Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity

University Art Gallery
Opening Reception: January 19, 5:30 – 8:00 pm
January 19 – February 17, 2017

Visual Arts Gallery, Structural and Materials Engineering Building
Opening Reception: January 26
January 26 – February 17, 2017

Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity honors the memory of Professor Emeritus Harold Cohen, a pioneer in computing and the arts. Cohen, who passed away in 2016, taught at UC San Diego from 1968 until his retirement in 1994. He arrived in San Diego with a well-established international reputation as an abstract impressionist painter, having represented Great Britain at the 33rd Venice Biennial in 1966. Once here, however, he began to work with experts on artificial intelligence in Computer Science Engineering and Cognitive Science. In 1972, he exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a series of works generated by a computer-programmed drawing machine. He spent the next two years as a Visiting Scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Lab in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University working on a program for making art, which he later called AARON. At first, AARON produced black-and-white abstract drawings which closely resembled the drawings of Cohen himself, but AARON was continually updated and subsequently re-versioned to produce representational drawings and to work with color as well. By the late 1970s, Cohen began to develop an international reputation for his artificial intelligence program with solo exhibitions of AARON at such important venues as the Tate Gallery in London, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, the Scottish Arts Council Galleries at both Edinburgh and Aberdeen, National Museum of Wales, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Computer Museum in Boston.

The exhibition highlights the breadth and depth of Cohen’s contributions to computing and surveys over 40 years in the development of AARON, from its inception in the early 1970s to its most recent iteration in the 2000s. The UAG exhibition features large-scale works produced by Cohen following AARON’s computer-generated and enlarged designs. The SME exhibition documents AARON through photographs, texts, and video interviews, while also juxtaposing its designs with contemporary examples of computer vision and automation represented in the work of Professor Sheldon Brown and Robert Twomey (MFA, 2007). When AARON was exhibited, print-out drawings were made available to gallery-goers for free or at a nominal cost. Since AARON is no longer functioning, in order to experience what it is like to interact with a computing artist program, gallery-goers are invited to explore Twomey’s Convex Mirror, a contemporary computer-directed drawing machine that produces site-specific drawings to document the passage of time through changes observed in the environment. On the other hand, My Elegant Robot Freedom, designed by Brown in collaboration with Wes Hawkins in 2017, is a pneumatically-operated robot that showcases a new class of robot systems, based on addressable, interconnected membranes. This work suggests a new trajectory for art-making machines, which could be equipped with more sophisticated and flexible robotic limbs unimaginable during Cohen’s early work in artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, this new technology and its artistic implications link back to Cohen’s original work with the AARON program and its resulting machine-made art. Cohen’s original work with art-making machines has thus anticipated the 21st-century generation of intelligent robotics.

Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity highlights his seminal contributions to changing methods of creating art as well as to the discussion of the nature of art and the artist. Moving away from technical issues of computer-controlled fabrication, Cohen encoded in AARON his own creative dimension and particular style of drawing while also raising questions as to whether a machine can become an autonomous maker of art. AARON foreshadows in the 1970s-80s what would become important to computing in the 1990s-2000s, as particularly tied to synthetic consciousness. Essentially, Cohen’s experiments in artificial intelligence (AI) challenged the idea of art as representing emotions and particular meanings by redefining it as both a representation of knowledge and a means of acquiring knowledge. In this view, Cohen situated the artist, rather than as an author of a particular creative output, as a builder of an autonomous system that could potentially produce new work after its maker has passed on.

Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity is curated by Professor Sheldon Brown and coordinated by Tatiana Sizonenko, Ph.D. ’13


Partial funding for this exhibition is generously provided by the Jacobs School of Engineering. We are particularly grateful to the Dean, Albert P. Pisano for his enthusiasm.

The Department of Visual Arts sincerely thanks Paul Cohen, Hiromi Ito, Becky Cohen, and Thomas Machnik for their enthusiasm, loan of works, and support of the project, which helped to make this exhibition a reality.

Harold Cohen, Creating Computational Creativity is the second exhibition in the series of exhibitions and events VISUAL ARTS @ 50: ART INTO LIFE, that celebrates the Department of Visual Arts’ 50th anniversary in 2017. Developed by a select committee of faculty, emeriti, and alumni, the anniversary programming surveys the impact and achievements of the department and helps shape a narrative for the future of visual arts at UC San Diego.

FUTURE EVENTS in the 2016-17 academic year

March 2 – April 7 2017, Making Communities: Art and the Border

This multimedia exhibition will highlight the depth of border-related art practices from Visual Arts alumni and faculty and build upon the extensive and unique history of UC San Diego as a destination for artists working with the border.

Curated by Tatiana Sizonenko, Ph.D. ‘13

April 20 – May 26, 2017, Now Again: A Survey of UAG Artists

This exhibition builds upon the notable group of painters who have exhibited at the University Art Gallery, establishing their careers while exposing the University community to museum-quality art. Reflecting on the history of painting within the University Art Gallery.


Extensions of Photography
October 7 – December 9
Reception, October 17, 4:00 – 7:00 pm

Extensions of Photography will highlight artistic practices by former and current UC San Diego-affiliated artists and alumni who redefined the photographic medium and contributed significantly to the cultural life of San Diego and the United States. The exhibition spotlights how these artists have employed photography in complex and layered ways to introduce themes of everyday life and reveal the pressing histories of gender, class, racism, and political resistance, while also experimenting with the medium.

UC San Diego Faculty Club Exhibition
October 10 – December 25
Reception, October 17, 4:00 – 7:00 pm

As a complement to Extensions of Photography in the University Art Gallery, the department will be presenting an exhibition in the UC San Diego faculty club. The exhibition will be comprised of archival material including catalogs and posters, celebrating the history of the UAG. 

Co-curated by Emily Goodman, Ph.D. ’16 and Tatiana Sizonenko, Ph.D. ‘13

Artists and Language, UC San Diego Geisel Library
October 24 – January 8
Reception, November 4, 3:00 – 5:00 pm

The Library is hosting two exhibits this fall both celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Visual Arts Department. The first, going up on October 24, is based on collections from the Special Collections and Archives and the second, going up September 26, is an exhibit covering the print publications of faculty and graduate students associated with the Department based on materials from the circulating collection.

Curated by Emily Goodman, Ph.D. ’16