directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, board of directors of the Independent Television Service, media panels of the NEA and the New York State Council for the Arts.

According to Ed's wishes, his heirs donated to CalArts all his film equipment - valued at around $100,000 - and his complete archives. The latter, which occupies nearly two hundred feet of shelf space in CalArts' special archival room, includes all his original films, outtakes, slides and notes on past and planned projects.

Sunstone - 1979



Several other early artists deserve mention at this point. Herbert Franke, Frieder Nake and George Nees from Germany, and Harold Cohen, Duane Palyka, Darcy Gerbarg, and Colette and Charles Bangert from the United States each has contributed immensely to the evolution of computer art. Also, video artists Nam June Paik, Bill Etra, Frank Dietrich, Jane Veeder, Vibeke Sorensen and Copper Giloth advanced that important component of the digital art movement.



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