Code Art Rooted In An Unlikely Era: The 1960s

Like Sol LeWitt’s instruction-based art, Casey Reas programs his pieces and leaves it to the computer to execute.

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” artist Sol LeWitt famously wrote in a 1967 piece for Artforum titled Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. For LeWitt, that meant creating instructions for his intricate geometric line drawings that would be executed later by a team of artists. As one of the principal originators of the instruction-based art of the 1960s, LeWitt inspired a movement in which the concept and planning was the artwork–the execution merely a routine that could be performed by anyone.


Half a century later, the artist Casey Reas is applying similar ideas to generative artwork, which is programmed beforehand, then executed–or performed–by virtue of a computer program. For Reas, the “machine” LeWitt talked about is literal.

In his new show, There’s No Distance, opening this weekend at bitform gallery in New York, Reas explores the notion of conceptualizing and performing through software-based art. “Working with code was native for me,” he says. “It was just naturally how I made work, but I wasn’t able to find a lot of precedent for that in the art world, looking at paintings, films, etc. It wasn’t until I researched conceptual art that I was able to make a connection with art practice and working with code.”

In Still Life, the Los Angeles artist’s latest piece, Reas creates images of a Platonic solid, deconstructed and flattened into a two dimensions. Drawing inspiration from early Cubist artwork, Reas started out creating the imagery as a 3D model on the computer, then moved to wood prints to refine it. Finally he created a program that would algorithmically generate the flattened shapes in various arrangements. In the gallery, the piece looks like a traditional video or animation; yet, it’s being generated by the computer program moment by moment, so that the image is always changing. In that sense, visitors to the gallery will have a unique experience engaging with the work.

Still Life (HSB B), 2016

This is where Reas’s notion of conceptual art departs from its forbearers. LeWitt’s conceptual art is rendered as a static image on the wall of a gallery, but Reas’s simulations are constantly changing, generating images that are never the same–which, in his mind, constitutes a type of performance. In the same way that a composer will write a score that takes on a life of its own as it is being performed before an audience, Reas’s Still Life will only exist as art once it is being viewed. He may have built the code in his studio in L.A., but the piece will continue to generate new shapes and images that will be witnessed and enjoyed by visitors to the show.

The name for the show, Reas says, was taken from a 1980s video of British artist David Hockney drawing on a screen. Hockney describes drawing on a computer as building the medium as you go–as opposed to painting on a canvas and showing the work later–and comments that there’s no distance between himself and the work being created. “That emphasized what is the most exciting about working with conditional images,” says Reas, referring to his work generated with code. “Witnessing something no one has seen before and that changes moment by moment, unfolding live in front of you. There’s no distance between you and what’s being constructed–you’re viewing it simultaneously.”

[All Images: courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery, New York]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.