Your Desktop or Mine?

John Haber
in New York City

Thinking Machines and Experiments in Electrostatics

Would it surprise you to learn that the very first desktop computer sent output not to a screen, but to a reel of paper, like an old-fashioned adding machine? Would it surprise you even more to know that an artist was involved?

"Thinking Machines" looks beyond the adding machine to art in a postmodern office. Meanwhle "Experiments in Electrostatics," turns to another seductive and distancing medium, the photocopy. Not many of my readers will remember what came after the first inklings of an information age, but maybe, just maybe, will you. from Stan VanDerBeek's Poemfield (Andrea Rosen gallery, 1966–1971)

To empower the hand

In those fitful years after the first desktop, maybe you had heard of the information age and wondered if it was your future. Your high school was no help, so you took a Saturday course at Columbia. You studied a programming language called FORTRAN (short for "formula translation") and wrote your first program. You sat at a console with a stack of punch cards, waited for them to feed into a computer that you never once saw, got no results because you had made a simple typo, repeated it all with the same results, and swore that this was not for you. But you hated how your roommate could solve it in no time—and definitely not you.

Maybe your resolve broke down when your employer got its first word processor. Now your typos no longer mattered so much, even if your boss bothered to read your reports. You got pretty good with an IBM desktop, and never mind all those artists with a Mac. You saved your work on a floppy disk—or one of those smaller, rigid rectangles that you still called floppy disks because what else was there to say? You heard about the World Wide Web not all that long after it became open to the public in 1989, and you started sharing your thoughts about New York and art. You started this very Web site in 1994.

If so, a museum has a powerful antidote to nostalgia. With "Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age," it has the artifacts of all of that except, of course, my reviews. The title could well describe the state of the art today. From Photoshop to architectural design tools, computers have entered the practice of art and design—and who knows how much they have changed it? MoMA looks instead, though, at the years from 1959 to 1989, including the first desktop and display terminal, both designed by Mario Bellini for Olivetti. The curators, Sean Anderson and Giampaolo Bianconi, ask how computers and the very idea of computers invaded art.

Of course, if you do remember everything so far, you would be me, and that makes no sense, right? Yet computers also promise exact replicas of anything that you can imagine. They fit right in with art from those same years, between Minimalism and Postmodernism's doubts about the "originality of the avant-garde." Circuit boards and drawings alike, like those by Agnes Denes and Vera Molnár, would look quite at home beside work by Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt. Those years also placed TV in the hands of artists, as evident in a survey of "Mediascape" more than twenty years ago. And, as it happens, much here is handmade.

Beryl Korot insisted on it, applying strict rules to her weaving but executing it herself. She might be reversing the entry of punch cards into the Jacquard looms of 1804—or complying with it. Cedric Price wanted the computer to empower the viewer's hand as well. His machine, never realized, would have allowed others to create their own designs by stacking and restacking cubes. Computer types employed artists, too, even before Apple marketed design sense. Lee Friedlander photographed office workers, and Richard Hamilton designed a supercomputer—much as Sottsass designed a portable typewriter for Olivetti.

Hamilton ended up with a black box nonetheless, and that raises again the computer's creative legacy. John Cage (with Lejaren Hiller) saw a chance to play, with the tinkly clatter of HPSCHD (as in "harpsichord"). Charles Csuri turned a hand-drawn bird into the first computer graphic, Alison Knowles displayed computer-assisted poetry, and Stan VanDerBeek took computing to new media. Yet others got caught up in the machine, just like Korot—or, MoMA suggests, Hanne Darboven with her obsessive drawing and collecting. I could tell you whether you will relish memories of them, an early video game, or Max Headroom, but then you would have to be me.

A flatbed up to nature

Art, they say, holds a mirror up to nature—but, honestly, why bother? Why not bring nature to art? Simply place it on the glass of a photocopier, close the lid, and push a button. And artists have, with what the Whitney calls "Experiments in Electrostatics." Lesley Schiff's Flower in Hand (from Seasons) (Whitney Museum, 1981)The small show of works in series from its collection infiltrates the museum's education department, which itself looks like the offices of a small business and probably has a copier. What could be more natural?

The medium might seem only natural for an artist even now, working a day job that uses up way too much time and way too much paper. Imagine the temptation of the copy machine, at the office for free. There was even, briefly, an International Society of Copier Artists with hundreds of members and a show in Italy in 1986. Yet no small part of the machine's appeal was its novelty. The company that later became Xerox had produced one as early as 1948 and brought it to market in 1959, but Robert Whitman still marveled at it in 1974, when he placed oranges on its bed. Edward Meneeley must have felt that he had entered the very heart of the beast at IBM in 1966.

Nature in their hands takes quite a beating, as is only natural, but emerges with a greater glow. The oranges take on a stranger and deeper coloring from the machine's charged particle beams—and from Whitman's use of fabric for equally colorful backgrounds. Meneeley's grainy verticals might pass for Minimalism in monochrome or, up close, biomorphic abstraction, but they derive their patterning from office supplies and other detritus at IBM. A fourth artist, Lesley Schiff, blurs the borders of nature and artifice once again in 1981. The hand holding a tulip belongs to a mannequin, and the floral vision on which they rest belongs to more fabric. Yet the hand looks ever so real from its very awkwardness, and the tulip has turned a blood-stained white.

Their ghostliness has a precedent in photograms, or what Man Ray called his Rayograms. So does holding objects right up against the plane that will take their impression. Sheets from ISCA would have looked at home in Dada in Zurich at that, like the face of the medium's creator in 1938, Chester Carlson, corrupted by cryptic signs as in a collage. Yet there is no direct imprint on the glass plate, unlike with photograms. The device mediates the results after all, much like a camera. Schiff alters the image further through copier settings and by lifting the lid.

The medium also anticipates art's turn to newer technologies. David Hockney was already working with a fax machine, but artists are still duplicating, manipulating, and duplicating again thanks to scanners, printers, and Photoshop. Every device promises to deliver on the perfect copy, much like a camera, and every device moves a step or two further from the original. Think of photography approaching painting and painting approaching photography. Think of those frustrating days in the office with toner running low, smears, and paper jams. A postmodern critique of the "originality of the avant-garde" takes on new meaning.

This art is self-referential, like the portrait of Carlson above the word Xerografia, but not only self-referential. Schiff points to nature's transience in her series title, Seasons, along with her imagery and variety. And the transience can easily become a threat. A gyroscope spins in a dark woods, while the plastic props in a fishbowl come to life. A beachball in three colors looks like the blade of a knife, and the mannequins continue their role as flaccid, vulnerable, and fragmented bodies. With every copy, they seem to say, something is lost and something else refuses to go away.

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"Thinking Machines" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through April 8, 2018, "Experiments in Electrostatics" at The Whitney Museum of American Art through March 31. Related reviews look at "Bitstreams" and "Ghosts in the Machine."


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