The Rave Webmuseum's Spotlight Gallery presents

February - July 2000


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Manfred Mohr - Cubist in the Computer Age

by Prof. Eugen Gomringer

In the last three decades few artists have made such thorough research and such distinctive accomplishments in the field of constructivist aesthetics using a computer as Manfred Mohr, the German-born artist (1938 in Pforzheim), who has made New York his home for years now. Many artists, at least occasionally, also make use of the computer, but instead of advancing the cause of "programmed" art in any way have themselves been the cause of misunderstandings that have relegated this art to a secondary rôle. In total contrast, Manfred Mohr has gained world-wide recognition for his art. It must be emphasized that the artist Manfred Mohr is implied with this appraisal, for the superficial glance at the graphic linearity in his black and white works might convey the idea that the author is a mathematician - and here is where one of the misunderstandings begins. That this is not the case is for one put right by Manfred Mohr himself and secondly clarified by the artistic spirit, the artistic "gravity" behind the way he defines and solves the problem involved. Incidentally, Manfred Mohr began as an abstract expressionist, albeit signs of a geometric repertoire as well as linear structures that had a certain priority in the semiotic vocabulary of the sixties are already evident. His poetic vein, as it may, must also be taken into consideration, if his instinct for playing, for example, with concrete poetry, is assessed properly, namely as his unconventional resorting to means and methods.

Manfred Mohr has succeeded in placing the cube, a primordial model of constructivist thinking and creation, in the center of a vital philosophy, whose extensions, however, were made possible only with the help of a computer. But this aspect is well known so that full attention can be directed on the artist's work. It is "only" a matter of looking into the artistic question of "how", the artist himself always ensuring transparent relationships with clear images. In various work phases Mohr once cut the cube in two, dividing it through the center in varied halves with an horizontal cut, and at another time he divided it into four parts with an horizontal and a vertical cut through the center. With these works based on the cube since 1973, constructivist art has taken a formerly undreamt-of, new and phenomenal development. Manfred Mohr describes his method as follows: "The visual idea is to create unstable signs by deliberately disrupting, if not breaking completely, the symmetry of the cube. I developed certain methods: the subtraction of edges from the cube, the clipping of the cube by a square window formed by its frontal view, and the cutting of the cube along the Cartesian axes, allowing parts of the cube to be rotated independently." He expanded the processes in such a way that new algorithms were created, which he compares with biological or organic growth.

What the viewer can expect as the results of applying such methods are linear sign constellations of two structures, two-dimensional projections of the multi-dimensional manipulations of the cube. The structure made up by the thin lines delineates in the shape of a polygon the edges of the cube as well as the horizontal and vertical cut-lines, the thick lines forming the inner lines of the rotated parts of the cube. Superstructures are then formed by extending the processes and creating new algorithms. Splendid above all, however, are the simple horizontal divisions brought about by the rotation of both halves. In that Mohr also sets the square window of the traditional pictorial shape over the linear structures, the thick inner lines become separate signs, which fulfill their semantic function in part without the polygonal contour, in part with it. Optical "turn-down" effects are created, comparable to the "constellations" Josef Albers formulated. The "inventors" of cubism would marvel at the possibilities of the new medium. Mohr's operational models, based on individual signs as repertoire, enable him to produce combinatorial, statistical or symbolic-logical variations. Typical for his entire work is always the act of selecting the aesthetic process. In this sense, Manfred Mohr is also an adherent and developer of Max Bense's theory.

In a further statement, the artist reveals a deeper motivation for his work with the computer, and an art- philosophical thesis on the real state of affairs today could not put it better: "The aesthetic result is ultimately not essentially different from a drawing, but what fascinates me about a machine is the experience of a physical and intellectual extension of myself." No wonder that one of the most competent authors writing about Manfred Mohr, Manfred Schmalriede, drew attention to the dialogue between the artist and the computer, "the latter visualizing the alterations of the program immediately into altered configurations in a type of high-speed processing or, as apostrophized by Mohr, high-speed visual thinking. This dialogue can be compared with Paul Klee's 'pictorial conception'." In his endeavors, Manfred Mohr has experimented with dimensions that resulted in generative processes, dimensions not accessible to perception and intuition, yet depictable. Even the uninitiated viewer of Mohr's works will anticipatorily experience an incomprehensible whole, an invisible universality in what the painting makes visible. Even though the brain is a part of the world developed to great complexity, it has yet to fathom its own complexity. Such reflections, which Manfred Mohr's works evoke, are indications of an emerging cultural change, and they may no longer belong to the aesthetics of constructivism at first view. But in 1958 already Max Bense postulated: "The deeper one penetrates into the micro-aesthetic nature of a work of art, the less can the physical and aesthetic process be separated; the work of art conventionally characterized in this way becomes blurred, disperse and conjugated conditions appearing, whose aesthetic identification cannot be authentic in all cases."

However, Manfred Mohr still works with perceptible tension-filled relationships as well, confirming that his art, as he sees it, visualizes not cold mathematics, but rather a vital philosophy. A good example of this is one of his last series, the 15-part "Counterpoint" series, based on the "6-D hypercube". With its diagonal structures it runs up against the edges of the picture, incorporates these, creating tension between sign and format. In the same way, the latest works, drawings and acryl paintings modify their format on the basis of their inner logic, that is to say, format and contour represent the logic of their structure. Consequently, every encounter with Manfred Mohr's work is ultimately, as with all art, an encounter with the tension between the inner and outer, but it is in the selection of the medium and in the skill with which the dialogue is carried out with it that the historical moment lies.




by Lauren Sedofsky

Acknowledging the "intelligence" of a work of art generally amounts to nothing more than recognizing, somewhat elliptically, a clever move on the part of its maker. However radical the objectorientation of contemporary critical theory, we nonetheless make an effortless leap to the artist's faculties, whether conscious or unconscious, as the sole source of artistic agency. But what would it mean to contend that a work was inhabited by some sort of autonomous intelligence, to submit, quite seriously, that it gave ever so visible evidence of a transcendent power, a power that both informed and exceeded it? The suggestion might seem extremely odd in connection with a corpus of contemporary geometrical art that aspires to a thoroughly limpid logic. Yet, what Manfred Mohr has termed with remarkable acuity his "êtres graphiques" or "graphic entities" reveal upon careful inspection a relational necessity beyond the reach of the artistic hand and eye, coupled with a morphological improbability that defies projections of the visual imagination. Necessary and improbable, these linear concatenations impose upon the viewer an encounter with some sort of inscrutable instrumentality, rather like the monolith of "2001" or the ruins at Hyderabad or Stonehenge. They insist, with rare assertive force, although the underlying raison d'être remains obscure.

The intelligence that looms in Mohr's êtres graphiques attests to a visible persistence of the underlying conceptual apparatus with which they were generated: the computer program. Neither formal analysis alone nor readily available notions of artistic "process" will prove adequate to account for the exploratory procedure that  Mohr calls "algorithmic thinking." And with this observation we confront 50 years of intellectual and artistic conflict. It is worth remembering the thousands of Anglo-Saxon philosophical papers of the post-war years devoted to the seemingly threatening question, "Can Machines Think?" (all of them by and large devoid of any distinction between hardware and software, between electronic circuits and formalized language), as well as the unequivocal opprobrium cast on technology in general by the Frankfort School. Out of this manifest uneasiness came what might be viewed retrospectively as the most curious artistic reappropriation of instrumental activity: on the one hand, mechanical reproduction and its corollary, hyperrealism; on the other, "task-performance" in dance, in performance art, in Systematic and Conceptualist instructions for the making of art. Sol Lewitt's phrase "the idea becomes a machine that makes art" exemplifies the evident short-circuiting between art and a major historical phenomenon. His own instructions for the execution of an art object, written in ordinary language, conform to an algorithmic logic, but only by way of reactive parody. If transgression has been the byword of the avant-garde for some time, at least one transgression still remains too transgressive for the art community to swear by: the kind of one-on-one with a logic device typified by Mohr's investigations, in which the artist, thinking in 0 and 1, attempts  to outdistance his own capacities.

An engagement with the computer on its own terms differs considerably from its more recent use for the electronic control of art installations, the manipulation of previously existing images known as "morphing," or the modeling of conventionally conceived geometrical compositions. The question is what an artist of the Minimalist/post-Minimalist generation, whose work is often wrongly confused with Minimalism, was after in taking this, at the time, unprecedented approach. The Minimalist credo, in a grossly reductivist form, might read as follows: simple, single, one-term Gestalt, symmetrical, non-compositional, inert, immobile, non-relational, if possible possessed of an obsessional repetition of the same. Squares and parallelepipeds, naturally, fit the bill. Paradoxically for the viewer, however, from out of this strategy to attain an impenetrable, anti-rational stasis, in which presumably "nothing happens," sprang a veritable plethora of complex, dynamic, asymmetrical virtual relations - furtive, ephemeral booty for the moving eye. More evident in the sculpture than in the drawing of the period, this latent morphogenetic potential fed the later works of that elder statesman of the black boxes, Tony Smith, just as it had filtered much earlier into the cubic considerations of Alberto Giacometti. To label Mohr's êtres graphiques "Euro-geo," as the Minimalists might have done with disdain, is to miss the point of his avowed desire to "break the symmetry of the cube." Balance is not the issue, for he has resolutely retained both the much vaunted Minimalist disregard for composition and the premium it put on an all-inclusive Gestalt. What animates his project, however, is an effort, painstaking and interminable, to capture an unknown, as yet only glimpsed  excess within the geometrical figure - to localize, to isolate, to fix its countless immanent relations, a task to which the mind's eye is not equal.

In his reliance on a modus operandi of signal simplicity and transparency, Mohr participates unequivocally in the sensibility of the '60s and '70s. On the agenda of an age given to radical demystifications will figure in large the achievement of a communally acknowledged "aesthetic" effect in an entirely demonstrable manner. For this, the deduction of form from the frame employed in Frank Stella's early paintings, as well as their structural incorporation of commonly recognizable signs such as the cross or the protractor, remain a way station in the eradication of content emanating from the artist's  psychological core. In its most overt manifestations, Systematic or Process Art participate in the evacuation of personal prerogatives by establishing a priori rules for the making of art, although the strict autonomy of the se rules often founders on their arbitrariness. Mohr finds his place, quite obviously, within this mind-set. But, with the decision to impose the computer's intervening agency, he tackles the severe requirement of objectification head on. Its use exteriorizes the artist's thinking within the bounds of a limited and coherent string of instructions (the algorithm), fully accessible and verifiable in its codified form. Anchored in the axiomatic, that is, self-evident and universal, a linear cube serves as his exclusive topological field of operations. Pushing the notion of demonstrability to the extreme, Mohr translates the programmatic parameters into ordinary language in his catalogs : "a random selection of four 'diagonal-paths' from this repertoire of 23040 (32x720) possible paths is made," "the line width is inversely proportional to the decrease in color intensity from black to grey." Explanatory diagrams identify the constitutive components of each work-phase and show their location within the cube. We are in the realm of objective equivalents, which is where the enigma of "art" returns with a vengeance. For, if a clearly defined process can indeed produce an object possessed of an "aesthetic" dimension, it nonetheless leaves intact the mystery of "why."

In view of the hard-edge clarity of his êtres graphiques, as well as their austere reduction to black/white/grey, Mohr has chosen, ironically, to stress his lack of training in Constructivism and his roots in abstract expressionism, especially as exemplified by K.R.H. Sonderborg. For some reason, these often cited remarks have gone without commentary. At the very least, Mohr's recourse to axonometry inevitably summons up a connection with El Lissitsky's reintroduction of this mode of geometrical projection into 20th century art. But that is not all. Like Lissitsky's Prouns, the êtres graphiques promote a panoptic visualization of figures in space. This negation of point of view liberates the viewer from his or her traditional position and dislodges the figure from its traditional axes by rotation. For Mohr, the "four-cut" often functions as an active element in the design. Subject, itself, to rotation, and thereby torn from a proper vertical and horizontal orientation, it creates points of rupture where the cube breaks away or points of suture where disparate portions of the cube mutate into larger entities. Of course, the êtres graphiques in no way exploit the virtual space behind or in front of the vertical plane, as do Lissitsky's Prouns. They are rigorously planimetric. No doubt the computer's visual interface, the cathodic screen, becomes an important leveler of dimensions, reducing them, as it does, simply to coordinates on a Cartesian grid. The ambiguity that Lissitsky sought between bi- and tri-dimensionality, however, most certainly subsists in the êtres graphiques, but their linear rather than volumetric form, extended into a fourth, a fifth, even a sixth dimension, renders that ambiguity far more complex and resistant to spatial analysis. For Mohr has extended the Lissitskian project to represent the advent of a secular, mathematical infinity with the axonometric parallels to a more contemporary 2-dimensional representation of the n-dimensional universe of logico-mathematical speculation.

Most obviously, the êtres graphiques recall the Prouns by the way they float in space. Here the influence of Sonderborg's tachisme becomes pertinent. Apparent in Mohr's earliest free-hand works is a reliance on dominant and sub-dominant marks to organize a largely empty field of tensions. Apart from this exceedingly spare notation, in which hard-edge elements vie with more haphazard, hesitant traces, no attempt is made to treat the ground - that is, to treat the ground as ground. Mohr clearly understood the color-field adventure in the most economical of terms, and the flattest. Only the qualities specifically attributable to drawing (thickness and thinness, stability and instability) provide the vaguest suggestion of spatial depth. The sufficiency of the linear as the sole determinant of form - without the benefit of a conventional frame to harness its dynamics, without the benefit of color to enhance those dynamics - will become one of the high stakes in the production of the êtres graphiques. Starting with the first computer-generated matrices, Mohr situates the configuration in a non-space, a blank, implicitly co-extensive with the continuum. This isolation of the linear inscription on a neutral support, a plane of least resistance, will continue right up to the recent work-phase "Counterpoint." With certain êtres graphiques, however, Mohr arrives at an inscription so self-contained that it becomes entirely self-supporting and can be released into the world in and of itself: with the inextricable relations of figure/ground of the shaped canvases ("Divisibility," "Half-Planes") and with the complex unitary autonomy of the reliefs ("Laserglyphs" and "Half-Planes").

For reasons of expedience, no doubt, Mohr's commentators have unanimously accepted without question his terse remarks to the effect that the êtres graphiques constitute "signs" or involve "semiotics." Indeed, the issue would be far simpler were semiotics not the unfinished science of the '60s and '70s that reflected upon itself to extinction. Nonetheless, at first glance, Mohr's would seem to be an open and shut case. In their inaugural stage, his "cubic" works had already taken the formal notation of computer language across the great divide into a visual equivalent that resembled constellations of hieroglyphic-like marks laid out on a matrix. The telltale trace of writing appeared throughout the circuit from start to finish. What is more, the operational pattern had been established, once and for all: constitute repertories of similarly defined linear relations, assign a set of combinatorial rules. If the application of a linguistic model to the visual arts as a mode of "reading"  has always proved problematic at best, here it has been activated at the very "horizon" of artistic "production," much in the way envisioned by Max Bense in his "Projects for a Generative Aesthetics." Mohr has amply acknowledged his debt to Bense's writings, but the significance of this crucial encounter has never been shown to lie in a philosophical aesthetics that affirms the technological sphere as our "authentic reality," that grapples with theoretical physics, logic, linguistics and information theory at their point of intersection with avant-garde art - an aesthetics that focuses, ultimately on the "ambition to produce 'aesthetic reality'". For, Bense's "Projects" boldly signals the hour of a mathematizing of the art object, through a manipulation of "signs" along the lines of a generative grammar.

Of whatever brand, semiotics represents the search for deep or latent structures buried in an entity that would otherwise appear opaque or undifferentiated. In the circularity of taking a method of analysis as a formative principle, the difficulty of approaching the êtres graphiques as "signs" becomes apparent. For, from the point of view of codes and messages, what kind of principle for the production of "meaning" can be retrieved from these configurations other than the already explicit code in which they were originally written? Tautology, of course, has been much touted in Conceptual Art, and Mohr - who has used the word "sign" alternatively for the single work, the constitutive element, or the salient linear feature - seems willing to allow that these are self-referential signs. Understanding individual works of art as self-referential and possessed of a uniquely internal syntax has become common. But, it is precisely the systematic generation of the êtres graphiques, scanning both the work-phase and the oeuvre as a whole, that precludes such an understanding. Were all the conceivable signs self-referential, in any event, the linguistic component would vanish, as would the residuum of the cubic matrix in each element. What any search for "signs" in the êtres graphiques obscures is a more contemporary, supra-linguistic issue: how a formalized language lends itself to translation into a visual equivalent. Semiotics, before its waning, moved out of linguistics proper into the broader domain of communication within a cultural context. Similarly, the question of "meaning" in algorithmic art will have to be reoriented within the bounds of the use and the reception, quite specifically, of the written image.
The programmatic intelligence perceptible in the êtres graphiques derives from an intelligence of something, something intelligible in each of its partial manifestations and intelligent in conception: the cube. For it must be understood that, however foreign to the eye, all of the linear relations found in the works exist as such within the geometrical figure. In this sense, Mohr's abstract art amounts to a sort of realism. The status of the represented object, however, is surely exceptional. With the invention of geometry, in its perfect demonstrability and transmissibility, Western thinking for centuries will find its model of objectivity lodged in an object. And it is just such an object that Mohr seems bent upon deposing. The studied decomposition of the cube into its sub-structures, of no mathematical significance in and of themselves (hence Mohr's insistence that his art is not mathematical), becomes the mapping of the mathematical object's immanent excess, the determination of the higher power of "inclusion" over "belonging" in the infinite unraveling of sets into sub-sets. That the long-standing unitary status of the cube should resolve into pure multiplicity only reinforces our contemporary understanding of mathematics as the discourse concerned uniquely with the multiple, just as it considerably alters our recognition of the work of art as a single object. The capacity of Mohr's programs for relation retrieval to generate large quantities of visual equivalents - no two of which look alike - imposes a more capacious definition. Even his own suggestion to take the sum total of executed works as the work of art will prove inadequate. For the work-phases, such as we can know them, represent only "samples," while, in conception, they encompass a vast reserve and evolve within a logic of potentially interminable expansion.

In assigning the notion "work of art" to an on-going, open-ended extrapolation, Mohr is not alone. Conceptual Art practices of the proliferative kind repose on a similar temporal dimension within a work of art forever in the making. In artistic terms, Mohr's declared "search for a hyperprogram" capable of generating all possible êtres graphiques within the cube has been reformulated over time by his oeuvre: the search is the hyperprogram. In this respect, it is interesting to observe how Mohr's strictly heuristic use of the digital image occupies a territory mid-way between established artistic practice and the paradigm of computer simulation, understood as the visualization of theoretical systems, or even simply forms, evolving over time. Based on a priori rules (the transcription of relations, continuous variations and multi-dimensional structures), simulation creates the cond itionsof production for a microcosm, an autonomous formalized universe whose inherent possibilities become accessible to exhaustive exploration. Something on the order of the auto-organizing, auto-finalizing behavior of such systems already informs Mohr's growth patterns in "Divisibility, II," as it does an unrealized project to move through a series of êtres graphiques on a large-format liquid crystal screen. Not simulation but like simulation, then, Mohr's approach to the cube - a system that is already everything it can be - hinges on the unpredictable, sequential revelation of its facets within an entirely conceptual space, like the "phase space" of simulation. Without an available notion of such a multi-dimensional, time-oriented conceptual space - where formalized ideas acquire visibility - the compelling, confounding dimensional density or fullness of the 5-dimensional "Line Clusters" or the 6-dimensional "Half-Planes" would be impossible to account for, while the history of the emergence of each être graphique, in this new narrative art, would go unnoticed.

Who or what, then, is the artist? To accept the constraint of the cube for nearly thirty years, as well as the mediation of the computer, is to firmly fix the making of art on an oblique angle to its finality. Call the artist, therefore, a subjectivity without object, whose only point of orientation is an absolute fidelity to a procedure. No mastery here, only a decision: to proceed this way. The sustainability of the enterprise, the gnawing issue of how to continue, depend on the human variable in the equation: the artist as operator, in the mathematical sense, entering hypothetical laws of composition in an abstract notation, while passing alternately through moments of blindness and moments of insight. Within this regime of regulation, periodic epiphanies populate the cathodic screen - a vast array of unsuspected singularities, each testifying to the up to now unimaginable "thisness" of its form. Where the particularity of the work of art was once a function of the artist's individuality, here form begets form. The progressive relinquishing of a conception of the artist as the point of origin and source of originality for the work of art, reinforced by successive generations of artists for decades now, advances in this scheme to the status of a foregone conclusion. Accessible, repeatable, extensible, by anyone, the algorithm guarantees the entry of its art into a nexus of communication, in which the artist submits to the impending possibility that his "work" might well become collective and collateral.