Meeting on Gauguin’s Beach
Harold Cohen (GB), and AARON
This painting is a collaboration between AARON, a computer programme that drew the picture’s contours, and the artist Harold Cohen, who added the colour in oil paint. Harold began designing the AARON system in 1968 and continued developing it until his death in 2016. In its early years, AARON drew in black and white using custom-built plotter devices, including a version using flat surfaces known as a 'flat bed' and another using robotics on moving castors carrying pens, called a ‘turtle’. They were coded using the C programming language. In the early 1990s, Harold switched to the Lisp programming language in an effort to accommodate the complexity behind adding colours to the works. By the early 2000s, AARON was making full-colour images that could be inkjet-printed.
AARON made stylistic advances over time, but each required Harold to custom-code them. An important feature that distinguished AARON from the beginning was its ability to record and reference what it had already drawn, and those data would inform what it would do next, following a series of rules. As such, its drawings develop with what appears to be a sense of compositional balance as well as improvisation. It seems to recognise the possibility within its first few scribbles, then build on them to make ever more complex and eventually recognisable subjects, such as a face or flower. Sufficient randomness informs the drawings’ early development that AARON can produce new work for many lifetimes before it’s likely to repeat itself.
This work references in name, colour treatment, and subject the work of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), particularly his paintings of Tahiti from the 1890s. The vibrant colors and dramatically simplified forms belie the complexity of the underlying coding, and the patience and careful iteration Cohen must have applied to perfect it. Of working with computers, he said “an artist has never really needed his tools to be easy to use... He needs them to be difficult to use — not impossible, but difficult. They have to be difficult enough to stimulate a sufficient level of creative performance...”
This exhibit is kindly on loan from the collection of Gordon and Gwen Bell.
Harold Cohen (1928–2016) was a British-born artist who pioneered engineering software to produce art autonomously. His work at the intersection of computer artificial intelligence led to several exhibitions, including one at the Tate in London, and acquisitions by many institutions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was educated at the Slade School of Fine Art and became a professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego in 1968, where he served for three decades.aaronshome.com