The First Digital Painting
My integration of art and science had its origins in the summers of my childhood when I was set free among the salamanders, swallows, and sowbugs of the Catskill Mountains of New York. I filled my days studying the behavior of the creatures of the forests and ponds and making drawings and paintings of them interacting in their natural habitats as well as in imaginary worlds of my creation. Intellectual curiosity and zealous observation coupled with creative encounters and intimate friendships with these creatures made boundaries between science and art diaphanous. I had no clue that science and art were not one integrated human endeavor.
My soul darkened on returning to the gray city after my summers of joyous holistic learning in the green hills framed by the gentle rapids of the Neversink River. I could not grasp a world broken apart into different subjects in school. But I discovered touches of the summer color by skipping school to spend days at the MoMA and The Met and the Whitney when it was in Greenwich Village. I was fortunate to have parents who appreciated my creative imagination and bought me paints and canvases for expressing it.
My childhood curiosity about what went on under logs and rocks in the forest followed me to the university where I studied biology and wrote my thesis on the ecology of terrestrial isopods. These isopods were my childhood summer friends – sowbugs – land-adapted crustaceans breathing with gills, surviving in the damp habitat under decaying logs. My scientific studies on the interrelationships between sowbugs and other organisms in their shared environment evolved into the systems thinking and ecological perspective that permeates my work as an artist.
In 1959, I married my wonderful wife Miriam who was born in Suriname where the Amazon River reaches the Atlantic Ocean and grew up in a farm in Israel. Our first three children were born in New York and our fourth was born 18 years later in Israel. I encouraged their playful experimentation with everyday objects that led to the publications of my best-selling books Sound Science and Light and Sight inviting children on a playful romp to discover how their senses of sight and hearing reveal the secrets of light and sound. I earned my living as a science educator while studying painting at the Art Students League.
I developed a way for children to create a simple computer for learning the binary system that I described in my 1964 paper “The Binary System and Computers” published in the National Science Teachers Association journal Science and Children, vol. 2, no. 3, now with my other papers in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
At that time, I sensed my need to explore more deeply the interrelationships between science and art that seemed so natural to me in my summer learning in the Catskills. I went to see Professor Howard Conant, head of the art education department at New York University, to ask him if I could study for a doctorate in his department. When he learned that my BS and MS were in the sciences, he said I would first have to earn a BA and MA in art.
He then phoned me that he had seen my thought-provoking paintings exploring growth patterns of plants at Ligoa Duncan Gallery on Madison Avenue and would like to continue our conversation. He said he explored the unprecedented idea of NYU granting me an interdisciplinary doctorate in art and science with Professor Morris Shamos, head of the NYU physics department and president of the National Academy of Sciences, who liked the idea and agreed to serve on my thesis sponsoring committee. I began my studies there.
I was excited about the artistic possibilities of digital technologies when the first computer plotter arrived at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in 1965. I pleaded with the Institute’s administrators to let me experiment with making art with their mammoth computer to no avail. “Giant super-expensive computers are for serious purposes, not for playing at making art,” was their response.
As a scientist in the process of metamorphosis into an artist, I was not unfamiliar with the world of computers. I was working as test center coordinator for the American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS) curriculum project Science: A Process Approach. When I spoke about my rejection to Prof. Shamos, he jumped with enthusiasm at my proposal to create art with computers. He phoned his colleague, the director of the Courant Institute, and explained to him the importance of humanizing digital technologies at a time when science fiction writers and TV producers were frightening people into believing that computers would take over the world and enslave them.
I was granted free reign at the computer center in response to Prof. Shamos’ question, “Is there a better way to put a human face on computers than to have them make art?” I programmed instructions for the computer to plot geometric pictures on rolls of paper. My cold, calculated computer-generated drawings in black on white seemed to invite a warm, sensuous, colorful, high touch response. I recalled being intrigued during my childhood visits to The Metropolitan Museum of Art by the two-thousand year old portraits painted with encaustic (molten wax) in Egypt and Greece. Encaustic painting appeared to me to be a most appropriate high touch partner for high tech digital drawings.
I made encaustic paints by melting beeswax with microcrystalline wax and damar resin crystals that I mixed with powdered pigments. The vibrant colors of my molten paints sensuously flowed over the plotter’s hard-edged drawings hardening into a gem-like translucent surface. One of my early computer-generated encaustic paintings based on algorithms describing noise control was reproduced as the cover for the April 1966 issue of International Science and Technology. This was the first digital artwork in which a computer-generated image transformed into a sensuous painting.
I had made a proposal for my doctoral dissertation to be “Computer Generated Art.” The sponsoring committee suggested that I choose another topic since there is was not yet a bibliography of papers on the subject to cite. They approved my proposal for “A Unitary Model of Aesthetic Experience in Art and Science” based upon a content analysis of my interviews with prominent scientists, Nobel Laureates and members of the National Academic of Sciences, and artists whose artworks are in the collections of major museums. My thesis was accepted and my doctorate was awarded in 1969 by NYU. An updated book with the full interviews titled Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process was published by Bar-Ilan University Press in Israel in 1981.