Computer art enters the mainstream with Lacma’s Coded show


In 1968, the Californian abstract painter Frederick Hammersley was at an impasse. He had just moved from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, to teach at the University of New Mexico, and he felt stuck, artistically. “I had painted myself out,” he later said.

At the university he was introduced by colleagues to a software program, Art1, which enabled students and faculty to generate pictures using the university’s hulking IBM mainframe computer. Over the course of several months, he made hundreds of computer drawings — geometric abstractions composed from alphanumeric characters and symbols. They were printed on thin plotter paper with sprocket holes down each side. A year later, Hammersley concluded the series and returned to painting on canvas, going on to make some of the best work of his career.

‘Scallop Potatoes #50’ (1969) by Frederick Hammersley © New Mexico Museum of Art, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

When Leslie Jones, curator of prints and drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), first encountered Hammersley’s little-known computer drawings more…

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