Harold Cohen, tireless computer art pioneer dies at 87
Harold Cohen at the Tate (1983) Aaron image in background
Harold Cohen died at 87 in his studio on 27th April 2016 in Encintias California, USA.
The first time I heard his name mentioned was when a colleague said “You cannot open a textbook on computer art without finding his name prominently”. I was just starting my PhD.
Friday 13 May 2016
After a few years, in 2014, I had the great honour of introducing Harold Cohen as the invited artist for an exhibition titled A-EYE, at Goldsmiths, University of London, on the opening night of the 50th annual convention of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour, the oldest AI society in the world and the largest in the UK. He was extremely generous with his thoughts and time, and was incredibly approachable to artists and academics, both the experienced ones and those just starting in the field. He was the undisputed star of the evening. This is how I introduced him before he gave his opening talk:
“Harold Cohen had a major reputation as a painter in the Sixties, representing the UK in the Venice Biennale, documenta and other international spaces. In 1968 he went to California on a one-year visiting professorship at UC San Diego, became involved in computing, and stayed on to build a second reputation as a pioneer in the application of computing in the arts. His celebrated AARON program was begun in 1972 while he was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University's AI Lab, and together they have exhibited at the Tate, the Brooklyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum, the LA County Museum, documenta 6 and too many others major spaces to list here. The fuller story is available on haroldcohen.com, along with a selection of Cohen's work and most of his papers.”
Harold Cohen giving the opening talk in A-EYE exhibition, AISB50 convention in London
At Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
I vividly remember the invaluable hours we spent together in London the last time I saw him. He gave me his firm handshake before walking away, leaning on his wooden cane, his charisma intact.
Harold Cohen studio memorial scene closeup Encinitas CA (2016) – Photo by Thomas Machnik
As colleagues and friends feeling his absence, this piece is to commemorate his thought and celebrate his life and the role he played for many during his fruitful life. Amongst those close to Harold Cohen is Prof Margaret A. Boden, who has known him for several decades and shared many platforms and events with him. I will leave it to her to describe the life of this great man.
Harold Cohen: An Appreciation
Margaret A. Boden
Harold Cohen died on 27th April 2016, in his studio surrounded by his artworks and art-making machines.
He was a brave, generous, and hugely talented man—and a Titan of computer art. Those of us who were personal friends will miss him hugely. We’ll reminisce fondly about his directness and sense of humour, but the memories will be tinged with great sadness.
It would be normal, at this point, to say that he was irreplaceable. And of course, in an important sense, he was. But yet …. We shall have the bitter-sweet pleasure, over the coming years, of welcoming new works of art created by some version of his art-making program, AARON. He himself used to say that this was a comfort to him: unlike other artists, his oeuvre wouldn’t be completed by his death.
As a young man, he had a phenomenal success as a painter in 1960s London, then the centre of the fashionable artistic world. Indeed, when several decades later there was an exhibition at the Barbican on the culture of “The 1960s”—which featured the Beatles, Mary Quant, and even George Best--no fewer than two of Harold’s paintings were included. Clearly, he could have rested on his laurels, continuing in that artistic line with the confidence of social success.
Instead, as the 1960s drew to a close, he turned to computer art. (And, to the UK’s loss, to California.) In 1973-5 he spent two years in Stanford, as a visiting scholar with Ed Feigenbaum. Under Ed’s tutelage, he learnt to program in LISP, and to use computers to try to explore his own artistic processes. In that sense, he was engaged in a project comparable with that of Ed’s close colleagues who were developing the first scientifically-based expert systems. AARON, which Harold continued to improve and develop over nearly 50 years, was to be an expert system in (various styles of) art.
SFMMA Installation (1979)--Photo Harold Cohen Estate.
Image of Harold working at the computer San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
His original hope, of representing and clarifying his own artistic processes, was not fulfilled. He wrote in 2005 that “The common, unquestioned bias—which I had shared—towards a human model of cognition proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. It was only after I began to see how fundamentally different an artificial intelligence is from a human intelligence that I was able to make headway” (p.c.).
Someone might assume that the switch from traditional to computer-based art was a pity—not to say a waste of artistic potential. What might he not have achieved, had he not had to face that “insurmountable obstacle”?
TCM#13 (1995) – Dye on paper – Painting Machine.
This painting was made at The Computer Museum (Boston) by the Painting Machine
Well, perhaps not as much as he did achieve, thanks to AARON. Having spent many years trying to make AARON deal with colour, as well as line and 3D-representation, he produced a version (in about 2002) that sometimes came up with staggeringly beautiful combinations where, he admitted, “I wouldn’t have had the courage to choose those colours myself”. Indeed, he regarded this version of AARON as ”a world-class colorist” whereas he himself was merely ”a first-rate colorist” (p.c.).
As for the guaranteed “success” that he was giving up on his move to the USA, this was eventually eclipsed by his worldwide fame as the best-known computer artist. AARON’s works were shown at exhibitions (including one-man exhibitions) at major galleries across the world. No doubt, this was partly due to the novelty-value—not to say the seeming paradox—of art being generated by a computer. But AARON’s art was interesting in its own right—especially in the later versions, once colour had been satisfactorily added.
Harold Cohen at MCASD (2007) – Installation Photo.
Harold at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego – Behind him is an example of AARON doing the colouring
Harold was a true pioneer, to whom the field of computer art in general owes—and will always owe--a huge debt. Just as importantly, he was a very special human being, remembered by us today with love, respect, and huge affection.
Harold Cohen studio memorial scene wide view Encintias CA (2016) – Photo by Thomas Machnik
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Hiromi Ito and Thomas Machnik for generously sharing the photos.