Generative Art: Origins, Artists, and Exemplary Works

colorful tiles generative art Jared Tarbell, "Substrate," (detail), circa 2004. Image courtesy of flickr.

Generative art is a movement that emerged on the heels of modern art genres like Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism, celebrating the chaos and serendipity of its modern predecessors. In an unprecedented move, artists utilized systems that could generate works of art with little interference on the part of the artist.

Unsurprisingly, generative art has been met with criticism over the years for its perceived artificiality. Critics argue that because the artist relinquishes physical control of their work by allowing a machine to complete it, the finished product is far from art. Like those who once dismissed the works of Edvard Munch for producing seemingly unfinished works, however, acceptance of a generative approach to art has grown in recent years. Today, generative sketches, paintings, animations, and poems are on display in museums and personal collections around the world.

What is Generative Art?

orange and black squares generative artwork

Vera Molnar, Structure de Quadrilatères, circa 1988. Sold for €2,470 via Artcurial (October 2016).

Generative art refers to any work that is created by a system with some level of autonomy, or work that can function with little intervention from the artist. A generative artist designs the system using language rules, machines, algorithms, or genetic sequences to generate a final product that serves as the work of art. These systems can be digital, chemical, or manual, and are practiced in a variety of disciplines, including architecture, poetry, literature, animation, and visual art. Generative art has no discernible motivation or ideology that connects the artists who practice it, and unlike most artistic movements, it is more about the exploration of systems than the production of content.

While generative art was not common practice until the late 20th century, examples of works that were created using generative ideas date back to the Middle Paleolithic era. In 1999, archaeologists uncovered a stone carving which featured a grid system carved into stone dating back 70,000 years. This finding serves as one of the earliest examples of the most distinct elements of generative art, and demonstrates that prehistoric generative works of art still relied on the most sophisticated technology and systems that were readily available, just as generative art made today relies on artificial intelligence (AI). Throughout history, generative art has used the most advanced technology available to create something previously unattainable by the human hand. As generative artist Vera Molnar explains,

“Without the aid of a computer, it would not be possible to materialize quite so faithfully an image that previously existed only in the artist’s mind. This may sound paradoxical, but the machine, which is thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being.”

History of Generative Art

painting of La Carrière de Bibému France

Paul Cézanne, La Carrière de Bibémus, circa 1895. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While generative art did not catch on until the late 20th century, early influences started to emerge at the end of the 19th century. Artists like Paul Cézanne, whose work laid the foundation for Cubist principles, introduced ways to play with geometry and conflicting vantage points in his work. From there, both Futurism and Constructivism introduced a fascination with technology and machines. Combined, these would become central components of generative art.

The 20th century also ushered in Dadaism, an artistic movement that used randomness to reject established policies and practices. Though this brief movement only lasted from 1916 to 1922, Surrealism followed in the 1920s, and Abstract Expressionism followed in the 1950s. Each of these movements surfaced a captivation with autonomy and challenged the very definition of what art could be. When artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal signed “R. Mutt” to the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, it ignited a discussion about what can truly be considered art. Today, a similar debate exists among supporters and critics of generative art.

dada white urinal

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, circa 1895. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When the modern commercial computer emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, generative artists began experimenting with room-sized computation machines in a mix of art and computer science. During this time, women entered the field of generative art. Artists such as Lillian Schwartz—who was the first generative artist to have her work acquired by MoMA as well as the first to showcase animated digital work as fine art—made many key contributions that shaped the trajectory of the movement.

As computers became more compact and accessible, artists began using algorithms to create works that both thrilled and angered critics. Computer programs that enabled artists to code for visual arts, such as Design by Numbers and Processing, were developed in the late 1990s. These innovations made creating generative art accessible to anyone with a computer, which resulted in a surge in interest in generative art.

In 2014, generative art experienced its next great milestone. Due to a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, AI-produced art has blossomed from generative art. Generative adversarial networks, or GANs, are designed to think like a human brain and have been successful in creating artwork that contends with analog art.

Types of Generative Art

Central to generative art is the manipulation of systems to produce something random and unique. This broad definition lends itself to many different types of art and artists. Though generative music, architecture, poetry, and visual art involve different processes, they all embody the chaotic transformation from the initial idea to the final result.

the naked lunch book cover with black marks

William S. Burroughs, The Naked Lunch, circa 1959. Sold for $1,600 via Swann Auction Galleries (May 2006).

Literature

Generative literature is produced by the author by creating a defined database of words or letters and randomly generating them to form a complete work. In the 1950s and 1960s, author William S. Burroughs used this technique to craft his narratives. Decades later, author Philip M. Parker patented a method for automating entire books in 2005. He used a set of algorithms that scraped the internet for information about a niche topic and compiled the data into a book. Parker has published over 200,000 books using this method.

Music

The term generative music was coined in 1995 by trailblazing artist and musician Brian Eno. To make generative music, artists uses their style and skill to set parameters within the system to achieve completely different, unique pieces each time. Though this type of music was not officially created until the mid-1990s, influencers such as Johann Philipp Kirnberger and his “Musikalisches Würfelspiel” (Musical Dice Game) are credited with inspiring this type of art form.

Architecture

Generative art is commonplace in the realm of architecture and interior design, and the adoption of computer-aided design software has made creating generative modulations even easier. In 1987, Italian architect Celestino Soddu created a program that could generate unlimited iterations of Medieval Italian towns based on paintings from that era. Soddu was inspired by weather patterns, natural disasters, and other unique events that occur in nature and used generative art to replicate those influences in his designs.

generative blue squares in a grid

Vera Molnar, Gris sur argent, circa 1979. Sold for €200 via Cornette de Saint-Cyr-Bruxelles (November 2016).

Visual Art

This is the most common type of generative art. Prolific artists have used a variety of autonomous systems to create works that range from organic to artificial and from chaotic to controlled. As computers have become more accessible, computer-based generative art has seen increased mainstream appeal.

Poetry

Generative poetry is a subset of digital poetry that also includes visual poetry, where the visual element is key to understanding the poem, and interactive poetry, where the reader physically interfaces with the poem in some way. In this type of literature—the origins of which stem from Dadaism—the artist codes the poem to select words from a database based on the response from the reader. After the reader interacts with the poem, a new poem generates to reveal the true piece of art.

Prolific Generative Artists

Georg Nees

Georg Nees is considered to be one of the pioneers of generative art. His 1965 piece called Schotter (Gravel) depicts a grid of 12 squares by 22 squares. At the top of the grid, the squares appear to be perfectly uniform, and as the squares progress from top to bottom, they become increasingly disordered. Nees increased this variation until the squares were in complete disarray at the bottom of the composition.

Vera Molnar

orange and red rectangles

Vera Molnar, Histoire d’I, Suite, circa 2002. Sold for €3200 via Cornette de Saint-Cyr (November 2016).

With a body of work that spans three decades, prolific Hungarian artist Vera Molnar was a trailblazer for women artists looking to explore generative art. Her pieces such as Dés Ordres defied critics’ claims that work made by a computer could only be artificial. Works by the artist have sold particularly well among European auction houses like Tajan, Piasa, Artcurial, and Cornette de Saint-Cyr, where recent auction results have yielded anywhere from €1500 to €11000.

Jared Tarbell

generative colored tiles

Jared Tarbell, Substrate, circa 2004. Image courtesy of flickr.

Jared Tarbell—also known for his role as the co-founder of Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods—carried the generative art torch into the 21st century with his pieces such as Substrate. The intricacy and detail of this work has baffled audiences, and the piece exemplifies the guiding principle of generative art: to use technology to create a work that could have otherwise only existed in the imagination.

Generative art is the culmination of artistic expression in the 20th century, deriving inspiration from early 20th century movements such as Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. With the continuous development of new media and technology, combined with advancements in AI, the creative potential for generative art has expanded in unimaginable ways, and continues to evolve today.


Sources: Carnegie Mellon | Philip Galanter | The British Computer Society | Intermorphic | Generative Design Futuring Past | Inconvergent | Art Nome