The Courage of One's Convictions

by Thomas Kurtz

Because Manfred Mohr was never particularly enthusiastic about the school system in general or about academic art, because as a musician he preferred to tour the jazz clubs (basements) and concert halls rather than to study jewelry design, his father's wish that his son should succeed him in the jewelry industry was to remain unfulfilled. Born in 1938 in Pforzheim in South Germany, Manfred Mohr went to the Kepler high school, served an apprenticeship as a goldsmith and at the same time attended the School of Art and Design in his home town (today the Design University), but then took a line that was not expected of him. At the school of art and design Professor Karl Heinz Wienert and his successor Adolf Buchleiter introduced the student to avantgarde art. He soon earned the reputation of an "impulsive genius", and in 1962 won the school prize of the City of Pforzheim together with a scholarship to the partner school in Barcelona, where he enrolled but never attended a single course.
Pursued by this lack of interest in art schools and school art, the student in Barcelona remembered his second talent. Instead of studying he joined the rock group of the singer Rocky Volcano, who staged "planned nonsense" (Mohr) in nightclubs. For two years he toured around Spain, making records and being arrested several times by the rigorous police of the Franco dictatorship. The band folded up when Rocky Volcano bit the lead guitarist in the ear. By that time Manfred Mohr and Jürgen Leudolph had already founded a private jazz club in a former butcher's cellar in Pforzheim. Mohr played tenor sax and oboe in two jazz groups and even cut a disk in the School of Art and Design. For over thirty years he then regarded himself less as a painter than as a non-playing musician. Today, when he describes the diagonal paths of a multidimensional cube reduced to the two-dimensional plane of the canvas, he talks of a "sound in space" and of "unbelievable rhythms that can't be invented from nowhere", of lines "that resound in a visible equilibrium" or of their tensional relationship, "similar to the counterpoint of a sequence of notes in music". Might it be that his present-day computer-composed pictures are in the last definition scores for ever new sound improvisations that are only "audible" through the eye and must be intoned by the observer himself ?
After the end of his career as a musician in Spain, Manfred Mohr returned to Pforzheim and was given an exhibition in the Galerie zum Hof in the Reuchlin House, headquarters of the Pforzheim arts and crafts association, but his thoughts were already in Paris. For the winter term of 1963/64, deciding to try out the "school adventure" once more, he enrolled as an art student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he won a prize in 1965 for lithography but still found school activities "uninteresting" (Mohr). It is characteristic of the artist's outlook and development that he found the initial priming for his oeuvre as we know it today outside the framework of academic arts - in the Meteorological Institute in Paris in 1968. His artistic evolution up to that time, over a period of nearly thirty years, appears astonishingly consistent although there was no purposeful plan behind his development from an "impulsive genius" to a pioneer of computer art. There are three great developments between the work Zerreissprobe (Breaking Test) of 1961, which still embodied a spontaneous and emotionally inspired act - Mohr stretched one of his girl friend's black nylons over a white wooden board - and the first Band Structures of 1969, early algorithmic works drawn with the computer.
The first step on his way to computer art - the computer was at that time an utterly unfamiliar tool for Mohr - was his radical break with color. From 1962 on he painted with black and white only, the two forms of information that are left after radical logical deduction and that incombination embody the simplest form of command and decision. The radical nature of the supposed minimalization of the painter's possibilities is reflected in the choice of a rigorously operating binary system with which other complex systems can be constructed. Black and white as two exclusive basic elements (or as two computer instructions like "yes" or "no") create and order a new pictorial world. Mohr himself consciously rates the limitation - strictly observed even thirty-odd years after the exclusion of color from the paintings and only very rarely mitigated by intermediate shades of gray - as a reduction but not a loss. His purpose is to achieve through the clear and simple decision between the two possibilities an "absolute basis of communication" (Mohr), in a sense a truthfulness beyond all shadow of doubt, however hackneyed that term may sound today. This is not purism, but consistent thinking.
This latter quality also characterizes his second step in the direction of computer art. From 1965 onward it was no longer spontaneous emotions transmitted to the brush that shaped paintings inspired by Tachisme or Action Painting, but logic and precision. The works suddenly convey an architectonically structured surface area, held in equilibrium by the geometric relationship of its constituent parts. "Mohr's plates are esthetic paraphrases of the exact method of organization of our automated civilization," writes Dr. Wolfgang Sauré in Die Kunst (April issue, 1968). Geometric elements are distributed in orderly fashion over the picture field, ending in a carefully thought out hard edge painting. Influenced by technical and other signs, signals of his environment, which for instance in 777 MHz (1967) might be taken from a wiring diagram, Mohr borrows and invents geometric elements, the choice and arrangement of which nevertheless remain subjective. The artist assembles a library of geometric forms, a database, containing information he can use when and as required.
New parallels to computer work now became evident, except that in the computer a given program is run through with exchangeable variables. It was only in 1968 that the artist systematized the contents of his compositions, taking the third step toward the computer art he produces today. His first one-man exhibition in the Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris in 1968 confirmed that he had found the right line for his purpose. At this juncture Mohr no longer thought it sufficient to collect in his sign library the formal constants that constituted his esthetic vocabulary, such as circles, squares and lines, and then to create a picture with them on the canvas. It was now the idea that counted, their integration in a logical program, a purposeful sequence. The book Artificiata I was compiled in 1968 and published a year later by Editions Agentzia in Paris. In it Mohr writes: "The viewer will have to learn to observe small changes in signs and their parameters so as to attain to a new sensitization of his visual field." He was here already pointing to the methodical procedure of the next few years, which was based not on visual considerations but on the construction of algorithms. The little book is a kind of visual score in which note lines instead of signs present a graphic music that reminds us of the jazz musician of the earlier years.
In the year in which Artificiata I was written Mohr happened to see on French television a short reportage on the Meteorological Institute in Paris, which had just acquired an automatic plotter for the computer which at that time still took up a whole room. The apparatus that could be seen on the TV screen drawing isobars and wind directions across the paper immediately fascinated the artist. When he turned up at the Meteorological Institute and wanted to know if there was any chance of doing art drawings with the computer, he was greeted by astonishment and curiosity, but also by unexpected helpfulness. To obtain access to the institute, which was a barred military zone, he wrote a letter on the stationery of the open university of Vincennes certifying that his studies made it desirable for him to familiarize himself with the operation of the computer. He had luck, and the French Ministry of Transport sent him a special permit with a code card. The young artist soon had the privilege of working at the Institute undisturbed, and up to 1981, when the plotter was taken out of service, he was able to develop his algorithmic oeuvre as a regular and welcome visitor to the meteorologists' computing center. The fact that the artist took his computer work very seriously from the beginning is revealed by his participation with other students in the founding of the seminar Art et Informatique at the open University of Vincennes, which is still running today. He learned programming as an autodidact. It was also during his studies in Paris, in 1969, that he met the American mathematician Estarose Wolfson, with whom he still shares a loft in New York.
After his first exhibition of works done with the computer Mohr for a time kept the manner of their production secret. The public reacted reproachfully for the most part to the "unartistic" way in which the drawings were made. One observer who understood what the artist was aiming at was the Frenchman Pierre Barbaud, the first musician in Europe to compose with the computer. Before Mohr wrote his first computer program, he was stirred by a lecture by Barbaud on the relations of the computer and music. The artist was also influenced by the ideas of the German art theorist and founder of information esthetics, Max Bense. The composer Barbaud, who remained a friend of the artist until his death, was able to convince the latter that the computer has a decisive advantage over the human mind. It calculates without making errors, it "thinks" and "acts" without subjectivity, without any emotional clouding. Mohr saw it as a means of excluding subjectivity, which is otherwise always present, from the process of painting. In his work with the computer he soon discovered that it was an extension of his artistic potentialities. It was of course technically possible to draw his sign and line constellations in "free creativity", without a program, without computer calculations and by hand, but an artist would very soon be guided by previous works and would begin to repeat himself. Since the computer has no psychological barriers, and the "pure" logic of the algorithms offers a profusion of combinations that, though (calculable) finite, often ends only after untold variants, Mohr's method of handling signs comprises a much greater degree of freedom than the traditional creative process of composition.
The artist insists that the computer is only an aid, that it has no shaping function itself but only rationalizes and carries out the handling of forms: "If I can't formulate something myself, the computer can't do it either. It does only what I tell it to do." The working of the computer is restricted to converting the program fed into it into signs, and in calculating numbers for variables in the program, for instance plotting a random result within predetermined limits by means of a random number generator. Access to the computer is only possible through the input of a program, a coded set of working instructions. Mohr formulates the rules, various mathematical procedures for visual presentation, and this is the basic process of his artistic work. It should be noted that the artist starts out with vague visual ideas, then finds algorithms, and is often surprised by individual results.
"My art is not mathematical but is a statement shaped out of my experience. I am not trying to illustrate cold mathematics, but a vital philosophy," says Mohr. In this way the artist finds his way with the computer, in a dialogue that allows detours and wrong turns and that incorporates chance as a vitalizing element reaching a solution of the program that corresponds to his ideas of "visual tensions" and "esthetic fields of force".All the works drawn by the computer in accordance with the selected "end program" are "accepted unconditionally as legitimate results" (Mohr). What then is "typically Mohr" in the automatically produced pictures, where can his "hand" be recognized ? There is, for instance, the artist's wish to find an "individual algorithm" which is not a visualization of mathematical functions, but for which the mathematical formula only serves as an aid. The artist calls his two-dimensional signs "êtres graphiques", attributing to them a development and a history of their own resulting from the "program dialogue", and thus a real life of their own, regarding them as bearers of individual esthetic information.
"The choice reveals my esthetic, my style, reflects my thinking. The choice is my personality," Mohr states. He develops subprograms, for instance, "esthetic filters" (Mohr) to sort out possible compositional steps in accordance with his rules, and he insists on a programmed chance that guarantees a selection free from all values and emotions. At the same time he enthuses about the "thrill of finding", the "discovery of unsuspected possibilities". For his works on the six-dimensional hypercube since 1991 he has investigated 23040 possible diagonal paths, scrutinizing their structures on the computer monitor, wondering at their variety, the unexpected constructions "that are basically all good", and finally selecting from them, but not by purely esthetic criteria. He tends rather to hunt out categories on the screen in a documentary sense, categories to which the graphic patterns can be allocated, so that in a last move he can present exemplary instances of their differences.
Mohr does not come forward as an information specialist, and it is not necessary to be a trained mathematician to experience his paintings as art with their own high graphic qualities. But this leads to difficulties in the labeling of his oeuvre. Mohr is not a "classical" computer artist but a leading and internationally recognized representative of art executed with the computer. The first one-man exhibition of computer art was staged by the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris with the works of the artist, who was then just thirty-three. The organizers of the exhibition Printed Art, a View of Two Decades, shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1980, had some difficulties in categorizing the graphic work. A separate section was therefore planned for Mohr's computer drawings. The long list of other important one-man and group shows throughout Europe, North and South America and in Russia and Japan reveals what a wide variety of categories there are for the reception of Mohr's works. Sometimes they appear in Emerging Expression - Computer Generated Imagery (The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York 1985) or to the Musée Cybernétique (Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montréal 1974), sometimes they are placed under exhibition headings such as Constructivism and the Geometric Tradition (touring exhibition of the McCrory Collection, 1979) or Die Handzeichnung der Gegenwart II (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart 1982).
Art prizes soon payed tribute to this work, opening new horizons in constructive art, for instance at the Graphic Biennale in Ljubljana in 1973 and at the World Print Competition-73 in San Francisco. In 1990, the jurors of the Camille Graeser Prize in Zurich and of the Golden Nica, (no doubt the most prestigious international prize for computer art), of the Ars Electronica event in Linz honored the lifework of a pioneer of geometric art.

Copyright by Thomas Kurtz, from Monograph 'Manfred Mohr', Waser Verlag Zürich 1994