Manfred Mohr: A Digital 1.0 Perspective in Art History

17 February 2020 Mon

Computer Art can be defined as the manipulation of computer-based images produced as part of the creative process. In this type of work, special software is used with interactive devices, and graphic images are produced through powerful computers.


We can say that the production of computer-based art in art history has emerged from a ground created by historical avant-garde practices, animation, collage, assemblage, conceptualism, and video art. While critics at first questioned whether Computer Art was really art, it seems to have a historical genealogy now with leading names such as Ronald Davis, John Lansdown, Jean-Pierre Hebert, and Manfred Mohr. I would like to focus on Manfred Mohr in this text because the artist is known for being one of the leading names in algorithm art and he has made seminal works of computer art as this form became more layered over time. He occupies a particular place in the history of art through due to the attention he has paid to the form of “cube” through numerous works he made using this form.

Mohr started his career as a jazz musician whose instrument was the saxophone, but later on he discovered the computer as a tool suitable for art production, and moved into this field. However, the effects of musical notation are still visible in his works, and Mohr's aim at this point is clear: to create intricate and surprising images, the permeability of which can be clearly perceived by the audience. What I mean by clarity here is that the algorithm itself is a work. In other words, the numbers in the probability system are actually tools. At the end, the forms acquired by these tools become multi-dimensional cubes in the works.

Manfred Mohr, P-1271c, 2007

Since 1969, the artist has been working with computers and graphic drawing tools, so that his works are results of a certain rational process. Another important feature that distinguishes Mohr from others is that some artists choose to conceal their computer interventions in their visual production, but on the contrary Mohr suggests that a clear analysis of production will be more effective. Thus, the rotation of a geometric form and the transparency of this rotation can be seen in his studies. One of the relatively early works that we can see is the work "P-360-K" (1980-1984) in the Daimler Collection. In this study, it is seen that a cube is divided into four equal parts and each is reflected on the surface to include its own independent rotation. The writings of the theoretician Max Bense, one of the co-founders of the "Art en Informatique”, influenced Mohr’s computer-driven algorithm geometry works that he programmed in 1969Mohr opened his exhibition “Une esthétique programmée” at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville in 1971.

The effect of Mohr's work on the audience at first is in the form of facing an abstract composition. This is true to some extent, because abstract content is one of the most basic forms of conveying aesthetic information and is a powerful proposition that brings new meanings and solutions rather than presenting a re-representation of the world. Mohr defines the phenomenon of nature and mathematics as a dialectical process and not as dually opposed. Once we put his work within this framework, determining Mohr's position in relation to art history and classifying his works will lead us to a different problem.

Mohr was influenced by Art Informel, atonal Music, algorithmic music and Max Bense's rational thinking method. This makes it possible for us to include the artist in the neo-avant-garde outputs of art history, starting in the 1970s. It is not possible to separate the production of Mohr from the intermedia approach of the 1960s. The reason I do this categorization is not to understand the meaning of the artwork. On the contrary, it is thus possible to grasp that the work is related to and the fact that it is understood as a phenomenon in general history. The material can give clues as to the production of the work and even to the calculations of the algorithms within Mohr’s work; the calculation time and the output can help assess the work, but these aspects do not guarantee an aesthetic interpretation. For the artist's work, it is necessary to follow the balance between control and improvisation. The randomness can be interpreted through the notions of action painting and free jazz. In general, decisive decisions on the algorithm reflect a strong individual choice, because the probability calculation is at a certain limit. Random decisions, of course, show a more attractive improvisation possibility. If we consider this on Mohr's cube samples, the cube has a mathematical logic, but the randomness of the cube's rotation angles in computer software is the aesthetic expression of the work.

The fact of movement in Mohr's work is actually de facto from the very beginning: If we read the works through some kind of cubism, a freely practicing tracking, for example, on a cube, provides the illusion of movement from a different perspective. But, 2000s is the date of Mohr's images showing the movement clearly—now the viewer can see the movements of a cube moment by moment. This time when colors are randomly selected by the software, they clearly convey forms and their relationships. On the other hand, Manfred Mohr's concretism is also seen in computers and is not concealed. While computers are on the ground, things can be seen on the screens hanging on the wall, so that this nakedness of the computer can be seen as a clear reflection of the fact that it is a tool of the produced work. Screens are now seen as the canvases of our time.

It is seen that in a certain period of art history, as computer-based art or as new media art, which is a concept that I do not think is completely effective. The 1970s were actually the era of this refusal, because the images produced by a machine were not regarded as the aesthetic object of research in terms of art history—similar to how photography was treated at first—, but it was embraced by mainstream art.

Ultimately, Manfred Mohr is an important name in the history of art today with his computer-based work, using specific programs such as FORTRAN. Mohr, who can be considered alongside names such as Kalliopi Lemos with his use of color and color perception, can also be compared with Josef Albers in the production of a rational experience and a form of color interaction. It is possible to think of the work through the framework of minimalism, and Mohr’s practice is also part of conceptual art. It is necessary to consider the early productions with their closeness to Abstract Expressionism as a form, and then it has entered a phase that can be defined gradually as a "programmed expressionist" style. Digital art production, which started in 1969 by using computers and drawing instruments at the Paris Meteorological Institute, has reached a point where new forms are produced within the scope of an algorithm of random elements. The exhibition in 1971 was the first personal exhibition for “computer-based” works in a museum. Today, Mohr's works are exhibited in important museums such as MoMA, Centre Pompidou, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, while Victoria and Albert Museum, Centre Pompidou, Josef Albers Museum, Museum Ludwig, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart and Borusan Contemporary Art Collections include his works.


Fırat Arapoğlu is an art historian (PhD)/art critic & independent curator. He lives and works in İstanbul. He has been working in Economic, Administrative and Social Sciences Faculty, Department of Social Sciences, Altinbas University as an Assistant Professor. He curated numerous exhibitions in Turkey and abroad, most recently including: “Future Unforgettable”, Krassimir Terziev solo show (2019, Versus Art Projects, İstanbul), The Fifth Agreement, Esra Satiroglu solo show (2019, Summart, İstanbul), and “Simbart One-Day” solo show programmes. He co-curated 3rd International Canakkale Biennale and 3rd and 4th International Mardin Biennales. He has written articles in national and international art magazines such as Genç Sanat, Art-İst Modern & Actual, ICE, ARTAM, Art Unlimited, Critical Culture, RH+, İstanbul Art News and Flash Art. He has also written articles in national newspapers called Birgün, Cumhuriyet and SOL. He has also written national and international symposium proceedings about art and art education and has been giving lectures in İstanbul Modern Art Museum, Moda Sahnesi, Narmanli Sanat, İstanbul Bilgi University. He is the 2018-2020 President of AICA- Turkey (International Association of Art Critics-Turkey).

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