Painting Algorithms: K. O. Götz’s Rasterbilder and Vera Molnar’s Computer Paintings

This paper proposes to reassess the historical role that painters played in shaping the affordances of pre- and early digital technologies, by focusing on two contrasting examples: the German postwar painter Karl Otto Götz (1914–2017), precursor of ‘electronic painting’ with his Rasterbilder made in the late 1950s–early 1960s, and the French-Hungarian painter Vera Molnar (b. 1924). While Molnar started producing computer-generated works in 1968, Götz did not gain access to a computer until much later and his Rasterbilder, which anticipate by several years the application of information theory to the visual arts, are wholly hand-made. In both cases, however, access to technology proved challenging and, when granted, was heavily mediated. Contrary to recent reappraisal of computer art history which focused on the beneficial environment of the interdisciplinary research lab (Patterson 2015; Gertner, 2012), this paper therefore approaches affordance as a complex mechanism which both encouraged and discouraged (to borrow Davis and Chouinard’s category) painters in their creative attempts. In this respect, recent reconceptualization of affordances in terms of ‘variability’ (Evans, 2017), and of its ‘conditions’ (Davis and Chouinard, 2017) provide a productive framework to ask the following questions: where optimal material conditions were not achieved, how did artists shape the affordances of the technologies to which they had gained access, however imperfect? What role did factors such as imagination, anticipation, and medial transposition (painting) play in the development of algorithmic art? And crucially, how do examples of technological mediation in which there are notable disjunctions between ‘features’ and ‘outcome’ (Evans, 2017) – for instance, when Götz is unable to realise his vision of kinetic, programmed, painting other than by using watercolour and film – enable us to rethink current definitions of affordance?

 

Aline Guillermet is a Junior Research Fellow in Visual Studies at King’s College, University of Cambridge. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Gerhard Richter’s critical reappraisal of representation after photography (University of Essex, 2015), and is an alumna of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (2012-13). Her postdoctoral research investigates how digital technologies have impacted upon painting practices since the 1960s. She currently co-convenes the Digital Art Research Group at CRASSH (2017-18).