Manfred Mohr: Art Only a Robot Could Love

by Will Brand on October 11, 2011 · 14 comments Reviews

Manfred Mohr, "P-777b", 2000. LCD screen, computer, custom software.

Humans can only do so much. We can only move so quickly, can only see so far, and that's why we've got machines to do the rest for us. The work of Manfred Mohr, though, takes this reasoning to an extreme: Mohr has, for the past fifty years, used computers to make artworks of such logical complexity that no human could make them alone. His current exhibition, “1964-2011, Réflexions sur une esthétique programmée”, through October 15th at bitforms gallery, looks back at that career, taking as its center his 1971 show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, “Computer Graphics – Une Esthétique Programmée”.

As a show, it takes some work to get into. This simply isn't a visual show, and visitors without a substantial appreciation for the beauty of the algorithm will leave disappointed; the forty-odd works exhibited are nearly all monochrome, obliquely titled (P-159-A, P-777-mbb), and executed by the mechanical hand of the plotter on white paper. It's everything people hate about conceptual art, and it's also a fascinating exhibition.

The best bits are the extra-dimensional pieces. Over the course of his career, Mohr has slowly added to the complexity of his art: in the late 70s, he began producing works conceived in four spatial dimensions; in the late 80s, in six; in the last decade, in eleven. Their shapes are now far beyond his – or our – ability to comprehend without a computer, so they're necessarily simple: hypercubes, mostly, a sort of Platonic solid for the higher dimensions. Rather than trying to convey these shapes in their entirety – an impossibility – Mohr selects paths through them to animate, or slices-of-slices to print on canvas. In each, our view is cross-crossed by black lines, Mohr's markers for the diagonals between the cube's vertexes; in some, sickly blue color fields hang from them, colliding in what Mohr has called “unimaginable constellations”.

In truth, most of them look terrible. Mohr fractures one unrecognizable form into another in a space beyond perspective, and the eye simply doesn't buy it. The difficulty of this translation, though, raises interesting questions about exactly what these works are. Mohr’s extra-dimensional subjects are necessarily abstract and universal, but also very specific; the prints that result are perfect representations, but also mere fragments. There's nothing really quite like them.

Manfred Mohr, "P-133b", 1972. Plotter drawing ink on paper, 20 x 26"

The other works in the show, if it can be believed, are harder to grasp. A long series of algorithm-based plotter drawings dominate the walls, but the rules governing their construction are left unstated – in only one case is the generative logic exposed, in a drawn flowchart of mathematical statements held in a vitrine of ephemera. Without knowing how or why these drawings came to be, the viewer assumes they're random, or at least that the logic involved is ultimately inconsequential; a smaller set of similar-looking pieces explicitly based on random numbers seems to prove this. With both aesthetic and generative meaning emptied, there's little to do but nod at these works.

Some of the works on view predate Mohr's engagement with plotters, and those works suck. Mohr went through a few phases – monochrome hard-edge and action painting, mostly – that simply didn't work, and the results tend to look like art deco menu design or just plain scribbles.

Fortunately, Mohr used these pieces for a much more interesting project in the 1970s. Inspired by the work of logician and philosopher Max Bense, Mohr at one point attempted to construct aesthetic algorithms that could produce every image he might conceive of. In the original catalogue for Une Esthétique Programmée, he explains this in depth:

“The first step in that direction was an extended analysis of my own paintings and drawings from the last ten years. It resulted in a surprisingly large amount of regularities, determined of course by my particular aesthetical sense, through which I was able to establish a number of basic elements that amounted to a rudimentary syntax. After representing these basic constructions through a mathematical formalism, and setting them up in an abstract combinatorial framework, I was in a position to realise all possible representations of my algorithms. ”¦ As it is possible to conceive the logic of a construction but not all of its consequences it is nearly an imperative to rely on a computer to show this large variety of possibilities”

It's an interesting concept, particularly to me, but it seems to be strangely absent (or, at least, invisible) in the present exhibition. One wishes a few extra plotter drawings had been sacrificed for the greater curatorial good.

While the absence of plotter instructions and aesthetic algorithms is keenly felt, the rest of the curation does a reasonable job of using Mohr's own words and process to explain otherwise mute works. The vitrine of ephemera by the entrance to the gallery, particularly, is invaluable in this. Still, I wanted more: the placement of works is more lyrical than logical, doing serious harm to the plotter drawings, which have no obvious chronology and would have benefited from the imposition of one. A body of work this oblique will always have trouble proving its own progression, and it's been done no favors here.

Ultimately, “Réflexions sur une esthétique programmée” is a flawed exhibition, of flawed work. You're probably not going to like the look of things, and you may or may not have the patience to delve into the concepts involved. The brilliance of a few of Mohr's ideas, however – extra-dimensional art and algorithmic aesthetics, in particular – just about make up for his failings, and there is, in truth, one great stroke of beauty. It doesn't quite fully manifest in any particular work, but it's there: the realization that this is the computer showing us something only it can see.

AFC's Rating: 5/10 (Will Brand)

  • Sven

    I don’t think a computer can see sixth or eleventh dimensional space any better than we can. A human can produce the math necessary to contemplate the existence of such but I think that neither have the ability to comprehend these conjectures. As an arbitrary reference,Manfred Mohr, “P-133b”, reminds me of Afghan rugs, and of Boetti’s use of this medium; at first glance I don’t find it to be terribly original. The show sounds interesting though.

    • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ Lorna Mills

      I don’t think a computer can see.

      • sally

        …attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhauser Gate…

      • Evelyn Eastmond

        hahaha <3

  • http://twitter.com/rdmond Sean Redmond

    Completely agree about the lack of “algorithmic background.” I wonder how many flowcharts, Fortran programs, punchcards have even been saved. I’m very interested to see what it would be like to port over to a modern platform and make them interactive. The show seemed to trade on a mystique about the works based largely on the difficulty of getting regular access to a plotter at the time they were made.

  • http://beausievers.com/ beau

    “Without knowing how or why these drawings came to be, the viewer assumes they’re random, or at least that the logic involved is ultimately inconsequential; a smaller set of similar-looking pieces explicitly based on random numbers seems to prove this. With both aesthetic and generative meaning emptied, there’s little to do but nod at these works.”

    This is a depressing comment. As soon as “randomness” is invoked, “meaning” goes out the door. Implicit is the assumption that any non-deterministic arrangement of elements is necessarily meaningless, or that if something isn’t obvious it isn’t there at all.

    But the work, besides being formally interesting, or interesting by the way it highlights relationships between statistics and procedures, human perception (and it’s limits), and form, is also engaged in some pretty heavy conceptual and historical hardball. Which you’ve pointed toward by picking a suitably catchy title, but without really following through. I think there’s more going on in Mohr’s work (and lots of similar work from around the same time) that takes some /getting in to/ and learning about before it starts to click. Just because a superficial approach can’t make sense of it doesn’t mean there’s no sense to be made.

  • http://twitter.com/phoenixperry phoenix perry

    Well – the math visualization talk is a crock and this work might benefit from stripping it out of the dialog as a technological dimension. As a poetic idea it’s far more interesting. As far as seeing other dimensions, there’s been a great many artists who walked that walk without any need for a computer and far more successfully – Picasso being one. An interesting counter point here is the algorithmic, beautiful, elegant and minimal approach taken by Josef Muller-Brockmann to graphic design, or the early films of John Whitney. 

  • http://twitter.com/quasimondo Mario Klingemann

    If these drawings look random to the casual viewer it might be because he or she simply has not learned how to read them. It’s not much different like many “analog” abstract paintings look like childs’ smearings to the untrained observer.

    • Will Brand

      Mind showing off that trained eye? http://emohr.com/sc69-73/p128w.gif.pagespeed.ce.iAbuwUQ7Ba.gif and http://emohr.com/sc69-73/p120_1w.jpg are plotter drawings from around the same time, but one is based on a random number generator and the other isn’t. 

      I’d also note that Mohr probably wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble putting lengthy process descriptions on every work on his website if he didn’t think it was important to make that plain.

      • http://twitter.com/quasimondo Mario Klingemann

        I would say that the square one is not randomly created but rather by a 2-dimensional formula that defines which tile to pick at a certain coordinate of the grid. The sphere seems to be using a random number generator to pick which of the 4 corners of a square get connected. The mapping on a sphere itself does not really do much for me it seems to be more like playing around with the possibilities because he can.

  • http://twitter.com/mariuswatz Marius Watz

    To say that Mohr’s works are “terrible” or that they “suck” is less than informative. This whole review comes across as extremely subjective, and “I would have curated it differently” syndrome seems to be the primary motive for slamming the show.

    Some thoughts:

    1. I agree that the show seems unedited. Most likely this was done in the interest of being historically complete, but the show suffers as a result.

    2. The decision to make the show a near-replica of the Paris show might be conceptually interesting, but it restricts Mohr to only showing early works. It also makes for a show that seems a little schizophrenic, and certainly less pleasing than a “greatest hits” show.

    3. Yes, the “code” pieces that look like alien alphabets may seem cryptic and unapproachable. To me they look like process pieces, investigations that are probably important to the artist but perhaps less easy for the casual viewer to love. That doesn’t invalidate them as artworks, nor do I think they deserve the description “terrible”. Mohr’s more complex compositions (“Klangfarben” etc.) may be more visually rewarding, but that doesn’t mean the “code” or random walk pieces shouldn’t exist.

    4. The expectation that Mohr should explain the process behind every image (aka the “black box” problem) is a familiar argument (Inke Arns: http://art.runme.org/1107863582-4268-0/arns.pdf ). For the viewer to demand to know exactly what the artist is doing in each piece would never happen in a show that was not based on code. To assume that meticulously displaying the algorithm is the only logical choice is short-sighted, it could just as easily reduce the work to a didactic science display as serve to illuminate their content. Lastly, isn’t this a choice for the artist to make? If Mohr were to prefer that the viewer decipher the logic of the work on their own, that is a perfectly valid choice.

    5. You choose to ignore the the historical dimension of the show, even though this is clearly a focal point. Rather than a “greatest hits” show, this is a survey of Mohr’s origins and early work. That may make it somewhat specialized, but if that is the artist’s intention it certainly explains some of the curatorial decisions that you criticize.

    Ultimately I agree that the show falls short of its full potential. It seems somewhat chaotic and certainly unedited. But it doesn’t “suck”, Your reasons for claiming that it does come across as completely arbitrary and based on personal preference. You don’t even explain why you hate some of the works.To say that the “eye doesn’t buy it” when you’re really only talking about your own eye is hardly a convincing argument, especially lacking any deeper analysis to justify your claim.

    Sorry, but I think this is a review only a web crawler could love. The mind simply doesn’t buy it.

    • Will Brand

      >3. Yes, the “code” pieces that look like alien alphabets may seem cryptic and unapproachable. … That doesn’t invalidate them as artworks, nor do I think they deserve the description “terrible”. 

      Firstly, I never said they were terrible – I wouldn’t have written so much about them if I thought that – I said they looked terrible. Because most semirandom combinations of lines simply don’t look good; this is were the case, people wouldn’t spend as much time as they do figuring out which combinations of lines do look good, and some of us would be unemployed. I simply don’t see how anyone looking at these works – with their eyes, mind, and not wearing the goggles of process and mystery – would derive any more pleasure from looking at these than from looking at anything else.

      >4. The expectation that Mohr should explain the process behind every image (aka the “black box” problem) is a familiar argument …  If Mohr were to prefer that the viewer decipher the logic of the work on their own, that is a perfectly valid choice.

      The idea that Mohr would expect viewers to determine which diagonal of an eleven-dimensional hypercube he was moving along, with arbitrary coloring and visual planes, is absolutely ridiculous. That’s simply not the case. Mohr clearly cares that people know and understand his process. This is shown in the detailed process notes he makes on his own website, the detailed process notes that were in his press release for the 1971 show, the fact that there is on display a very carefully drawn-out map of the logical gates of one piece, and even by the fact that both the catalog for the 1971 show and the press materials for the present show have such prominent photos of Mohr at his plotter. That picture selection, in particular, was not an accident, and it certainly wasn’t out of Mohr’s control – if he had created his drawings exclusively for the visual effect, we would expect to see them front and center in his press materials (think if a painter showed himself at an easel on a catalog cover! How tacky!).

      More generally, when I take all your suggestions I’m not sure what criteria for criticism are left – I can’t comment on how objects look, I’m not told how the objects were made, I can’t say how I would arrange the objects, there’s no representation or symbolism anywhere in the show, and I can’t be subjective. What exactly do you think criticism is?

      • http://twitter.com/mariuswatz Marius Watz

        >Firstly, I never said they were terrible – I wouldn’t have written so
        much about them if I thought that – I said they looked terrible.

        I’m confused. What is the difference?

        >The idea that Mohr would expect viewers to determine which diagonal of
        an eleven-dimensional hypercube he was moving along, with arbitrary
        coloring and visual planes, is absolutely ridiculous. That’s simply not
        the case. Mohr clearly cares that people know and understand his
        process.

        You’re right, he does open himself up for that reading, which is perhaps a mistake. The line pieces in particular seem very didactic, but I still think that they contain the key to their own creation in the image itself. Knowing the algorithm isn’t necessary in order to deduce their general logic. (By the way, making random line drawings are like learning to walk for a code-based artist. Mohr’s problem in this show is that there are a few too many of them.)

        You’re correct that the viewer can’t deduce the state of a hypercube from a rendering of a detail of it. But the hypercube works aren’t didactic in nature, rather they are classic formal investigations. As such, I don’t see why Mohr should provide an explanation of the exact algorithm used. I even see the hypercube as somewhat irrelevant as well, since the viewer’s experience is less of a 4D form and more of a composition of lines and color fields.

        >More generally, when I take all your suggestions I’m not sure what
        criteria for criticism are left – I can’t comment on how objects look,
        I’m not told how the objects were made, I can’t say how I would arrange
        the objects, there’s no representation or symbolism anywhere in the
        show, and I can’t be subjective. What exactly do you think criticism is?

        By all means, you should absolutely critique all the points you mention – I’m simply saying that I found your review arbitrary and that I don’t think you satisfactorily explain your line of reasoning for saying that things are “terrible” and “suck”. You ‘re free to think it’s a weak show, in fact I was a little disappointed by the presentation myself.

        But as a follower of Mohr’s work it was nice to see the historical artifacts and a completist collection of pieces, even if it did come at the cost of curatorial clarity and exhibition flow. Which perhaps proves your point that a random visitor would find the work difficult to engage with. I can live with that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28124954 Jennifer Chan

    All that coding and what comes out is blah; the big dilemma sometimes with software art… it’s quite X-Y-Z if the work/ideas hinge on the conceptual ones we are already comfortable with from our canonical art education. doesn’t change how the work looks…

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