Harold Cohen: AARON, opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 3, 2024, examines the evolution of AARON, the first AI artmaking program, which was developed in the late 1960s by artist Harold Cohen. Beginning with AARON’s creation and early years, the exhibition explores the foundational stages of AI and its place in art history.
The machines making the AI-generated art for the exhibit are the Bantam Tools ArtFrame system, a new product created for the Whitney exhibit by Bantam Tools. The Bantam Tools ArtFrame is an extensible art machine system with modular tool heads for artists to create physical art from digital designs with traditional materials. The exhibit is open to the public February 3 through May 2024 and more information is available at whitney.org.
“Harold Cohen’s AARON has iconic status in digital art history, but the recent rise of AI artmaking tools has made it even more relevant. Cohen’s software provides us with a different perspective on image making with AI,” says Christiane Paul, Curator of Digital Art at the Whitney. “What makes AARON so remarkable is that Cohen tried to encode the artistic process and sensibility itself, creating an AI with knowledge of the world that tries to represent it in ever-new freehand line drawings and paintings. Watching AARON’s creations drawn live as they were half a century ago will be a unique experience for viewers.”
Cohen considered creativity a result of dialogue between the program and programmer and viewed AARON as his equal collaborator. The artist built his own pen plotters and painting machines to realize AARON’s outputs in various ways throughout its evolution. In AARON’s early years, Cohen manually added color to black-and-white drawings that AARON made with a pen plotter, generating novel images on paper based on its interpretation of Cohen’s coded commands. Modernized re-creations of Cohen’s early drawing machines, constructed specifically for this exhibition, will be installed in the galleries and draw images from different iterations of the AARON software. There will also be large-scale projections of two versions of the AARON program—one creating figurative outputs, the other generating images of flora.
“At the Whitney, we have a long history and commitment to collecting, exhibiting, and commissioning digital art thanks in large part to the direction of Christiane Paul and our artport platform. By bringing AARON back to life in our galleries, we hope to show how our exhibitions can be as innovative as the artists we present,” says Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director. “This exhibition draws from the Museum’s collection to present an important and timely exploration of the early AI tools for artmaking, decades before they entered mainstream conversations.”
Eight years after Harold Cohen’s death, drawings created by his AI AARON will be plotted live in the Whitney gallery, for the first time since the 1990s. While Harold Cohen was often quoted as saying he would be the first artist to have a posthumous show of new work, due to AARON being able to create after he had passed away, the Cohen Trust emphasizes that posthumous new works are not possible because a Harold Cohen attributable work requires a triad of: “the artist, the process, and the software.” Harold Cohen AARON at the Whitney is important because it draws a line around what is artist-attributable artwork in today’s world where AI art is abundant.
When the Whitney Museum embarked on resurrecting the early foundations of AARON, the AI software for creating Harold Cohen’s art and the plotter machines to create it, they contacted Bre Pettis at Bantam Tools about rebuilding Cohen’s original art plotters from the 1960’s.
“While rebuilding the original machines was one way to go, we took that challenge a few steps further by creating a whole new art machine system using contemporary technology to present Harold Cohen’s AI art in a way that is true to the original,” noted Bre Pettis, CEO of Bantam Tools. “We are grateful for the opportunity to work with Christiane Paul, curator of Digital Art at the Whitney, Thomas Machnik, Harold Cohen’s former assistant, and Paul Cohen, Harold Cohen’s son. The results have been fantastic and we are super excited to have the Bantam Tools ArtFrame as part of the exhibit.”
Bre Pettis knows about generative and computer-controlled machines. He was the co-founder and CEO of MakerBot, the 3D printing company that took the world by storm in 2009 and purchased the CNC manufacturer Bantam Tools in 2017. His background is a mix of art, education and technology. In January of 2024, Bantam Tools acquired Evil Mad Scientist, the designer and manufacturer of popular computer-controlled drawing and handwriting machines that provide versatile solutions to artists and educators. Evil Mad Scientist was founded by Dr. Windell Oskay and Lenore Edman, who are now CTO and COO of Bantam Tools. The trio is focused on launching new computer-controlled art machines. The ArtFrame Art Machine System that is part of the Harold Cohen: AARON exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is just one of the new machines that Bantam Tools is launching in 2024.
Bre Pettis has also been collecting historic computer art since he sold MakerBot in 2013. Pettis noted, “Harold Cohen’s works in my collection are some of my favorites. It’s truly an honor to be able to collaborate with the Whitney Museum of American Art on this exhibit and develop and provide plotters for the exhibit that will be on display actively creating work generated by Harold Cohen’s AI AARON.”
The exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art centers on AARON, the earliest artificial intelligence software for artmaking and one of the longest-running contemporary art projects. Conceived in the late 1960s by Harold Cohen at the University of California San Diego, AARON was further developed until his death in 2016. AARON’s various manifestations include software that drives plotting and painting machines and software to display imagery on monitors or projectors. The first and only museum to collect versions of the AARON software from different time periods, the Whitney will showcase artworks produced by AARON and highlight its drawing process live in the galleries for the first time since the 1990s. Featuring the Museum’s collection of AARON’s paintings and drawings, along with two versions of the screen-based and drawing software, Harold Cohen: AARON offers a comprehensive view of AI’s foundations and its role in artmaking today.
Two Bantam Tools ArtFrame machines are part of the exhibition and will be creating drawings of the images generated by the AARON software throughout the exhibition. A selection of the drawings will then be installed on the gallery walls and become part of the exhibition, much to the benefit of museum-goers who will get to experience a new and expanded exhibit each time they visit the Whitney Museum. These new drawings will be seen for the first time by the museum-goers who are watching them being drawn.
Pettis noted that there were some challenges to resurrecting the technology. “When the Harold Cohen Foundation team went to pull AARON’s source code data off magnetic tapes, there was nothing there. Paul Cohen, Harold Cohen’s son, is a computer scientist who combined his experience with his father’s work and was able to reconstruct the wandering line algorithm and re-create the Maze software foundations from Harold Cohen’s notebooks. Bantam Tools was then able to use Paul’s reconstruction of the Maze code to generate the tool paths to drive the pen and bring these works to life. These drawings are being drawn in real time for viewers to see in the museum on the smaller of the two Bantam Tools ArtFrame plotters.”
During the 1990s, Harold Cohen teamed up with American computer scientist, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil to distribute a screensaver version of AARON called KCAT. Bantam Tools was able to use the source code for the KCAT that the Whitney Museum acquired to generate the larger drawings on the larger of the two Bantam Tools ArtFrame machines in the gallery.
“We used great care to be respectful of Harold Cohen’s approach to art making. Besides having to translate the code to be functional on a modern pen plotter, we went deep into marker and paper selection to make sure we were staying true to Harold Cohen’s art making approach. We also tuned the machines to run at historic speeds,” said Bre Pettis.
“AARON has iconic status in digital art history, but the recent rise of AI artmaking tools has made it even more relevant,” noted Christiane Paul, curator of Digital Art at the Whitney. “We are very thankful to have the knowledge and passion of Bre Pettis and the Bantam Tools team behind making the art plotters to execute Harold Cohen’s AARON work. Watching the software’s creations drawn live, as they were half a century ago, will be a unique experience for viewers.”
Harold Cohen: AARON will be on view through May 2024. This exhibition is organized by Christiane Paul, Curator of Digital Art, with David Lisbon, Curatorial Assistant. The live pen plotting in the galleries will be video streamed. More information about the pen plotting schedule and how to watch will become available on the Museum’s website.
Exhibition Overview – Harold Cohen: AARON
Harold Cohen: AARON examines the practices and experimental programming of artist Harold Cohen, a pioneer in computer-based art. The exhibition looks at the evolution of his AARON software, the earliest artificial intelligence software for artmaking and one of the longest-running contemporary art projects. Fascinated by the computer’s power and potential as an artmaking tool, Cohen devoted his life to pushing the boundaries of AI’s possibilities and understanding what makes an image evocative. Throughout Cohen’s decades-long creative collaboration with AARON, the software underwent iterations that expanded its capabilities. Cohen focused on exploring AI as an instrument that translates artistic knowledge and process into code while creating with autonomy. The artist and his work are a crucial bridge between the worlds of art and engineering.
Harold Cohen first conceived his artmaking program at the University of California at San Diego in the late 1960s. From 1973–75, he further developed it at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and named it AARON in 1973. When working through AARON’s development, Cohen drew inspiration from children’s drawing processes, which typically begin with linking shapes and lines before connecting forms to represent an object or person. A 1973 visit to Chalfant Callery, California also influenced Cohen’s thought process. There, he saw prehistoric petroglyphs that furthered his grasp on how a system of marks can translate into an image with meaning. Cohen created AARON as an artmaking tool with the intention of exploring the nature of artistic representation. The program’s name alludes to the biblical figure Aaron, who was anointed speaker and mediator for his brother Moses, much like AARON was Cohen’s collaborator. Cohen’s background as a painter provided him with formal knowledge of artistic principles like color, line, composition, shape, and dimension. He equipped the software with compositional rules and comprehension of artistic paradigms and drawing strategies. For example, Cohen made AARON understand that it must begin drawing in the foreground before moving to the background. Cohen also seeded knowledge of the outside world and specific objects into AARON’s code, which became accessible in the software’s long-term memory. Evolving in several phases, AARON’s proficiency in these knowledge areas became the criteria for measuring the success of the program’s drawings, which were abstract in the early years.
The Figurative Phase
As AARON’s capabilities progressed, Cohen’s code started focusing on figures, often pairing them with plants or flowers in the compositions. Cohen was always striving to expand access to original artworks at a low price for a larger number of people. A reflection of these efforts was the distribution of a screensaver version of AARON, produced in collaboration with computer scientist Raymond Kurzweil’s CyberArt Technologies (KCAT). The KCAT software was released in 2001 and became one of the most widely known versions of AARON’s output.
Fundamentally different from the processes of currently popular AI software, AARON is a procedural system that mimics human decision-making to create images. Today’s AI image creation tools rely on algorithms making associations between images and text descriptions and, based on a user’s text prompts, generate their output from large data sets of existing images. In contrast, AARON determines its output with rules and instructions for completing tasks based on knowledge stored in its memory. Cohen sought to program a painter’s cognitive processes into his algorithms, providing AARON with an understanding of the relationship between line and form within a composition and the ability to imitate an abstract painter’s approach to representation in an image.
Flora and Figures
AARON’s transition from abstraction to figuration in the mid-to-late 1980s signified both a technical and conceptual shift, which required the software to have a different and more tangible understanding of the outside world to create recognizable figures and surrounding scenes. Cohen’s evolving code advanced AARON’s abilities by adopting strategies from painters’ processes, pushing the program to develop fundamental structures for representing humans. One example of this output on view in the galleries is the painting Untitled, Bathers Series (1986), which alludes to French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne’s famous paintings of bathers. Featuring rocks and flora alongside abstracted figures that begin to approach human forms, the works from this phase reveal connections to later variations of the AARON software from the 2000s that produced layered foliage environments. The layered plant life in these works eventually transform into complex compositions of foliage in the software from 2007, shown as a projection in the exhibition. AARON, without stored descriptions for specific flora, generates plants based on rules regarding their size, branching levels, and patterns of leaf formation.
About the Artist
Harold Cohen (1928–2016) was a British artist whose innovations at the forefront of technology shaped the field of digital art. Cohen’s artistic practice resulted in his famed creation AARON, the first artificial intelligence software designed to create art independently. After graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art, Cohen had a successful career as a painter, representing the UK at the 1966 Venice Biennale and exhibiting at Documenta III, the Paris Biennale, and the Carnegie International. In 1968, Cohen relocated to the United States as a visiting lecturer at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he remained for almost three decades as a professor, chairman of the Visual Arts Department, and eventually, in 1992, director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts. During his time at UCSD, Cohen developed AARON, an evolving artwork to which he would devote the rest of his life, exploring the possibilities of generative artificial intelligence for artmaking. Cohen’s software attracted global attention and was exhibited at major institutions and venues, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Stedelijk Museum, and Documenta 6. After retiring from UCSD, Cohen continued to work on AARON and produce new artworks in his studio in Encinitas, California. In 2014, Cohen received the ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art.
Free Public Programs
A series of free in-person and virtual public programs will be offered in conjunction with Harold Cohen: AARON. More information about these programs and how to register will be available on the Museum’s website as details are confirmed.
Harold Cohen: AARON will be on view from February 3 to May, 2024 at The Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, NYC.
To learn more about the Bantam Tools ArtFrame Art System and Bantam Tools NextDraw, drawing machine, visit bantamtools.com. To learn more about Harold Cohen: AARON at the Whitney Museum of American Art, visit whitney.org. Harold Cohen: AARON is organized by Christiane Paul, curator of Digital Art, with David Lisbon, curatorial assistant of the Whitney Museum of American Art, with ArtFrame plotters provided by Bantam Tools.
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