In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah tells of how the Lord will be the judge between nations in conflict, arbitrate for many peoples, and how those people will “beat their swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:3-4). The latter was a mantle taken up by 20th-century artists in the wake of nuclear proliferation — notably Tony Price, who was dubbed “The Atomic Artist” for taking scrap metal from New Mexico’s nuclear weapons program and transforming them into sculpture.
But artists also transfigured other technology designed for military applications, even if turning swords into ploughshares was far from their intentions. A little known chapter of art history places forward-thinking artists at the University of New Mexico at the forefront of that endeavor.
In his new book, Sharing Code: Art1, Frederick Hammersley, and the Dawn of Computer Art (Museum of New Mexico Press, 160 pages, $39.95), author Patrick Frank details the evolution of the Art1 computer program and its role in the early years of digital creativity.
Art1 was developed in 1968 for the IBM 360 computer by Richard Williams, an electrical engineer on the faculty at UNM in the late 1960s. “The program enabled artists who knew nothing about computers to create art works on that large mainframe machine,” Frank writes in his introduction. However, art was not the purpose for which the IBM 360 was originally invented.
“It was designed for mathematical and scientific applications. So this was a completely unexpected use,” Frank tells Pasatiempo. “The IBM 360 that Williams used was the cutting edge at that time. It was first released in 1964, and it combined all kinds of functions in one box, so you didn’t have to reprogram your computer to go from a mathematical to a scientific to a business application. They even used it in the Vietnam War to calculate enemy troop movements. It was affiliated with military applications so much because the military had endless money to spend and a national defense priority, which takes precedence over almost every other need that the government has.”
And, in 1968, the advanced computers at UNM were affiliated mainly with labs that designed nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project, namely Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory is located at Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base. While earning his doctorate at UNM in the 1950s, Williams worked for Sandia as part of a group that made test equipment for nuclear weapons.
At UNM, Williams was introduced to sculptor Charles Mattox, who was also on the faculty, and had previously developed a drawing machine that enabled clamped pens to trace overlapping parabolas, arcs, straight lines, and circles. He approached Williams because he was interested in how computers might be used in the creation of art. Before Art1, most computer art was created using plotters, devices that held pens on arms that could draw freely over paper. They were similar to Autopens, like the kind that President John F. Kennedy used extensively to duplicate his signature.
“The first computer art exhibitions were held in 1965,” Frank says. “There was one in Germany, and there was one in New York, within a couple of months of each other. The one in New York, they didn’t even call it art. It was called Computer-Generated Pictures. What’s distinctive about Art1 is that it’s written for a computer that’s not hooked up to a plotter but, rather, to a line printer.”
Users didn’t have the benefit of a computer screen to check the progress of their work. They were limited to using punch cards, which were read by the program as commands it would then execute. There was no way to know for sure what was going to come out of the printer unless you were adept enough to visualize it in your mind’s eye, which was, likely, only possible through familiarity with punch cards that produced specific types of imagery. This was all new to the art students at UNM, who’d never before used alphanumeric characters the way an artist uses a brush to make a paint stroke. Most of them had never used computers at all. Sharing Code describes these years as an exciting, pioneering time. Art1 was an innovative approach to creativity, removed from the hands-on studio practices of painting, drawing, and sculpting. It was an entirely new artistic medium.
In the late 1960s, many artists sought to bridge the divide between artistic practices and advancing technologies. Art1’s appeal was, in part, its accessibility. It didn’t require an artist to work in concert with a technical advisor; artists and students alike could use it to create works entirely on their own. The program attracted artists interested in what Frank calls “mathematical aesthetics,” or precision works that embraced mathematical principles in their execution and, often, their appearance. It was, he writes, “a radical departure from the realist, figural, and nature-based styles, however modern they may have been, that dominated art in New Mexico at that time.” It’s no surprise that Art1 initially attracted artists who worked in non-objective abstraction, like Mattox, and Richard Cook, whose paintings tended toward abstraction.
“It evolved in a sort of open-sourced way,” Frank says. “Anybody could work on it and improve it. This was a total precursor to open-source software, which is now a dominant mode of creation.”
A perfect fit
Into the midst of this newly formed computer arts program at UNM came Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009), a left brain-thinking artist who was adept at confining himself to set of limitations, and discovering infinite varieties of artistic expression within the parameters that he set for himself. Hammersley and Art1 were the perfect fit.
Hammersley was a graduate of Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he studied under sculptor and muralist Rico Lebrun. During World War II he was a sergeant in the U.S. army, stationed in Europe. In Paris, after receiving a military discharge, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he began exploring abstraction. When he returned to Los Angeles, he attended Jepson Art Institute from 1947 to 1950, and he served an art instructor at Jepson from 1948 until 1951, during which time he became a prominent West Coast abstractionist.
He moved to Albuquerque in 1968 and took a teaching position at the University of New Mexico. After being introduced to Art1, he used it to make hundreds of prints. As a painter, Hammersley had a predilection to working within a rectangular format. The limitation of the canvas’s shape, a predetermined working area, appealed to him. Art1 provided a prescribed number of vertical and horizontal elements he could work with, similarly imposing a predetermined field for him to experiment with, exploring its boundaries and possibilities.
“He would work 3,500 ways inside the lines,” Frank says. “He was one of those artists who really blossomed in a walled garden. And Art1 was definitely a walled garden with the limitations that it had, both in terms of typography and the physical canvas, which was rather small. Within that, he took it places that nobody else could. It came at a good time for him, because he was kind of in a lull with his painting.”
In his 1969 article “My First Experience with Computer Drawings,” published in the journal Leonardo, Hammersley wrote that it took him some time to get used to working with the computer. “The intricacies and possibilities seem endless, and I have spent a great deal of time simply trying to master the mechanics of this particular technique,” he wrote. “It continues to fascinate me.”
Hammersley used Art1 to experiment with shading, and create dynamic, fluctuating rhythms on the printed paper. While he lacked the technical expertise to advance the program itself, he could achieve a high degree of complexity within the framework the program provided, which was no more than a 50-by-105 character printed field. He used dashes, capital letters, forward slashes, and back slashes to create intricate, geometric, non-objective abstractions.
But the lively fluidity of the Computer Drawings that Hammersley made at UNM, which he often gave witty titles, seem almost antithetical to methodical nature of working by machine. “When Hammersley worked with ART1 to make the drawings ... he could operate only within the program’s protocols,” wrote James Glisson, former curator at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. “Yet the artist, who turned the rules of geometry into something playful in his paintings, impishly subverted the computer’s rigidity in his Computer Drawings.”
“He taught typography, I believe, when he was at Chouinard and at Jepson,” says Merry Scully, head of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. “He was able to think about the characters — the exclamation points, the capital letters, and the numbers — as visual objects.”
In 2018, the New Mexico Museum of Art hosted the Glisson-curated traveling exhibition, To Paint without Thinking, and maintains a sizable collection of Hammersley’s art in its collection, including his computer-generated works on paper.
”The Hammersley Foundation was very generous,” Scully says. “When they were breaking up the estate, we added, I think, 20 computer drawings, which meant that we had one example of each of the computer prints that he editioned. We added some prints and a few paintings.”
Scully says that Hammersley has received wider recognition in the art world only in the last two decades. So, too, it seems, has UNM for its trailblazing artistic endeavors. “I think UNM in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a really innovative place,” she says. ”I think there was possibility.”
New programs, new vistas, and the ultimate demise
Art1’s influence extended beyond UNM. For instance, sculptor Katherine Nash, who was on the faculty of the sculpture department at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s, took a leave of absence to learn the program at UNM, which she was likely introduced to by Mattox.
“Nash took it back to the University of Minnesota,” Frank says. “She worked with electrical engineers to expand its capabilities by making possible the addition of new geometric shapes.”
Sharing Code gets into the intricacies of how Art1 advanced, explaining in detail the new capabilities introduced by Nash and others, at times getting highly technical. Nash, with the help of the engineering faculty of the university, developed new programs, which were dubbed Art2, Art3, and Art4. They allowed artists to print images with greater shades of gray and more complex geometric shapes. “No trace of these programs exists, however,” writes Frank. But Nash did use them as the basis for a related computer art program that she called Draw.
Nash also brought Art1 to Europe in the summer of 1969. At a meeting of the Computer Arts Society of Britain, an influential group of computer artists, she handed out copies to representatives of several colleges and universities. One of them was Roger Saunders, a computing, cybernetics, and data processing student at Brighton Polytechnic. After soliciting feedback from members of the Computer Arts Society, he endeavored to make the program more user friendly for artists, which led to a new Art1-based program called PLAD1 (Programming Language for Art and Design).
Frank recounts these developments in the later chapters of Sharing Code, tracing the avenues that allowed the program’s influence to propagate. Nash and Williams, for instance, collaborated on an article for the society’s newsletter, PAGE, which featured their computer-generated artwork on the cover. Her work, as well as that of Williams and Hammersley, was included in exhibitions across Britain. In the two years that followed, some of that work toured cities in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Brazil.
But the Art1 program itself would prove to be short lived. “Personal, technical, and technological factors led to its practical demise by 1975,” Frank writes. Hammersley, having no desire to become a tenured professor, left UNM in 1971, and the university cut off his access to the computer. He did, however, use some of his computer drawings as the basis for a series of lithographs he made at Tamarind Institute.
Set backs in the university’s computer arts program also contributed to Art1’s demise. Computers that used plotters, which allowed for a greater degree of artistic freedom and better image resolution, were more commonplace. But, because the instructions for using plotters were more complicated, interest in computer art dropped off. And, writes Frank, a wider trend in the art world saw a “swelling chorus of negative opinion about the union of art and technology.” Frank ties some of this sentiment to the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, because the U.S. government was patronizing some of the same tech firms, like IBM, that made computer art
The history of digital art is still evolving. Sharing Code is a significant part of the story. When discussing early computer art, historians are typically focused more on the plotter. In seeking to correct the omission of the significance of the line printer, Frank also aimed to bring computer art fully into the fold of the art world, where it still falls under the shadow of prominent mediums like painting and sculpting, despite the fact that it’s become an increasingly prominent medium in its own right.
“People treat computer art kind of like folk art, like it’s a special category,” he says. “There’s art and then there’s digital art. In the world we live in now, where we interact with technology on an hourly basis, it doesn’t make sense to marginalize artists that use digital creativity.” ◀